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.
(Page 2 of 2)
When conservatives learned of the memo’s existence in 1963, they began to see their audits and increased regulation as part of a larger effort to silence right-wing voices. Writing about the memo soon after it was made public, the National Review’s editors remarked, “[I]t is chilling to reflect on the fact that the machinery for intimidation, for discretionary harassment, is right there and in perfect running order.”Skip to next paragraph
Gallery Monitor Political Cartoons
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
That machinery – the federal bureaucracy – was conceived by the Progressives (and the goo-goos, their “good government” predecessors) as a haven from political influence rather than a repository of it. They believed that through civil-service reform they could create government without politics.
But as conservatives (as well as many on the left) have been constantly reminded – in battles over the Fairness Doctrine and tax-exempt status and subversive lists – power is never neutral.
In 1971, well before Americans were aware of the Nixon administration’s weaponized bureaucracy, conservative newspaper publisher Eugene Pulliam ran a lengthy ad in the Washington Post to make just this point.
Pulliam argued America had a three-party system: the Republicans, the Democrats, and the Bureaucrats. And the Bureaucrats, he said, were the “strongest and most powerful” because they are accountable to neither politicians nor public opinion.
Pulliam had a point. There were limits to what Nixon could make the IRS or the FBI do (and it’s hard to imagine a president trying harder than Nixon to make the bureaucracy bend to his will). Nor could the Reuther Memorandum transform the federal government into an efficient conservative-crushing machine. But it made clear that the right couldn’t count on the neutrality of the bureaucracy.
Yet the current IRS scandal demonstrates how far conservatives have come in 50 years. In 1963, the Reuther Memorandum gained traction in conservative media but nowhere else. It barely merited a mention beyond right-wing publications and broadcasts.
Today, the IRS story – whether it turns out the IRS had partisan intentions in discriminating against right-wing groups or not – is at the center of national debate. As it should be. However Americans may disagree about the role of government, the dangers of politicized bureaucracy are not necessarily the fever-dreams of a paranoid mind but appear to be one of the troubling realities of modern governance.
Nicole Hemmer is a research associate at the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. She also teaches history at the University of Miami.