Extremism is spreading globally like a virus. Such a resurgence in extremist activity today has spilled into troubling online and offline behaviours, including worldviews that have strong anti-democratic themes.
Extremist worldviews often rationalise hatred towards minority or related “enemy” groups and lead to anti-social behaviour or even wider displays of violence. The nature of this type of toxic group-think and a growing cross-polarisation of connections between groups in Australia and in other countries is that they are all broadly employing a “leaderless resistance” model in order to avoid law enforcement as well as channel resentment or rage against a real or perceived injustice.
A new type of “populism” – including that aligned with the Sovereign Citizen Movement (SCM) – creates a wide range of ongoing policy challenges in the political, legal, and security space. Sovereign Citizens (SC) and equivalent variations are a paradigm example of movements whose language is moving into popular culture. These actors do not believe they are subject to law or that they are subject to federal, state, or local law and any partnered regulations only as they interpret it. Further, despite its racist anti-Semitic origins, the modern-day SCM does not have a cohesive shared values base, cuts across demographic clusters, and can be drawn into a wide variety of convenient ideologies to rationalise anti-government hostility or suspicion.
This fluid SCM ideology, and changing notions of citizenship, is not a phenomenon isolated only to the US. The growth of such belief systems has steadily emerged in other democratic locations like Australia (Freemen on the Land), Germany (Reichsbürgers), and the United Kingdom (Lawful Rebellion). Other current protests such as the Ottawa truck blockade in Canada are strongly characterised by a co-opting of extremist SC language and tactics. As noted by The New York Times, “…every day that the occupation continues, it seems to raise greater support among prominent far-right and anti-vaccine figures. The protest has drawn the attention of activists and influencers from numerous countries, including the United States, Australia and Germany, spreading hashtags, images and arguments across social media.”
With conspiracies on the rise and the collapse of truth in both Australia and abroad, numerous characteristics make the “thin-centred” anti-government ideology of the SCM an especially disruptive and alarming phenomemum. Certainly, citizens have a right to protest peacefully, and new forms and narratives of political protest and activity do have a tendency to overlap with feelings of being disenfranchised, bullied, and disempowered. But the ideological basis for extremism has also grown more complex. The term “thin-centred” has been used previously to describe a worldview in which society can be crudely separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.”
So the SCM, while not necessarily coherent in the conventional way of thinking about political groups and systems, should also be seen as embedded with a wide mixture of conspiracy theories, alternative versions of history, constitutional re-interpretations, and binary “black and white” world views. For example, the broadcasting of the “Great Reset” theory related to climate change issues has aimed to dismiss sustainability and renewable energy initiatives as an elite agenda for global domination and control. Other mobilisations appear to be drawn from the incorporation of SC ideologies that combine with analogous “deep state” perspectives and retain a high-frequency conspiratorial and paranoid orientation. This includes social media-inspired extremist groupings like QAnon, in which established democratic norms are seen as negotiable or even irrelevant.
Again, all these anti-government groupings tend to consolidate around alternative practices of self-empowerment beyond or outside the existing institutional (political and economic) structures. So, while the modern-day international SCM broadly aims to change society or politics at large, its actions do tend to manifest in several different sets of more locally based behaviours, both violent and nonviolent. All are grounded to the principle that government is illegitimate and laws can be disobeyed.
With more people spending time at home and online and the creation of cyber-ghettos to facilitate the persistence of misinformation, a wide variety of these broadly decentralised anti-government groups have discovered and developed methods to share ideological resources while reinforcing particular styles of reasoning and related biases.
Such online activity therefore provides opportunities for social connections that act to strengthen a universal “in-group” identification that can transcend the barriers presented by physical distance. For instance, some global anti-government narratives have integrated apocalyptic COVID-19 theories into their domestic recruitment agendas and more local or often idiosyncratic grievance storylines. At a very minimum, the COVID-19 “Infodemic” has served to muddy the information waters so that many citizens remain confused and apprehensive about the impact, spread, and implications of the virus. The end result has been a weakening of traditional political and social bonds within a wide range of democratic countries.
A Search for Self-Empowerment
Sovereign anti-government lore and language has proven to be highly alluring and pervasive in different international contexts. This is due, in part, to the fact that it can borrow, blend, and adapt from a hodgepodge of ideological and conspiratorial narratives. These online social networks that use evocative anti-government language do vary in size, shape, and purpose.
Critically, such decentralised and diverse groupings like the SCM do offer an immediate form and rationalisation of political protest that can quickly amalgamate with deep-rooted feelings of being disenfranchised, marginalised, and bullied. It is not necessarily surprising that an individual might, if a concept like self-empowerment is the organising concept, join any group or association that might assist them in gaining support and aid in their life choices – even if those choices go against the law, or even if those choices combine incompatible or contradictory sets of evidence.
In other words, the internet does allow previously alienated and disaffected people to find and connect with each other. Further, it provides a space for those looking for acceptance, recognition, and a sense of approval. Yet problematically, information is often unfiltered, and some of the most obsessive and conspiratorial forms of dialogue, comprising dehumanising and hateful ideas, can target existing grievances and prejudices. Biases thus become self-reinforcing and normalised in offering a target to blame. In part, this could be interrelated to a change in the way individuals within the SCM interpret and participate in political life.
The contours of such a policy dilemma have been neatly captured by a US law enforcement agency in stating that the “term ‘sovereign citizen’ should be viewed as an umbrella under which you will find thousands of loosely organised groups or individuals that share one basic ideological principle [e.g. that laws do not apply to them] but approach it through different paths.”
In linking radicalisation to antisocial or violent behaviour, the creation and transition of extreme interpretations of notions such as citizenship will continue to be increasingly pertinent in both security and society-relevant threat assessments at the domestic and international levels. Emerging cases of SC protest, at the very least, do indicate a weakening of traditional political and social bonds within many democratic countries and a rise in a form of populist extremism that cannot be simply quarantined into old countering violent extremism models and uncomplicated labels that are wedged to traditional political paradigms.
Daniel Baldino is a political scientist specialising in Australian foreign, defence and security policy including counter-terrorism, intelligence studies and government and politics of the Indo-Pacific at the University of Notre Dame, Fremantle.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.