Two Broader Lessons of the IRS/Tea Party "Scandal"

By Mike Dorf

Today I'll discuss two ways in which the IRS "scandal" reflects broader features of contemporary American politics.  I'll follow up tomorrow with a post that asks the question whether there is any realistic prospect of changing the policy by which the IRS interprets the exemption from taxation for 501(c)(4) organizations that are "operated exclusively for the promotion of social welfare" to mean organizations that are operated "primarily" for the promotion of the social welfare.  (Hint: The answer will be no.)

(1) Separate Factoverses and False Equivalence

Even judged only by the comments on one of Professor Buchanan's posts on the IRS/Tea Party "scandal" last week, I am reminded that Americans believe they are entitled not only to their own opinions but to their own facts.  Those informed by right-wing media insist that where there's smoke there's fire, that Tea Party activists were harassed by the IRS and its jack-booted thugs, that the motives of the harassers were nakedly partisan, and that responsibility in the sense of knowledge and perhaps even direction must have come from the top levels of the Obama Administration, probably the President himself.  Those informed by progressive media doubt that there was necessarily even any low-level wrongdoing, with the focus on names like "Tea Party" and "Patriots" simply reflecting the flood of applications, that left-of-center groups faced similar scrutiny, that there is no evidence whatsoever of Presidential complicity, and that the real scandal was the failure of the IRS to subject the truly powerful groups that abused 501(c)(4) status, like Karl Rove's American Crossroads, to scrutiny.

None of us is without priors, of course, and long-time readers of this blog will realize that I come closer to the second view, but I'd at least like to think that the reason has something to do with actual facts.  I'm perfectly happy to say that I've seen nothing sufficiently definitive to rule out high-level Administration involvement or to rule out the possibility that one or more of the Cincinnati-based IRS staff did act out of an improper partisan motive.  Sometimes where there's smoke there's fire, but sometimes where there's smoke there are only mirrors.  Thus, I will continue to use the term "scandal" in quotation marks, not to mock the notion that the IRS scrutiny of Tea Party groups is scandalous, but simply to withhold judgment about what, to this point, looks mostly like a case of ineffective management of overworked staff who were in over their heads.

Even that stance probably concedes too much to the right-wing view, however.  Of course people of all political stripes can and sometimes do exaggerate or outright fabricate in order to support a position they hold for ideological reasons.  But we live in an era in which the propensities towards making stuff up are not evenly divided across the political spectrum.  In 2004, Karl Rove was talking specifically about foreign policy when he told Ron Suskind that Suskind was part of the "reality-based community" as though that were a problem, but the statement has broader resonance.  Whether it's the belief that the Affordable Care Act would create death panels, that man-made global warming is a hoax, that Barack Obama is a devout Muslim (and an atheist!), or that permitting same-sex couples to marry will contribute in any way to the deterioration of opposite-sex marriage, Americans who are active on the political right have demonstrated less interest in conforming their views to evidence about the world than do other Americans.  Again, that is not to deny that all people exhibit confirmation bias to a substantial degree.  It's simply to deny that we all do it to the same degree.

Nonetheless, when one combines the pre-existing tendency of the news media in America to conflate "even-handedness" with objectivity, with the last decade's decimation of budgets for actual investigative journalism, it is inevitable that reports on the IRS/Tea Party "scandal" will feature roughly equal doses of conservatives claiming that they are the victims of a witch hunt and liberals saying that if so, their team wasn't holding the pitchforks.

(2)  Preemptive Counterproductive Appeasement

Meanwhile, the President's response and the inevitable counter-response also fit a familiar pattern. From the moment that the IRS/Tea Party story broke, the President has expressed outrage and has already fired the acting head of the IRS.  He thus aims to show the American people that he shares the basic world-view of the people on the right who are outraged, but wants to chart a somewhat more moderate course.  Hmm, where have we seen this before?

Oh, I don't know.  How about in every single budget negotiation with Republicans in Congress?  For reminders, I'd refer readers to Tom Tomorrow's brilliant "Middleman" cartoons, like this one on the 2011 debt ceiling negotiations, or this one on the sequester that arose out of them.  Like Charlie Brown thinking that surely this time Lucy won't pull away the football, President Obama believes that if only he shows himself to be a reasonable compromiser willing to meet his opponents substantially more than halfway, then they will respond in good faith.