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Cowboy Socialism


John Wayne

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.

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  • Judas Peckerwood

    Welfare for me, but not for thee. Or else I start shooting.

  • Norrin Radd

    I like the title, I like the post!

    Its always the loudest pig who sucks the teat the longest.

    But sooner or later pigs get turned into bacon.

  • CP

    As I commented on another blog yesterday when this topic came up, I do find it interesting that even within the context of mythology, the stereotypical classic western still ends with the cavalry arriving just in time to save the day. Even in fiction, the basic Rugged Individualist Cowboy is still a guy who spends the entire movie getting in way over his head and then needing a government bailout to save him in the end.

    • That’s good. I’m totally stealing it by the way.

      Consider this fair notice.

      • CP

        I have no claim on that citation.

        After all, property is theft.

    • Yankee

      Ammon Bundy IS the CS cavalry, just like you said.

  • tsam

    HAHA everyone knows Derringers is for the laydeez

  • NonyNony

    The Bundys could get their way, not through occupying the Malheur, but simply by having any bog-standard Republican win the presidency.

    They still won’t get their way. Because what they want is to be able to use land that is currently Federal land without a) having to pay for it and b) having an restrictions on its use.

    The best they can hope for under Republican governance is that the land will be parceled up and sold to the highest bidder. That won’t be the Bundys – it’ll be someone with deeper pockets. That purchaser will either kick them off the land entirely or charge market rates for grazing rights. Either way they probably add more restrictions to how they can use the land (because I guarantee they’ll be in it to either develop or resell the land one way or another).

    They’re very shortsighted and don’t know a good deal when they see it.

    • Judas Peckerwood

      What they really want is for the federal lands to be ceded to state governments, which are much more likely to let them pillage unrestrained by pesky laws and fees.

      • NonyNony

        Eh – they’d be surprised. It’s more likely that the state would charge market rates for grazing because their cash flow situation is a lot worse than the Feds and that would be a nice chunk of change to offset the tax cuts that they like to dole out. Plus states are more likely to want to sell off parcels of land (again to shore up cash flow) and/or develop the land to attract tourists.

        Basically the best situation they could possibly have is a Federal government sitting on the land preventing it from being developed and charging them a comparable pittance to use it. All they have to do is follow some rules about not overgrazing the land and pay their damn fees. It’s a great deal, and yet they’re angry about it. I suspect that most of it is displaced anger because their way of life is literally dying out – the cattle rancher model is not sustainable and it may only be working at all right now because of the Feds subsidizing their grazing costs. It’s a slow death and they want to blame someone for their lifestyle dying off.

        • Barry_D

          Seconding this. Malefactors of great wealth can buy state governments with far greater ease.

          And see the series ‘This day in labor history’. To see a long list of peasants being easily crushed by the elites.

          • Yes, the Koch’s already own several states. They want ’em all.

            The sand in their taking over the government completely engine is Climate Change. Its coming, its HERE, no matter what they insist, and their desire to suck up all the oil & gas, cut down all the trees, divert all the water will be overturned. Of course, they can do a lot more harm (they’ve done plenty already) in the meantime. If they had real brains they’d have invested in non-oil energy sources decades ago, and invested in desalinization technology. Instead they try to destroy those things. Stupid.

        • DrDick

          The economies of most of the western states have always depended heavily on various federal subsidies for survival.

        • BruceJ

          No, it wouldn’t, because they have a much better chance of owning the state governments.

          Here in AZ the state owns a lot of land; the state land trust is *supposed* to be managed to pay for education. Surprise, surprise, surprise…it’s not. See: https://land.az.gov/natural-resources/rangeland-management/rangeland-management-leases

          “A grazing lease application may be filed by a qualified applicant who has a registered brand and is actively engaged in the livestock business.”

          That phrase is there because an enterprising environmentalist picked up a (relatively cheap) lease, and announced his intentions to let the land remain ungrazed.

          The WATBs that make up the rugged individualists of AZ ranchers complained , got his lease revoked, and got the lege to add that to the law. Ronnie Raygun’s welfare queens got nothing on these folks.

          • Judas Peckerwood

            Thanks, this is the point I was trying to make.

        • etc.

          I vaguely recall that 30 years or so ago the leasing rates for Colorado state lands (funds education and schools) was substantially less than for Nebraska. The supposition was that the Colorado ranchers had more effectively captured the bureaucracy than their Nebraskan counterparts. Don’t suppose that a little known branch of the government wouldn’t be twisted to serve the interests of its clients more than those of the parent government.

        • cpinva

          “I suspect that most of it is displaced anger because their way of life is literally dying out –”

          their way of life has been dying out since the end of wwII, and the rise of huge, corporate agribusiness. the only thing that has sustained it this long is federal welfare. with the federal budget continuing to get cut, how long will this welfare be continued? not long, I think. the idea of having to live in real life pisses them off.

      • Anna in PDX

        Well that would be a stupid move in a state like Oregon. Because the state government is not exactly made up of libertarian republicans. It’s made up of activist Dem legislators. Unless the federal lands were ceded to counties, for which I doubt there is any precedent anywhere in American government, this level of control would probably end up being worse from a rancher’s point of view than dealing with the US Forest Service and the BLM.

        • NonyNony

          You’ll notice that none of the idjits who were at Malheur are actually from Oregon. They actually did demand that the Feds turn the land for the reserve over to the county government. They also demanded that other Fed land be turned over to private hands, though they were never clear on exactly how that was supposed to happen given that they felt that the Feds were holding the land illegally in the first place.

          They have a wonky reading of the Constitution that, if you squint, restrict yourself to a single clause, and maliciously read that clause in your favor, means that the Federal government can’t own property outside of Washington DC without the consent of the state that the property sits in. This is a ludicrous interpretation and the SCOTUS ruled a while back that it was stupid, but these guys don’t recognize any authority above that of a county sheriff, and even then only the sheriffs that agree with them, so what are you going to do?

          • Anna in PDX

            OK, then the state will consent to the Feds owning all that property, and all the counties are out of luck.

            I just do not understand why so many people believe that sovereign citizen nonsense. There’s no precedent for any of it and it sounds like the ravings of a lunatic. Not to mention the weird court filings they keep making that are always laughed out of court. The whole “philosophy” makes about as much sense as the Unabomber’s manifesto.

            • BiloSagdiyev

              I’m guessing it’s motivated reasoning. They don’t want to pay their mortgage, they don’t want to pay taxes, and they loathe the idea of being equal citizens with The Blahs.

            • rjayp

              somebody should drop a writ of mandamus on the bundys. live by the writ, die by the writ.

            • Porlock Junior

              ‘The whole “philosophy” makes about as much sense as the Unabomber’s manifesto.’

              Sorry to borrow an overused phrase, but this is unfair to the Unabomber. His prose displays a functioning brain, lots of reading, much real knowledge of the world, and an understanding of what big words mean. Couldn’t accuse the sagebrush crowd of any of that. (It’s pretty dense stuff, waaay too heavy for journalists to read, but far short of the worst far-left prose I’ve seen.)

              But, alas, deranged.

              Apart from that last detail, it could have been written by some member of my extended family.

          • rjayp

            the western states consented to the federal ownership of that land as a condition precedent to statehood.

            • DrDick

              Hell, they would not exist without federal ownership, which was the only thing the allowed settlement of those regions.

          • Well heck, if we’re turning federal lands over to private hands there’s a few military bases I’ve had my eye on for a while.

            • ColBatGuano

              Yeah, and my process for turning 500,000 tons of topsoil into 10 oz of gold works well with this idea of free land.

              • Judas Peckerwood

                Please, tell me more.

            • N__B

              All I want is Ellis Island as my Blofeldesque lair.

      • Yankee

        You guys haven’t been paying attention. The land is to be ceeded to the COUNTY. The Sherrif of which will be the highest civil authority.

        • BiloSagdiyev

          We must be very careful, or Yakov Smirnoff’s career will be revived with only a minor modification to his act, and he will emerge from his theater in Branson and travel the land.

          BTW, this whole “nothing bigger than my local county” is similar to what I deride as “Arkansas, 1835” – they claim they want to live like frontiersmen, where everybody knows their name and says hello, and deals are sealed with a handshake, and no big gubbermint, and dirt roads, and wait… how are you going to put 12 nuclear aircraft carriers out to sea, and all of the ships to support and defend them, with that kind of country?

          I know many here would have the gut reply, “So don’t!”, but I’m talking about these folks — who loooove us having 12 nuclear aircraft carriers to wave in peoples’ faces and threaten to bomb them, and sometimes, bomb them.

          Yeoman farmers aren’t the tax base to make a stealth bomber nation.

          Is this a great county or what?

          • Ahuitzotl

            or what

        • Still going through my copy of the Constitution trying to find any mention of a “Sheriff”.

          • Ahuitzotl

            The Founders knew not of the glory that is Rottingham

      • skate

        What they really want is for the federal lands to be ceded to state governments, which are much more likely to let them pillage unrestrained by pesky laws and fees.

        And as soon as the next economic downturn comes along and the state is looking for some money because they’ve got a balanced budget requirement in the state constitution, guess what goes on the table at the bake sale.

        • Porlock Junior

          And guess who, in any real economic downturn, will NOT have any money to bid on what they see on the table.

  • erick

    Here is an interesting observation I had last week:

    In Westerns with Cattle Ranchers they are almost always the villain. Think about how many of them have a plot where it is the big cattle rancher who is the local bad guy, he is hogging all the land for his cattle and preventing hard working small farmers from eeking out their existence.

    Essentially the cattle ranchers are always portrayed as “the man” holding everyone down.

    I bet that when you peel back the layers a little bit in the rural west that is still the case. At the highest level they are all Republicans because they hate environmentalists, hippies and minorities and so on. But when you dig into the local issues I suspect it is farmers interests vs ranchers interests most of the time.

    • Anna in PDX

      I grew up in rural Oregon and I still think of ranchers as the default bad guy because of my experience in school with their kids.

      A lot wealthier, a lot more entitled, than other students, and most of them were bullies.

      • Yankee

        You probably have gotten a chance to watch a cattle dog work. [Google “Sledge”]

        • Anna in PDX

          We had a dog who was part malamute and my mom thought he was part wolf. He liked to chase sheep. We tried to make sure he stayed in our yard but he would periodically escape and chase them. (He was not interested in catching them, but I guess they have weak hearts so him chasing was still not ok.) a rancher lady shot him.

    • DAS

      Oh the farmers and the cowboys should be friends …

      Really though, aren’t most of the farms now owned by big corporations now? And hence while their interests are different than those of the ranchers, they are Republicans too, also?

      • More accurately, most of the farms are controlled by the big corporations who make demands on the small farmers around issues of seed, fertilizer, pesticides, etc, but all the risk in the hands of the small farmers who actually own the land.

    • Todd

      I think it’s pretty much a typical big business vs. everybody else dynamic. Ranchers were the first big business in parts of the West. Then you had the railroads and miners, who have also been stereotypical bad guys in these films. A Western from later periods might just as easily have oil companies or big agro companies as the bad guys, and be just as believable.

      • Hogan

        I saw that movie! Erin Brockovich.

        Or was it There Will Be Blood?

        • Todd

          Sayles’ westerns are good at updating the dynamic, too. “Silver City”, “Lone Star” – water, borders, mining, etc…

        • cpinva

          Oklahoma Crude

          • DrDick

            Grew up in Oklahoma, in an oil company town, with a father who worked for an oil company. They are evil incarnate

    • CP

      “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” is one of the more interesting westerns on the subject. The whole movie unfolds against the backdrop of an argument over statehood in the Union, which most of the inhabitants support because of all the improvements it would bring while the big cattlemen oppose it because it means more regulations, more restrictions, and just generally making it harder for them to be the big fish in the little pond.

      I wonder if that movie would even get made today, or if it did, if anyone would pick up on that.

      • erick

        Yeah, what is ironic is conservatives complain about Hollywood being liberal and complaining that they don’t make them like they used to, while in reality Hollywood is of course very conservative now and a lot of the golden age movies conservatives love are extremely liberal, even a lot of the John Wayne ones, the politics just go right over their heads (and probably did Wayne’s as well)

        • CP

          Yeah. There’s a small-C conservative side to me that loves old movies and TV shows exactly for this reason.

  • John F

    The Bundys could get their way, not through occupying the Malheur, but simply by having any bog-standard Republican win the presidency.

    No, they’d get the mother of all pyrrhic victories, what they’d get is being completely forced off “their” land by richer “private” actors as the result of a bog-standard Republican victory as the National level.

  • Murc

    The Week seems somewhat schizophrenic in its editorial line, as that excellent article on cowboy socialism is under the same masthead as one arguing that the solution to Flint’s water woes is privatization, but of course ucky liberals won’t consider that.

  • pianomover

    The Bundy’s view is based on not recognizing the federal governments right to even exist. Misreading the tenth amendment and claims of sovereign rights and natural law make arguing with them pointless to begin with.
    When a divine God speaks directly to you and whose laws and commands supersede the law of the land it becomes a situation where you turn your back on them and hope they go away (the crazy uncle solution) as it appears the Feds were attempting with Bundy senior. That the younger Bundy’s and their followers took the Feds actions as evidence that their views were valid speaks to their ignorance rather than to the power of their faith.

    The intractability of the Bundy view is evidenced by the fact that the younger Bundy’s are still issuing statements through their lawyer insisting that by changing the judge they will sit before will let them present their claims against the government in court. The continued misconception that they are and will continue controlling the narrative is fascinating.

    • BiloSagdiyev

      Like the French term folie a deux, except I forget the French word for “thirty.”

      • CP

        Trente. Folie a trente.

  • William Berry

    Erik: I’ll bet that you use “phenomena” in the singular just to piss people off!

    But I’m fine with it. Really, it’s OK!

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