The rise of the disgruntled

Just about seven years ago, shortly after President Obama took office, pockets of unrest started forming throughout the nation. Some of those groups began identifying themselves with variations of the Tea Party name, holding rallies and other events that generally focused on fiscal matters. Some of these independent groups said that their use of the Tea Party label was a throwback salute to the rebellious Boston Tea Party event of 1773. Others were more specific, saying that the TEA acronym stood for “Taxed Enough Already” and that their push was for major cuts in taxes at all levels, even if that meant eliminating some government services.


It seems strangely (and conveniently) coincidental that the movement grew to prominence at precisely the time that Democrats regained the White House with the election of the first non-white president. Defenders of the Tea Party’s honor have made claims that the roots of their cause took hold well before 2009, though one is hard pressed to realistically remember any such activity. Of course, people have been complaining about taxes since the first tax was collected.


As the assorted Tea Parties were gaining strength, the USA saw growth within another sub-culture… the sovereign citizen movement.  Essentially believing that the federal and most state governments have no authority, these individuals often refuse to pay taxes or fees imposed by government agencies. Many don’t register their vehicles, obtain driver’s licenses, or even use ZIP codes… as these are enacted by a government they don’t recognize.


Probably the most famous personality of the sovereign citizen realm is Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who for over twenty years has refused to pay fees for grazing his cattle on federally owned land. Bundy became somewhat of a cult hero when a standoff developed between the US Bureau of Land Management and a group of armed supporters. The matter ended without violence when government officials withdrew, effectively giving Bundy a victory. As this column was being written, three of Bundy’s sons are organizers of an armed occupation of federal property in Oregon, clearly emboldened by their family’s previous encounter.


There have been other notable occupations of federal property — Alcatraz, Wounded Knee — that ended in violence. But then, those occupiers weren’t white dudes with Twitter and Facebook accounts. But I digress.


A third faction that has gained in popularity over the past few years are militia groups. Usually heavily armed and self-trained, less than 200 of these anti-government groups were known to exist in 2008. Fueled by fears of a possible government crackdown on gun ownership helped the growth of these groups throughout the country, even though no real effort to limit the rights of Americans to own guns has materialized. Of course, just the implied threat, real or imagined,  is enough to motivate gun sales and discourage most elected officials from considering legislation that could be seen as impeding the average American from purchasing whichever weapon he so chooses.


It is right about here that someone will argue that President Obama’s plans for executive orders that, if fully enacted, could curtail gun sales. But most of what the president is offering are just suggested guidelines, and the strongest would require funding that the Republican-led Congress is not about to approve. Meanwhile, gun dealers are reporting a huge boost in sales… so let’s put aside any worries about how the government is going to empty out the Average Joe’s gun cabinet.


Nope, there’s no way the government is going to do anything to disarm the citizenry. But it is also clear that the government is no closer to solving the problem of gun violence.


So far, we’ve discussed the Tea Party, sovereign citizens, and militias. As diverse as these groups may be, they have many similarities. They all distrust government. They all have big problems with government actions like taxes and regulations. And they all saw intense growth in reaction to the 2008 election.


And… the lines between them are increasingly blurred.


I’m not saying that these three groups have exactly the same goals. But it’s really hard to tell where one stops and another starts. Log onto a random Tea Party website and you’re just as likely to see a discussion about the Second Amendment as you are efforts to trim taxes. Talk to a militia member and you’ll hear complaints about entitlement programs. And the Bundy family is proof that a large feature of the sovereign citizen movement is the combination of anti-tax sentiments and gun proliferation.


One thing is certain: you won’t find too many Democrats in those groups. And that’s a big problem for the GOP. You see, if the Republican party allows itself to be defined by those on the fringe, it has virtually no chance to field candidates who can draw votes from outside their own party.

And that’s a recipe for disaster come Election Day.

(Originally published in the Morrisons Cove Herald January 7, 2016.)

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