If you took a social studies class in the past 30 years, there’s no way you could avoid knowing chapter and verse about McCarthyism, J. Edgar Hoover’s abuses at the FBI, and President Nixon’s “enemies list.”
The paranoid abuse of government power in the latter half of the last century led to a healthy skepticism of federal leadership, and justifiably so. While corruption itself is nothing new, it became more visible in the television era. Today we rightfully look at those events as low points in American history.
I hope future civics students will study the current IRS scandal alongside the McCarthy hearings and Watergate. It’s an abuse of power that deserves to reside in the history books under the headings “infamous,” “scandalous” and “undemocratic.”
A fair system of revenue collection is essential to the functioning of government. But the IRS, by its own admission, has not been fair. It systematically targeted conservative organizations with names including words like “Tea Party,” “9/12” and “Patriot.” These organizations were made to jump through tedious and unnecessary bureaucratic hoops, expending their resources and preventing them from engaging in lawful activities.
And, oh, by the way: These groups just happened to be aligned against the party in power, the party that controls the IRS.
The whole thing stinks. It’s undemocratic. It’s an affront to the tradition of government agencies maintaining neutrality in political matters. And it undermines public confidence in government.
It’s often been said that the power to tax is the power to destroy. Can there be any doubt that the differential scrutiny applied to these groups was intended to destroy, or seriously weaken, the president’s political opponents?
Despite the political dynamics, however, this scandal should outrage everyone from the far left to the far right. A government that can harass one side can just as easily harass the other — it’s just an election away. So I expect to see my friends on the left (as well as the right) stand up and decry this scandal in the most definitive possible way.
Yet I suspect this one will not make the history books alongside McCarthyism and Nixonian skullduggery. Time may prove me wrong, but I believe that many who write history books are also sympathetic with those in power. As with the mainstream press, the referees are hardly neutral.
And to those on the left who have maintained silence so far, you need to take a look in the mirror and ask: “If my side is using these tactics, and I’m not standing up to call it out, what have I become?”
You now have your own Nixon.
Rob Witwer is a former member of the Colorado House of Representatives and co-author of the book, “The Blueprint: How Democrats Won Colorado and Why Republicans Everywhere Should Care.”