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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.

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.”

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.


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