Liberals Should Worry About the IRS Scandal

Anyone who cares about democracy should be disturbed that "respect the Constitution" now sounds Republican

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It turns out that the Tea Party activists who’ve been ranting about IRS abuses of power were on to something. The taxman was engaged in ideological profiling. Conservatives are apoplectic. And their outrage, even if exaggerated for political effect, is justified.

Liberals, though, should also be outraged. First, this kind of profiling is indefensible and even dangerous. Second, the scandal plays into some of the worst stereotypes about government – that it’s overweening, prying, ham-handed, untrustworthy. As right-wingers now relish pointing out, the IRS is the agency responsible for enforcing key parts of the Affordable Care Act. If you’re a fan of Obamacare, the timing is terrible.

But the main reason liberals should be outraged – indeed, embarrassed – is that the scandal reveals just how much ground they’ve lost in American politics in recent decades. Most of the media coverage has focused on the fact that IRS officials used “Tea Party” and “patriot” as their search terms of choice in targeting political groups over their non-profit status. Overlooked are some of the other shortcuts, phrases like “making America a better place to live” or “criticizing how the country is being run” or “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

It’s bad enough for progressives that the word “patriot” in 2013 so obviously signifies “conservative.” But it’s downright damning that talk of social and economic reform and of the Constitution itself can now also be considered right-wing.

(MORE: The Real IRS Scandal)

Things got this way because from Reagan to Gingrich to Fox News and the Tea Party, right-wingers have systematically and relentlessly adopted the language and iconography of American patriotism. They’ve claimed the flag and the history of the founding of the Republic as their own.

During that time, left-wingers responded too often by walking away from the contest. They laughed off the shameless jingoism of conservatives. They made patriotism ironic, the way Colbert’s giant eagle and giant flag are meant to be ridiculous. When the Tea Party first came on the scene, progressives rolled their eyes at all the tricorner hats and colonial garb. They didn’t ask themselves how they might don the mantle of love of country. In a sense, then, those hapless IRS bureaucrats in Cincinnati were performing their questionable task in an unquestionably rational way: liberals just don’t proclaim patriotism very much any more, so it was plausible to conclude that any organization using such rhetoric while seeking tax-exempt status must be a conservative outfit.

(MORE: The IRS Was Wrong — But Many Political Groups Should Not Be Tax-Exempt)

This is trouble. When words of the nation’s creedal origins and civic identity become mere partisan code, it’s bad not only for the party that no longer has access to them; it’s bad for the nation. Anyone who cares about civic education and the integrity of democracy has to be disturbed that in the word association game of contemporary politics, “Defend the Bill of Rights” and “Respect the Constitution” sound Republican.

The answer for liberals is not to start sprinkling “patriot” and “Constitution” and “flag” throughout their materials. It’s to connect the story of their agenda to the deeper story of this country’s arc and aspirations, the way one successful progressive, Barack Obama, has done all his career – and the way effective conservatives do today. American politics is a continuous argument about who can best redeem the founding promise. When liberals join that argument, they might benefit. America certainly will.

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