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After IRS scandal: Right-wing fear of government isn't paranoid

Whatever the motivations for the IRS targeting conservative groups, it has drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum. Liberals also worry the scandal will feed right-wing paranoia of government. But for conservatives, fear of federal agencies is rooted in history, not hysteria.

By Nicole HemmerOp-ed contributor / May 17, 2013

Ousted IRS chief Steven Miller testifies on Capitol Hill, May 17, before the House Ways and Means Committee hearing on the extra scrutiny the IRS gave tea party and other conservative groups that applied for tax-exempt status. Op-ed contributor Nicole Hemmer writes: '[A]s conservatives (as well as many on the left) have been constantly reminded...power is never neutral.'

J. Scott Applewhite/AP

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Last week’s revelation that the Internal Revenue Service targeted conservative groups was met with near universal disapproval. The IRS singled out organizations with words like "tea party" and "patriot" in their name for scrutiny. In the words of Treasury officials, this focus was clearly “inappropriate.”

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What’s less clear is whether the IRS’s motivations were partisan or practical. Were they deliberately trying to stifle conservative voices? Or were they simply using a shortcut to weed out new political groups who don’t meet tax-exempt status? Whatever the motivations, the results have drawn condemnation from across the political spectrum. But criticisms from the left have also been tinged with concern about how the episode would bolster the conservative argument against big government.

Many liberals worried the IRS scandal would feed what one Democratic aide called “the right-wing paranoia that the government is out to get them.” MSNBC host Chris Matthews grumbled recently, "They always expect the worst." But for conservatives, fear of federal agencies is rooted in history, not hysteria.

Fifty years ago this month, journalists Donald Janson and Bernard Eismann published “The Far Right,” a catalogue of conservative organizations across America. Raising the alarm about the coming conservative threat was something of a cottage industry in the early 1960s. “The Far Right” would share shelf-space with books like “The Radical Right” and “Danger on the Right.” But what separated “The Far Right” from the rest was its revelation of the Reuther Memorandum.

Commissioned by Attorney General Robert Kennedy and penned by labor leader Victor Reuther, the 24-page memo detailed “possible Administration policies and programs to combat the radical right.”

Reuther defined the “radical right” as “bounded on the left by Senator Goldwater and on the right by [John Birch Society founder] Robert Welch.” And he suggested plenty of ways for the government to curtail the right’s influence, from putting conservatives on the attorney general’s subversive list to using the Federal Communications Commission to limit their airtime.

But the administration’s real power, Reuther argued, lay with the IRS. Conservative media and organizations needed money to function. Therefore, “action to dam up these funds may be the quickest way to turn the tide” against right-wing groups.

He called for revocation of organizations’ tax-exempt status, a tactic similar to the approach which the IRS is currently under fire for possibly employing. Reuther also suggested the IRS investigate corporations that advertised in right-wing media, contending they were peddling propaganda rather than selling products.

Finally, Reuther hinted conservative donors and media personalities should be audited, noting “there is the big question whether [they] are themselves complying with the tax laws.”

While it is unclear whether the memo served as the basis for policy, during the Kennedy administration the IRS cracked down on “ideological organizations” and the FCC targeted conservative broadcasters.

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