Active Engagement of the Political System
There is a stark contrast between
the views of the present Michigan Militia leadership and Norm Olson on the
subject of political participation. Unlike their former commander, the
Michigan Militia leadership has shown itself to be interested and actively
involved in the mainstream political process. In fact, their paramilitary
activities notwithstanding, the Michigan Militia can be seen at times to
perform functions that are similar to those of mainstream pressure groups
or political parties.
Similar to mainstream pressure groups, the Michigan Militia closely follows
legislation and disseminates information on state and federal issues to
their membership through a variety of sources, including the Internet and
a rapid fax network. Their Internet site includes links to major
government web sites and lists the e-mail addresses for all U.S.
Congressional Representatives and Senators. It also includes a weekly
edition of news briefs called 'Heads Up', which summarizes stories of
interest to those with a militia worldview.
The Michigan Militia protest of
UN Day, which drew 500 in Lansing, also mirrored the efforts of more
traditional pressure groups. It is significant that the Michigan Militia
UN Day event took place at the state Capitol because it indicates that,
like traditional pressure groups, the Michigan Militia attempts to promote
their views to a target audience of state legislators through public
Members of the Michigan Militia are actively involved in political
campaigns as well, either as supporters for major party candidates in local
and national elections or as candidates themselves on the local level.
The Michigan Militia leadership also reports that their members have
utilized the recall process in an attempt to oust public officials who do
not share their views. In addition, the Michigan Militia leadership
further claims to be stepping up its level of engagement, noting increasing
campaign work by members of their group during the 1996 campaign.
views expressed by Tom Wayne, who serves as the Michigan Militia's
Executive Officer and second-in-command to Lynn VanHuizen, offer an
interesting contrast to those of Olson. Like Olson, Wayne believes the
present political system is corrupt and on the verge of collapse.
However, while Wayne views corruption as pervasive, he does not share
Olson's view that the political system is completely corrupt, nor does he
share Olson's view that the political system is completely corrupting.
Wayne, public officials have the potential to play a significant role in
last-ditch efforts to reverse the disastrous course of the political
... the militia groups, the patriot groups, the Congress and the President
is (sic) going to have to sit down and say OK, let's admit to the American
people that we've made mistakes, we're an American family and like any
family you have squabbles. Well, let's sit down and solve them.
Wayne's view, the collapse of the political system can be avoided, but it
can only be avoided if the militia movement and public officials work
together to save it from collapse. This view, that there is still
potential for meaningful reform of the political system, clearly
distinguishes Wayne's views from those of Olson. Because Olson sees a
future where government abuses 'will only get worse', he sees only one
course in front of him. But Wayne expresses a different view:
We have two courses. The one we are trying to pursue is a peaceful
solution to complex questions. But it is going to take some people with
(guts) to step out and say, 'OK, let's solve this problem. Let's sit down
with all the players and come to a general consensus and let's put a
transitional government together'.
Wayne does not believe that the
collapse of the system is inevitable. It can be saved, but only through
quick and decisive action on the part of government officials and militias.
While Olson looks forward to the collapse of the system as a necessary
and a positive step, Wayne articulates the hope that actions can be taken
to prevent the collapse of the system in order to avoid what he fears will
be a chaotic aftermath.
Now it is time for Congressmen and Senators - and
there are a few in there that are willing - to stand up and be counted.
Because the alternative is chaos. We are not interested in chaos.
Michigan Militia: Continued Challenges
Wayne and VanHuizen's leadership of
the Michigan Militia was challenged on February 15, 1998 when a breakaway
faction held a meeting and issued a press release claiming to have ousted
the group's leadership. Wayne and VanHuizen disputed the contention,
maintaining the breakaway group had no standing, insufficient support and
links to the Christian Identity movement. On March 15, the breakaway
faction elected Joe Pilchak, a mechanical engineer from Genesee County,
their state commander.
The breakaway movement was spurred by a conflict
over VanHuizen and Wayne's proposal to revise the Michigan Militia manual,
which would have given more power to the state command. As the revised
manual states, 'the only way to be truly well-regulated is to operate in a
military manner, having clear cut rules and regulations, which is the
purpose of this re-structuring . The lack of rules and guidelines has
resulted in an undisciplined mob with as many different interpretations as
there are members'. Reports indicate that the revised manual was a key
focus of attendees at the breakaway faction's reorganization meeting on
March 15. Joe Pilchak, state commander of the breakaway faction,
complained that the new manual 'takes the power from the county level and
takes it up to the command staff and they end up being absolute dictators'.
In its most controversial step, the new manual allowed the Michigan
Militia state command to remove members and conduct a background check on
new members 'to eliminate the dissention and destructive influences that
are currently threatening to destroy the Michigan Militia Corps'. These
provisions were necessary, argued VanHuizen, because they 'found many
(militia divisions) highly infiltrated or influenced by (Christian
Identity) people'. Olson, who generally stands in opposition to
VanHuizen's leadership, supported Wayne's claim, noting that individuals
associated with 'fringe groups', 'leaderless resistance cells', and
'Christian Identity' were now 'causing disturbances inside the corps'.
Pilchak, for his part, dismissed concerns about Christian Identity as 'a
cliché that they are attempting to use', and notes that he is not a
Christian Identity believer. However, both Pilchak and Bruce Soloway, a
spokesman for the breakaway group, acknowledged that some members of the
group are associated with Christian Identity. Unlike Wayne, and even Olson
to a lesser extent, Pilchak was reluctant to distance himself from
Christian Identity adherents and portrays the movement as misunderstood.
In contrast to the Michigan Militia under VanHuizen and Wayne, the
breakaway faction under Pilchak seems more willing to work with more
radical elements in the militia movement. Pilchak notes that he would work
closely with Mark Koernke (a.k.a. Mark from Michigan) and his group and
acknowledges that he has appeared several times on his short-wave radio
show. In addition, he does not dismiss leaderless resistance groups,
saying he respects their views despite his own belief in visibility.
At the same time that Pilchak is open to more radical segments of the
movement, from Christian Identity to Mark Koernke to leaderless resistance,
he also argues that efforts to educate political leaders should remain an
important function of the militia. Pilchak argues that the militia can
serve as both an active threat and a political force, saying, 'I think we
are having an effect both ways'.
Unlike the ouster of Norm Olson nearly
three years earlier, the success of the breakaway movement on the Michigan
Militia is not entirely clear-cut. The effect that the breakaway movement
will have on the Michigan Militia is not yet clear. Tom Wayne and Lynn
VanHuizen maintain that they remain in control of the Michigan Militia.
Initial reports indicate that they do continue leadership over a
substantial proportion of the group's brigades. The ongoing arguments about
who controls the 'Michigan Militia' aside, the breakaway faction is not
inconsiderable and appears large enough to maintain a separate existence.
In Norm Olson's words, 'we multiply by dividing'.
Although the Michigan
Militia leadership under Wayne was challenged, they have retained their
focus on political engagement. The moderating positions of Wayne and
VanHuizen were an issue in the further fragmentation of the group, at least
in terms of their reluctance to work with Mark Koernke and their rejection
of Christian Identity adherents. However, the breakaway faction under
Pilchak has not directly challenged VanHuizen and Wayne's views on
Ultimately, the balance Pilchak promotes in his rhetoric - acceptance of
more radical elements and continued political engagement - may be
incompatible. Thus far, however, challenges of the Michigan Militia
leadership's attitudes toward political participation, have not occurred.
Regardless of whether such a challenge occurs, Wayne and VanHuizen remain
in control of one of the largest militia groups in the nation. Despite the
challenge from the breakaway faction, Wayne continues to articulate a
desire to actively engage the political system. The latest challenge may
actually have strengthened their commitment to such a strategy by removing
their most vocal critics from the organization.
While Olson and Wayne's views of the political system and their role
within it remain distinct, it is not yet clear whether Pilchak's uneasy
balance of radicalism and political activity can be maintained for any
length of time. In some respects, Pilchak's position might be considered
an uneasy amalgam of Olson and Wayne's views. Ultimately, a choice may
have to be made between the more radical strategies supported by Olson and
the political engagement advocated by VanHuizen and Wayne. Unless it
becomes clear that Pilchak's view of the political process evolves into a
thoroughly distinct alternative, the different directions of the Michigan
Militia are best understood in light of the contrasting strategies of Olson
Political Alienation and the Michigan Militia
Many scholarly efforts already provide an excellent overview of the views,
activities and development of the 'citizen-militia' or 'patriot' movement
in the United States. In an effort to provide insight into the movement in
general, it has been necessary for these scholars to emphasize those
activities and ideas that are shared by participants within the movement.
While these broad perspectives are essential to understanding the movement,
it may also prove useful to distinguish important differences between
them. A close look at the rhetoric and the activities of Norm Olson and
Tom Wayne highlights their differing views toward political participation.
These different views are particularly significant given that these militia
leaders share a very strong distrust of government officials as well as a
negative and conspiratorial view of the political process. How might we
better understand this discontinuity?
The concept of political alienation might be useful in this regard.
Political alienation, described generally in one account as 'a person's
sense of estrangement from the politics and government of his society,' is
believed to have a significant effect on an individual's political
behavior. As Bas Denters and Peter Geurts point out,
Aspects of political
alienation, like political powerlessness or distrust in government, are
often conceived as theoretically important intervening variables in the
'funnel of causality', leading from the citizen's personal conditions (e.g.
social backgrounds) to his political behavior (e.g. electoral
participation). Empirical research has extensively confirmed the relevance
of aspects of alienation for our understanding of political
It seems clear that Olson and Wayne both express a general
sense of political alienation. Both Olson and Wayne cite similarly
conspiratorial worldviews and distrusting attitudes towards government and
government officials as the driving force behind their militia activities.
This might help to explain why both are similarly driven to participate in
the militia movement. But can the concept of political alienation also
account for the differences in their views on participation in the
Ada Finifter's conception of political alienation may provide the most
effective framework from which to understand these differing views towards
political participation. In a 1970 article in the American Political
Science Review, Finifter put forward the idea that political alienation has
multiple dimensions. The view of political alienation as multidimensional
remains predominant today, articulated, for example, by Denters and Geurts
in 1994 and Southwell in 1995. For several reasons, Finifter's classic
conception remains most useful for the purposes of this study. First,
Finifter explicitly addresses the two modes of political alienation that
directly relate to the similarities and the differences of Olson and Wayne.
Second, Finifter does not view each mode of alienation as independent, but
considers the effect that the interaction of two different modes of
alienation might have on one individual. Finally, Finifter directly ties
the different modes of alienation to different types of participation,
including radical and revolutionary behavior, which seems of particular
value to this study.
Finifter viewed political alienation as having numerous dimensions, and
described at least four possible dimensions. In his article, however, he
went on to focus on two particular modes of political alienation:
'perceived political normlessness' and 'political powerlessness'. Finifter
describes 'perceived political normlessness' as 'the individual's
perception that the norms or rules intended to govern political relations
have broken down, and that departures from prescribed behavior are common.
A belief that officials violate legal procedures in dealing with the public
or in arriving at policy decisions exemplifies this mode of alienation'.
This aspect of political alienation seems to be shared by both Olson and
Wayne, and is evident in their shared view that the Constitution has been
undermined and that American liberties are imperiled by tyrannical forces
'threatening to undermine our form of government'.
'political powerlessness' as 'an individual's feeling that he cannot affect
the actions of the government'. It is on this aspect of political
alienation that Olson and Wayne appear to differ. Olson believes that
efforts to fix a system he sees as corrupt will be fruitless. While Wayne
shares a general view that the political system is corrupt, he continues to
see value in his efforts to change the system by working with legislators
and engaging in the political process.
Finifter uses these dimensions of political alienation to create a
hypothetical typology of powerlessness and normlessness (see Figure 1).
Finifter's typology considers the effect of the interaction of these two
modes alienation on political behavior. He places those with high levels
of powerlessness and normlessness into the category of 'extreme
disengagement'. He notes that 'those engaging in activities suggested in
the upper left quadrant have probably given up hope that the political
system will ever be responsive to their demands. The combination of high
perceived normlessness and high levels of political powerlessness seems
likely to lead to fundamental, radical rejection of established methods of
accomplishing political goals.' Finifter places those with low levels of
perceived normlessness and high levels of powerlessness into the 'reform
orientation' category. In the reform block, the 'goals of these groups are
directed at correcting specific social conditions . Individuals who
participate in these types of groups feel that the system is at least
potentially responsive to their efforts'.
This framework seems to be particularly appropriate for understanding the
similarities and the differences in the views and behavior of Norm Olson
and Tom Wayne. Olson and Wayne's heightened sense of 'perceived political
normlessness' may facilitate their participation in non-traditional and
'anti-government' oriented activities like the militia movement. Their
different levels of political powerlessness, however, may explain their
differing views on their role in the political system. Olson's perception
of powerlessness may be significant due to in its interaction with his
extremely high political normlessness, while Wayne's relatively low sense
of political powerlessness may keep him focused on political engagement
despite high levels of normlessness.
Wayne and Olson might be placed at different points along the dimension of
political powerlessness. Olson views participation as completely useless
and the final stage of revolution as imminent. For Olson, the militia
fulfills the role of visible threat during the current period and at the
same time offers the military strength and organization believed necessary
for the revolution and its aftermath. Tom Wayne, expressing the Michigan
Militia leadership's view, continues to see the voting process as a useful
means of changing course and avoiding a collapse of the system.
It may be the case that Olson and Wayne will maintain their different
levels of political powerlessness. In this event, Olson may become more
radical and revolutionary while the Michigan Militia may continue to
moderate its message. This may occur if the Michigan Militia membership
and, most importantly, their leadership, maintains a sense of real or
potential political power. While this development is possible, it is also
possible that the differences between Olson and the Michigan Militia,
though significant, are part of a common path of political development.
To understand this path, it is necessary to first focus our attention on
the development of Norm Olson's views over time. It is important to
understand that Olson's complete rejection of political participation is a
development from his earlier views. Olson claims that he attempted in the
past to bring about change through the traditional political system, but
became progressively more alienated as the political system continually
rejected his efforts:
I have extended the opportunity several times. I've written and
conveyed...it would be my pleasure to sit down to talk with Senators and
Congressmen if they were truly interested. But they haven't been...
rejection of Olson's attempts to engage the political system left him
feeling more and more powerless:
We were slowly building bridges. We had talked with several state senators
and Congresspeople here in Michigan...[but] we began to be rebuked and
rebuffed and mocked and laughed and scorned by those representatives...they
start to get this arrogance that they are indeed the principals that they
are indeed the masters and that we are nothing more than servants, lackeys,
peasants, subjects to be pushed around....
For Olson, the rejection of his
views by the political system and the refusal of political leaders to
pursue the course of action that he recommended was evidence the political
system had been completely corrupted. But not only did the rejection of
these views prove to him the system was corrupt, it also guaranteed that
the political system would never take the actions that Olson believes
necessary to avoid the coming crisis:
We're ready to sit down and talk with anybody if they're truly willing [to
listen]. For example, if the Senate wanted me to address it and say,
Commander Olson, 'how can we avoid the coming revolution'...if they're
really serious about the answers, which would mean a profound change in the
way America does business. But, if they want to avoid revolution, if they
were really serious, they would sit down and talk with me. But they're not
serous. They want to wish this thing away, that it's not going to happen.
But it's going to happen. Believe me, it's coming.
In Olson's view, total
rejection by the political system forces him to seek other alternatives to
control the government. He finds those alternatives in both his current
role as a 'threat' to the government and in a future role he sees for
himself in the 'revolution'.
As described above, very clear differences separate the current views of
Olson and the Michigan Militia. However, future events may draw the views
of the Michigan Militia closer to those of Norm Olson. Tom Wayne, the
Executive Officer of the Michigan Militia, continues to hold out some hope
for the political process but observes that the collapse of the system is
inevitable if the political system refuses to take the steps recommended by
the Michigan Militia:
...we thoroughly expect it to [collapse] if there are not some drastic
changes and some certain people in Congress and our state legislature that
say, 'let's take the bull by the horns'.
There is the real possibility
that the continued rejection of the militia worldview by the political
system will cause the Michigan Militia to become more alienated in much the
same way as Olson. Wayne describes the Michigan Militia's growing sense of
frustration with the political system and the potential consequences:
...we held a general assembly, which, under the first amendment we have the
right to do, to peaceably assemble and petition our government for the
redress of grievances. We did that. The state government has never
answered us formally. And what we are asking for is a formal hearing.
But, when the government continues to ignore the problem, they invariably
create the confrontation, don't they?
Not only does Wayne acknowledge the
potential for the Michigan Militia to shift toward Olson's worldview as a
result of continued rejection by the political system, he acknowledges that
it is likely:
There are the Norm Olsons that want to start something. We
are working to hold them back. But someday, we aren't going to be able to
hold them back...If we don't see some changes, someone out there is going
to do something stupid.
Thus, the compounding effect of rejected militia demands by policy-makers,
the mass media and the public at large could eventually lead Wayne to
reject political participation entirely and more closely reflect the views
currently held by their former commander.
Discussion: Alienation, Violence and the Michigan Militia
Finifter noted that varying levels of powerlessness may not only be
associated with different degrees of participation, but with different
types of participation as well. Under his typology, as individuals with
high levels of normlessness face increasingly high levels of powerlessness,
they shift away from appropriate modes of political participation and
closer to open 'revolution'. Were Wayne to shift towards greater levels of
political powerlessness, he would be more likely to engage in the types of
behavior associated with the upper-left cell of Finifter's typology:
withdrawal and revolution. Such as shift would obviously make the
possibility for violent confrontation more likely. Finifter explicitly
recognized the danger of political violence that could result from such
we would expect that the type of threat to orderly system change
represented by revolutionary movements will be correspondingly rare, unless
large numbers of people are drawn from the lower left and upper right
quadrants into the upper left.
If the risks of violence increase as
political powerlessness is heightened, we may want to reconsider political
strategies specifically intended to stigmatize the Wayne/VanHuizen faction
of the Michigan Militia or other militia groups that share their worldview
and their desire to engage the political system through traditional means.
Strategies designed to shut out militia groups from the mainstream
political process may, in certain cases, heighten the perceived political
powerlessness of militia members and increase the likelihood of violent or
Efforts to alienate the militia movement from the mainstream were clearly
seen in the months following the Oklahoma City bombing and were notably
present in the 1996 election campaign. A number of Congressional
candidates were harshly criticized by both their political opponents and
the media for holding meetings, attending events or communicating with
members of militia groups. For example, one candidate in Montana was
criticized for attending the Freedom Rendezvous '96, an event attended by
militia members, while another Republican candidate in Colorado was accused
by his Republican primary opponent of being 'very strongly backed by the
During the 1996 campaign, these criticisms from
opposing candidates, who had an obvious incentive to tie their opponents to
unpopular militia groups, were often bolstered by the efforts of non-profit
groups working in opposition to the militia movement. In the view of many
of these 'anti-militia' groups, any communication between political figures
and militia members gives militias 'credibility they don't deserve' and
strengthens the 'patriot' movement. In the words of the staff director
for one of the many groups outspoken in its opposition to the militia
These groups seek to enter the mainstream by attaching
themselves to legitimate political figures they create a false impression
of political support by using the political process to manufacture an image
In the case of the Michigan Militia at least,
strategies of stigmatization reduce the effectiveness, or eliminate the
opportunity, for militia members to participate in traditional political
activities like voter organization or meeting with their elected
representatives. In such a climate of criticism, even written
communication in response to a militia group's concerns is potentially
politically damaging and, thus, likely to be avoided.
In the wake of the tragic events in Oklahoma City, these criticisms
undoubtedly had the effect of further stigmatizing militia views and
reducing the number of Members of Congress and state legislators who were
openly responsive to some of the militia members' concerns. While such a
reaction is understandable, we must recognize that in some cases the effort
to stigmatize militia members may come at a price.
With traditional forms
of participation closed-off, militia members may turn to other strategies
to control the government. These strategies fall under the 'threat' or
'revolution' phases articulated by Norm Olson and, in contrast to the
accepted and traditional forms of participation, are more likely to result
in violent activity or terrorism. Jeffrey Kaplan warns of the
consequences of 'mutual deligitimization', a process by which radical
groups are pushed to the fringes not only by their own loss of confidence
in the prevailing regime but by efforts 'to anathematize the discourse of
the radical right' by governmental and non-governmental groups. As Kaplan
writes, the 'marginalization of right wing discourse leaves the adherent
with only two options: to withdraw into the milieu of the radical right, or
to resort to the 'propaganda of the deed' to make his beliefs felt'. It
is exactly this 'propaganda of the deed' which we hope to avoid.
Director of the Washington Coalition Against Censorship, Barbara Dority,
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