15 April 2014

Democracy in Nevada?

Republicans are making a cause celebre out of a Nevada rancher's dispute with the federal government. The rancher refuses to pay the government a grazing fee imposed back in the 1980s for the protection of tortoises on the grazing land, claiming that the state rather than the feds have rightful jurisdiction there. Supporters gathered recently in an attempt to prevent the Bureau of Land Management from seizing the rancher's cattle. For right-wingers this was another dangerous encroachment on our rights by an overreaching, intrusive federal government -- and some suggest that the family of Senator Reid, the Majority Leader, has some financial interest in keeping cattle off that land.

In a USA Today op-ed, Eli Federman, identified as "an executive at an e-commerce company, sees the episode as democracy in action.

The lesson here has nothing to do with endangered tortoises, or contract rights predating the formation of the BLM, grazing fees, states right or even whether the government is acting heavy-handedly by using armed men to seize cattle. Rather the lesson is about caring citizens standing up for a cause, while openly criticizing and scrutinizing the government. That is the activity democracies are made of. Whether the cause of Cliven Bundy is legitimate is beside the point. We have citizens peaceably forming a protest against what they believe is government overreaching. That alone has drawn scrutiny over the governments actions. Such scrutiny and oversight are instrumental in a democracy.

Whatever Federman's politics may be, his remarks read like classic liberalism. The line that jumped out at me was, "Whether the cause ... is legitimate is beside the point." The real point, it seems to me, is that liberalism, if not democracy itself, is a double-edged sword. I've written many times that citizen vigilance (i.e. "scrutiny and oversight") is essential to democracy. While I don't believe that any state really can guarantee dissidents the sort of immunity that liberalism demands, and that Americans assume exists here, I do expect citizens in a democracy to take whatever risks may be necessary to expose errors or outright wrongdoing by their leaders. Does it follow from all that that "whether the cause is legitimate is beside the point?" It would follow from that that all protests are qualitatively equal, that all suspicions are equal, that the paranoid and the liar, at least at first, have just as much right to protest (or obstruct?) as the genuine truth-seekers and the actually injured. Must liberalism blind itself to such distinctions, assuming them to be prejudiced? Can there never be a case when a claim of "government overreaching" can be dismissed preemptively as self-evidently false? Or must every single accusation be indulged, lest people assume a habit of unthinking deference to leaders? The answer has to be found somewhere between the extremes. People's prerogative to protest outside institutional channels may be vital to democracy, but just as vital, if not as glamorous, is a principle of submission. That principle is the difference between democracy and anarchy. Someday, liberals may have to decide which they prefer.


Anonymous said...

Of course it also sets a dangerous precedent: anyone who disagrees with any law should feel free to completely disregard the law. Then we have chaos. If the man is breaking the law by refusing to pay whatever fee he's supposed to pay then they should simply arrest him.

Anonymous said...

In addendum, I'm not really sure how refusing to obey a law is "democracy".