THE BLOG
11/03/2014 07:01 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

What, Exactly, Is the Difference Between Joni Ernst and Cliven Bundy?

David Greedy via Getty Images

Imagine the following fictional scenario taking place a week before Election Day 2012:

Video surfaced today of remarks made two years ago by Elizabeth Warren, Democratic Senate candidate in Massachusetts, to union members at a rally sponsored by the AFL-CIO. Warren fired up the crowd when she thundered: "I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere. But, if the government should allow a ruthless capitalist system to continue destroying unions and the protections they provide, I do believe in the right to use that weapon to defend the rights of middle and working class Americans."

Now envision the response. Forget about the Republicans. Think about how the mainstream, corporate-owned media would react to a Democratic Senate candidate talking about the conditions under which she would not only support but would herself employ violent resistance to our democratically elected representative government. And you know what? They'd be right.

It is absolutely, 100 percent unacceptable for any candidate or elected official to even hint at the possibility of bringing violence into our democratic process for personal political gain. The threat of violence undermines the entire notion of constitutional democracy, according to which the only legitimate form of resistance to duly enacted laws is that which is peaceful, i.e., civil disobedience. Only a shameless, cynical demagogue would do such a thing, an act that should immediately disqualify that person from ever holding a position of responsibility in our government. And that brings us to Joni Ernst.

Here's Ms. Ernst pandering to the extremists over at the NRA in 2012:

I have a beautiful little Smith & Wesson, 9 millimeter, and it goes with me virtually everywhere. But I do believe in the right to carry, and I believe in the right to defend myself and my family--whether it's from an intruder, or whether it's from the government, should they decide that my rights are no longer important.

These remarks surfaced more than a week ago, and yet she has made no attempt to clarify them, to say that she was actually talking about what she'd do if, I don't know, a Red Dawn invasion scenario took place (I'm reaching for something defensible here, folks), or if maybe a homegrown dictatorship overthrew our democracy. But she hasn't. And that's because -- without mentioning it -- she was evoking the specter of something very specific, something designed to appeal to Second Amendment extremists, the kind of people who think The Turner Diaries offers a blueprint for what could actually happen. She meant that, as happened in that work of fiction, if the people elect representatives who change our gun laws in ways that she - -and her fellow extremists -- don't like, she'd come out shooting.

Earlier this year we learned about another American who felt that he had the right to use his beautiful little weapons when -- in his opinion -- the government had decided that his rights were no longer important. His name was Cliven Bundy.

Here's how, at a March 29, 2014, meeting of the Bunkerville Town Advisory Board in Clark County, Nevada, Bundy explained his take on defending his "rights" (i.e., the right to have his cattle graze on federally owned land and not pay the legally required grazing fees. In other words, the right to mooch off the rest of us):

Because this is our property, we own the cattle, we own the grazing rights, we own the water rights, we own the range improvements. We have the right to access it ... Because of these ownership rights, we say we will protect our property. Now, we delegate to the county sheriff the authority to protect our life, liberty, and property. But we don't relinquish that authority ourself. And so if they are going to be out in the hills stealing our property, we will [pause] put measures of defense. And they have always asked us, 'What will you do, what will you do?' and our stance has always been we will do whatever it takes. Open-ended. And because of that, that's why they are scared, because they don't know to what level we will go to protect, but we will protect.

Bundy declared a "range war," and announced to a gathering at his ranch that included armed supporters: "We're about ready to take the country over with force!" Some of these armed supporters took up positions on the Bundy Ranch to defend it against the government. This "militia" dubbed their location "Camp Liberty."

And here we see the peril in Joni Ernst's thinking. You see, it's in the eye of the beholder what is a violation of one's rights, one's liberty. In a constitutional system of government like ours, it is through the political and judicial process that we figure out whether a particular law or action is a violation of the rights of a citizen or citizens. But that's not what Cliven Bundy did. He led an armed effort to resist the law when the process didn't go his way. To advocate such resistance is to advocate anarchy. And that's exactly what Joni Ernst did. Yet she has been able to avoid answering for it, even since her remarks to the NRA came to light.

On what has the media coverage of Ernst in the past week focused, you might ask?
A Washington Post article provided Ernst with -- in the words of our own Laura Clawson -- a "tongue bath." This puff piece about a "biscuit-baking, gun-shooting, twangy, twinkly farm girl and mother" has to be read to be believed, and contains only a cursory mention of a couple of policy issues. Nothing about her statement to the NRA.

For that matter, the article mentions nothing about any number of other extreme positions Ernst has taken ("For the federal government to set the minimum wage for all 50 states is ridiculous,") as well as just flat-out loony things she has said ("I do have reason to believe there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq."). The local Iowa media would almost certainly ask her some tougher questions, but she's been dodging them and sticking to Fox News, where certainly won't be pressed on whether she agrees with Cliven Bundy, at least not since Bundy's nakedly racist beliefs were broadcast.

What Joni Ernst told the NRA really is a big deal because it reveals not only her core beliefs, but what kind of leader she'd make. To be clear, I'm not saying that a person or a population should never fight back, with force, against real tyranny or violent oppression. Such a thing is not only permissible, it is noble and just. My point is this: The sentiments expressed by Joni Ernst under discussion here have no place in our public discourse now. This country, despite its flaws, remains a vibrant democracy in which, overall, our democratic liberties are largely intact when compared to what exists under actual authoritarian governments such as North Korea.

The question of how to respond to potential tyranny is not a part of legitimate political debate in the contemporary United States, despite the hysterics from those -- like another recent Republican nominee for the U.S. Senate -- who entertain thoughts of "Second Amendment remedies" when they don't like the outcome of elections. It is nothing more than an attempt to appeal to those who see tyranny lurking everywhere.

A politician who evokes violent resistance in such broad terms as did Joni Ernst -- and who refuses to clarify let alone walk them back -- is certainly not appealing to the better angels of our nature. By ginning up the darkest fears of extremists, she is playing a dangerous game. On Election Day, we the people ought not to allow her to win it.