While the Bundy boys and their band of idiots are mostly in jail or have left the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge, there are still a few diehards holed up in there. I do worry about these people committing acts of violence, on their own and leadership and desperate. Hopefully this gets resolved very soon.
But the larger issues around Sagebrush Rebellion extremism have not gone away. At the core of the rural western discontent is an ideology of individualism that rolls through the region and its iconic mythical figures from Hank Stamper to John Wayne. The idea of individual white man (or sometimes woman) and hardscrabble families making it on their own from a hard land is deeply imbued in how ranchers and loggers and miners and western farmers think about themselves. What the Bundys and others are pushing is a rather extreme example of it, but the broader phenomena is real enough throughout the region.
The problem with it is that their foundational myth that places them at odds with the government also erases a government that subsidizes almost everything about their lives. Whether the government stealing the land from Native Americans, investing in water projects, handing out timber contracts, never revising a system that allows the government to collect almost no money from mining on the public lands, or allowing ranchers to graze on government land for incredibly below market prices, rural westerners are the ultimate welfare recipients. Our tax dollars are funding their lifestyles, which I don’t per se have a major problem with if said recipients didn’t then commit armed takeovers of federal buildings while ranting about government tyranny. But the government created the modern West so that people like the Bundys could have their lifestyle in the first place.
It’s hard going, and one reason is the cowboy political tradition represented by Ammon Bundy and his pack of revolutionary wannabes, who want to pay zero in federal grazing fees and end the federal ownership of land. Even reformist Western politicians still have to tiptoe around the fact that the federal government is simply an inextricable part of how the West functions and has been since the beginning. That Bundy has confused one of the primary spigots of rancher welfare with a rancher-smashing tyranny is only a wild exaggeration of a typical view, rooted in Western myth and broader American conservatism.
The issue of broader American conservatism is important as well because the oil companies and other natural resource industries are looking to destroy the past century of American environmental law. The same thing that is happening to labor and is happening to civil service exams–the destruction of a century of reform in order to return us to the Gilded Age–will almost certainly happen in the environmental realm if the Republican Party wins the presidency this fall. The Bundys could get their way, not through occupying the Malheur, but simply by having any bog-standard Republican win the presidency.