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Cliven Bundy: Why history matters

April 28, 2014

A young American who slept through school social studies, and then read only libertarian and far right rhetoric, could well get the impression that this had been a nation of libertarian states, until the federal government conquered them all and systematically suppressed civil liberties. That rhetoric holds almost no hint of any actual history related to civil liberty in the US. If it did, it would have to somehow deal with the fact that state governments originated many of the most oppressive laws and bureaucracies: instituting slave patrols, censoring political material they disliked, regulating travel, requiring literacy tests and imposing other barriers to voting, banning miscegenation and contraception, and seizing property without compensation. Much of this was done first to maintain slavery and then to maintain white supremacy. To point out in some right-wing quarters the simple fact that the southern states seceded for the express purpose of defending and extending slavery is like showing red meat to wolves, so eager are they to spout the neo-confederate explanation of the War of Northern Aggression. Many on the right who aren’t Confederate defenders nonetheless can cheer the McDonald decision while forgetting that virtually every other decision incorporating the Bill of Rights had been decried by conservatives, as black-robed federal judges trampling on states rights. They breathe “states rights” as if it means the same thing as “liberty,” ignoring that has most often been the cry of those who wanted to suppress individual liberty, first as part of secession, later in defense of Jim Crow, later still opposing the incorporation of the Bill of Rights, later still fighting the Civil Rights Act.

Let me be clear. I am not arguing that everything the federal government does is good, or that everything the states do is wrong or authoritarian. What I am pointing out is that there is a lot of right-wing rhetoric that ignores the actual, historical relationship between federalism and liberty, and that much of that rhetoric was inherited from neo-confederate thinking. There are valid arguments for states rights. There even are those who make an argument for civil liberty and states rights, while respecting the quite spotty history those have for each other.

But that is rare. What is more common today are folks who see nothing odd in calling themselves libertarian while arguing for states rights, ignorant of the history of that call. They hear an old rancher spouting off about states rights and the illegitimacy of the federal government, and think they have found a kindred soul. Then they are caught flat when it turns out that his political views are overtly racist. What should give them pause is why everyone with a sense of American history expected that, and why so many of their compadres need to be taught that this really is racism.

Krauthammer deserves kudos as one of the few on the right to call out Bundy forthrightly and without excuse. Ta-Nehisi Coates is, as usual, essential reading on race politics and so deserves a second link.

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