Auditing the Tea Party: One style of American repression

Another example of the old joke: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you:

The revelation that the Internal Revenue Service targeted groups with “Tea Party” or “Patriot” in their names for strict scrutiny tells us absolutely nothing good about either the Tea Party movement or the government its adherents distrust so much.  Expect more to come out, but right now we know that at least 75 groups with suspicious names (as above) were flagged by IRS employees for investigation.  Their applications for tax-exempt status [501(c)4] were delayed, and the applicants were subject to unusually intrusive questions about donors and intent that violated IRS policy–and maybe the law.

This is not to say that current policies about tax-exemption are wise or serve democracy well (see Matthew Yglesias), particularly in the brief post-Citizens United era.  But the whole notion of liberal [yes, liberal] democracy is equivalent treatment for groups and citizens regardless of their views; government isn’t supposed to pick sides.  Establishing a special category for Tea Party groups, allegedly instigated by low level employees, was apparently known about up the chain of command for at least two years.  This should be disturbing–but not necessarily surprising.  There is, as we know, a long historical record of our Federal government going after groups and individuals that someone in power thought were dangerous and unAmerican.  The list is sure to include at least some that you despise, for example (a very partial list): the Communist Party, Daniel Ellsberg, the Black Panthers, the Ku Klux Klan, pacifists during wartime, journalists of all sorts, Martin Luther King, and Clark Kerr.  But the democratic ideal is always for more debate and more sunlight.

Well, we live in a fallen world.

The IRS has apologized, promising a full investigation–and even if they don’t deliver, be sure that the Congress will.  Whatever additional information surfaces, it will be amplified and promoted by activists and elected officials interested in discrediting the Obama administration–and government in general.  Politically, it’s worlds better than repealing health insurance reform (again) or producing an honest budget.

The IRS harassment of Tea Party groups that we know about so far, however inexcusable, is mild compared to what many many other activists have suffered. This doesn’t mean, however, that it doesn’t matter or wasn’t damaging.

It’s important to remember how such harassment works.  Minimally, it raises the costs of political engagement for people someone in government doesn’t like.  In this case, Tea Partiers are forced to spend more time and money doing something that the IRS effectively made easier for people with different political views.  Time that could have been spent developing coherent analyses, political strategies, or reaching out to potential supporters is spent, instead, talking with a lawyer or accountant (generally on the clock) about filling out forms and requests for information.  At a moment when the Tea Party was still effectively mobilizing, partisans were distracted by something else.

It can be worse.  Fooling around with the IRS is no fun for anyone, and such experiences can dissuade many people from future politics altogether.  The intent of such harassment is to separate the committed hard core from the marginally engaged who might sometimes join them.  It’s the latter group that matters most, most of the time.

Activists on the left, unsympathetic to Tea Party causes, should be particularly sensitive to such harassment.  They should remember that a bureaucracy that gets away with going after foolish or unpopular causes can easily turn on them next.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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14 Responses to Auditing the Tea Party: One style of American repression

  1. John Krinsky says:

    Here’s the question, David: I can see this more with “Patriot” than with “Tea Party,” since so many of the Tea Party groups were explicitly involved in electoral political work and were better known for this — as in fielding “Tea Party candidates” in primaries, etc.– that it would be entirely plausible to wonder whether their applications for (c)(4) status, as a group, were at all legit. I am involved with a (c)(3) with a (c)(4) affiliate, and both are utterly scrupulous in making sure that their electoral utterances are minimal, in large part because they’re always concerned that they will be scrutinized. Nothing in the press, at least, suggested that the Tea Party groups were being anything like as careful, and we don’t really know why many groups withdrew their applications. The National Review, clearly, thinks it knows, but I’m not sure it’s a good source for certainty.

    • I’m surprised you would support profiling by group name. I’m certainly prepared to believe that some Tea Party groups violated the laws governing tax exempt status by engaging heavily in elections. To date, however this story has generated reports of IRS persecutions, not prosecutions. Even if an IRS stop and frisk based on the most apparent characteristics of a group–its name–found some violations of the tax code, it still doesn’t justify this kind of conduct. (As I understand it, police stop and frisks based on profiles in NYC sometimes turn up outstanding warrants and weapons, no?)

  2. John Krinsky says:

    I think you may be engaging in a false equivalency. I don’t think this is the same as stop and frisk or even, really, profiling, as we think about it when we talk about racial profiling. There’s not a lot you can do about being black if you’re driving while black. There’s a lot you can do about what you call yourself. If I were to call my group, say, “Hands off Obama”, I’d expect a higher level of scrutiny from the IRS when applying for (c)(4) status. This has nothing to do with long-standing, institutionalized racist practices, and here’s where I think the equivalence breaks down completely. Moreover, police stops do turn up weapons in a minuscule number of cases, but the vast majority of the arrests are for pot possession, outstanding warrants, etc. But nobody justifies the stops and frisks on that basis–not even Bloomberg. Here, there’s a simple relationship between what’s being looked for and what’s likely (or unlikely, if you will) to be found, namely, violation of the conditions of tax exemption. We should, frankly, investigate churches for this, too, if we’re going to have these regulations at all. I’ve just finished teaching Jennifer Earl’s “Tanks, Tear Gas, and Taxes” and this would certainly fall under “unobservable channeling by state agents tied to national elites” in her framework. And it’s hard to say that it isn’t some form of “repression.” But on another level, repression is simply what states do (that’s the whole monopoly over legitimate coercion thing), and given the close links between the questions about (c)(4) status and the mobilization of 9/12 and Tea Party groups around the election, the question of whether this sort of channeling is legitimate ought to be raised, rather than taking the right’s talking points at face value. As I said, the groups on the left with which I am associated and which have (c)(4) status are scrupulous in letting themselves be “channeled”; whether this is a Good Thing or not for the movement, that’s the choice they’ve made. If they were to make other choices–and be fed by huge amounts of cash by, say, unions or other big Democratic donors–I’d expect them to expect more scrutiny. But this isn’t profiling of the stop-and-frisk variety. And it’s not the kind of repression the left gets. Moreover, while this story has generated IRS “persecutions, not prosecutions”, I’m not impressed: many groups simply withdrew their IRS applications for (c)(4) status, whether that’s because they were being harassed, or whether that’s because they decided that they were likely to be caught out; moreover, you wouldn’t likely see prosecutions unless groups refused to pay tax penalties levied on them because of status violations. As it happens, it seems as if status was simply delayed in several case (I’m still not clear as to how many). I’m not outraged yet…I could get there, but I’m not there yet by a long shot. I’m almost more upset at liberals at the moment…repressive tolerance, etc.

  3. John Krinsky says:

    And a quick addendum, since I’m actually supposed to be working….If the IRS found that across many inquiries, 90 percent turned up nothing relevant, and more than 99 percent turned up no actionable violations, then the singling out of groups based on these names should stop. That’s what happens with stop and frisk in NYC, but the government still seems to think that it’s worth it (by some unknown calculus) to harass black and Latino youth. My understanding is that the IRS has stopped this practice anyhow, perhaps according to the rational-connection-to-goals logic that seems missing in NYC. This isn’t to say that racial profiling would be a Good Thing if it turned up more arrests, but it is to say that it is, in fact, impossible to defend on any rational grounds, again, largely because it’s driven by histories of institutionalized racism and never really had a rational basis to begin with. I’m quite sure that the same thing isn’t the case here.

    • John, There’s a substantial difference between patting down a 17 year old boy on the way to school and demanding more documents from an organized group. Sure. But it’s still profiling.

      It’s still wrong for a government agency to assume a propensity to law-breaking based on a group’s political ideology. You can’t start by thinking that the name, “Tea Party” means violating the IRS rules–especially in an area of law where many many many groups shade the lines on political engagement (stipulating that the groups you work with are incredibly careful).

      You can argue that the whole (c)4 designation if problematic for groups with political concerns, but that should then be applied to ALL groups with political concerns, not just those on the other side. (Maybe new information will show that groups on the left faced similar scrutiny in the last few years?)

      In the meantime, as the spate of hearings about the IRS dominate the news in the next few months, do you really want to be the person arguing that such key word searching is almost okay because Tea Partiers cared about elections?

  4. I see this as an example of an institution expending extra resources to investigate groups that have an ideological reason to break the law. Many law enforcement agencies pay special attention to, for example, pro-marijuana legalization groups. The IRS seemed here to have reason to believe that the ideology of Tea Party groups would try to subvert the IRS’s mission.

    Is this profiling? Perhaps – but it’s certainly not surprising profiling. We can’t erect a wall between political and nonpolitical activity, after all. Everything’s political to someone, and if it’s worth doing, it’s worth arguing about.

    • After all, in the Tea Party’s ideology, the collection of taxes (the IRS’s central mission) is inherently political – and, to them, liberal.

      • There’s all kinds of confusion associated with these 501 (c) 3 & 4 groups, and you can construe virtually anything as political. The point is that the IRS should not profile based on the content of those political beliefs.
        Now, you raise another really interesting question:If the groups targeted had supported legalization of marijuana (in some social welfare kind of way), would there have been any outcry in Washington DC against this kind of profiling????

  5. John Krinsky says:

    To ask the question is to answer it. I suppose that my lack of outrage over this lies in my view that the left has already been subject to much worse repression than delays in (c)(4) status. But again, I think that this was probably a more clumsy way of sorting through likely groups that deserved more scrutiny, rather than the witch hunt the right is portraying it as. There were other groups–many others, apparently–who were also asked for more documentation. It’s hard to know what’s the real problem because there are still fairly few details out there. Do liberal groups simply assume that the bureaucracy got mucked up, and don’t kick up a fuss, while Tea Partiers think there are conspiracies everywhere? I don’t know. But the REAL problem, in all of this–as several commentators have indicated–is that the IRS left the big fish alone and have let (c)(4)s do end-runs around what few campaign finance laws we still have in place. Again, instead of saying that this was unequivocally right, I’d rather say that I’m still unconvinced that it was unequivocally wrong. Maybe dumb, but not altogether wrong. If you have no idea what you’re looking for, you’ll rarely find anything. And “profiling” is one way to do it. But I stand by my claim that not all profiling is created equal…

    • That large groups like Crossroads and Americans for Prosperity seem to have escaped serious scrutiny is a big problem. That you are prepared to accept slanted bureaucratic procedures because the left has endured worse is also a problem. (You know, of course, that conspiracy theories are not limited to the right.) And that conservatives are particularly incensed about these IRS departures from neutrality while they had not raised a peep about previous efforts to go after groups they might not like as well is yet another problem.

      • John Krinsky says:

        I think it’s because I start from the problematic assumption that politics and the operations of the state are never neutral. Is it problematic from a kind of Kantian point of view? Absolutely. We have no argument there!

  6. John Krinsky says:

    And here, Bloomberg News (perhaps wanting to defuse the general climate of scandal?) reports the following–which certainly didn’t help the head of the IRS keep his job:

    According to the IRS, the word searches were one method of pooling groups that had political purposes for greater scrutiny. Among these were Democratic-leaning groups (one of which, unlike any of the Tea Party groups was denied tax-exempt status). My big feeling here is that there isn’t as much inequity as there is GOP sound and fury. And it’s been my feeling from the start that liberals will never fight back. David, you’re right that I have somewhat relativistic morals here, but I believe that politics is a constant struggle and that there is no part of the state that acts utterly neutrally; I’m a Marxist, not a liberal, if I’ve got to wear a label. But look: if the IRS was acting neutrally here–and it seems that at worst, two employees were acting a little too enthusiastically to question TP groups–in pooling both left and right political applicants, there’s nothing in my mind that obviates the use of search terms either way as utterly unacceptable.

  7. John Krinsky says:

    This is actually worth a read.

    I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but I think the general thrust is right, and especially because this is getting so overheated that it does remind me of ACORN to a certain extent.


  8. Dr. Bruce Oppenheimer, a professor of political science at Vanderbilt University, noted that, unlike Nixon’s cover-up culture, the Obama-era IRS blew the whistle on itself and admitted unfair targeting of tea party groups. The acting IRS commissioner resigned Wednesday, and the Obama administration has vowed to investigate and fire anyone who broke the law.

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