Illustration: Liu Rui/GT
The US government is vocally and insistently concerned with the "rule of law" in other nations. It has just been confronted, however, with a striking and unresolved challenge to the rule of law within our borders.
In the US, about a third of the land west of the Mississippi River is owned by the federal government. Some of it is rented, at very low rates, to farmers and ranchers, who raise crops and graze their cattle and sheep on it. Were the land in private property, market-priced rentals would constitute economic hardship for the farmers and ranchers.
That apart, they are beneficiaries of an entire range of services and monetary subsidies from the federal government. Their states are net recipients of federal funds, paying less in taxes to the government than they receive in a large spectrum of federal programs.
Nonetheless, ideologies of individualism and localism are deeply rooted among whites in these states. These ideologies involve a very negative view of the federal government as potentially and actually arbitrary, even tyrannical, and of government officials as an occupying army. Indeed, in some areas of the west, federal environmental and land use regulations are quite openly disregarded or defied.
It is a situation of deep ambiguity. Their negative views of the role of government in the economy are connected to deep feelings of dispossession.
The citizens in question consider themselves the authentic Americans, the populations of the east and west coasts and the large cities as deficient in national allegiance and behavior.
The much more densely populated coasts, and the mid-west, are religiously far more diverse, and often secular. Biblically literal Protestantism is a major faith in the west of the Mississippi as well as in the south.
Moreover, the cities are far more ethnically diverse. Latino immigration into the states west of the Mississippi poses a problem for the white inhabitants. They need their labor, but they resent their presence and their demands for civil and economic rights. It is in this setting that US President Barack Obama and his family serve as objects of hatred, as incarnations of what they see as the "alien forces" that illegitimately rule the nation.
States' rights have long been a central theme of those who oppose the use of federal power to equalize the condition of the citizenry, to protect minorities, to regulate the economy and safeguard the environment. As the economic and social forces of globalization join to the deepening pluralism of US culture, so clearly threaten obdurate localism of the states from Texas to the Canadian border, their recourse to the idiom and ideology of states' rights becomes more insistent.
Additionally, there is the US penchant for violence. Read the comment segments of online blogs and newspapers: The rhetoric of extreme hostility, a near total absence of sense of civic community, dominate. One widespread justification for conceiving of society as a series of antagonistic armed camps is that the citizens need to be prepared to resist the government.
It would not take much to light a very large conflagration. The other day in Nevada, one threatened to consume the state. Some 80 miles from Las Vegas, a rancher named Cliven Bundy has grazed his cattle on federal lands for two decades, but refuses to pay rent to the government. The land came into familial possession generations ago, he declares, the federal government has no claim to it. (He ignores the government's removal of the original Indian inhabitants.)
Federal officials began to confiscate some of Bundy's cattle, and not only many of his neighbors but persons living far away rushed to the site. There were perhaps 1,000, many armed and declared that they were ready to battle federal agents. Some were from organized militia groups.
The Republican governor of Nevada, terming the protesters "patriots," negotiated a truce. Harry Reid, a Nevada senator and Democratic majority leader in the Senate, termed them "domestic terrorists." Reid has been threatened and the local militias have abrogated to themselves the right to patrol local roads and establish checkpoints.
Bundy was for a brief period a hero to some of the most prominent commentators on television, such as Fox host Sean Hannity. A number of Republican governors and senators voiced praise and support. Then Bundy gave interviews which expressed the dominant qualities of his mind: invincible ignorance, primitive fantasies of violence, and pervasive racism. His erstwhile supporters disowned him in panic, or rather, the politically versed among them did so, including some Republican presidential aspirants.
In fact, the confrontation can repeat itself, on a larger scale, at any time. A sizable number of armed US citizens are ready to battle our elected government. Perhaps some of the energies so freely dispensed giving lessons to other nations can be used to good effect in our own country.
The author is professor emeritus of Georgetown University Law Center. firstname.lastname@example.org