Michael G. Franc:
Many have compared the recent scandals to past presidential trespasses, such as Richard Nixon’s wiretapping of political “enemies” or Lyndon Johnson’s having the IRS audit them to silence or otherwise intimidate them. Those analogies are important, but mostly because understanding them properly teaches us what is new, and potentially more alarming, about the current IRS scandal.
The enemies list à la Obama, which targets entire classes of people or organizations, is more dangerous to a free and open society because it paves the way for more systemic and widespread abuses by government. It is spawned by an insidious philosophy that discounts the intrinsic value and uniqueness of individuals. Group traits such as ideology, religious beliefs, occupation, military status, and even gun ownership trump individual qualities and come to define the citizen in the eyes of the increasingly intrusive government.
And there is a pattern here. Today’s IRS scandal reminds us of the embarrassing revelations that emerged in April 2009, shortly after Mr. Obama assumed office. The Department of Homeland Security had sent a confused report on “rightwing extremism” to sheriffs and police departments nationwide. According to the report, the “extremists” under scrutiny included not only those who belonged to overtly racist groups but also, as the Washington Times reported, “groups that reject federal authority in favor of state or local authority” as well as “groups and individuals that are dedicated to a single issue, such as opposition to abortion or immigration.”
Similarly, the new revelations indicate that IRS officials targeted tea-party and other conservative outfits solely because they fit the profile of being “political action type organizations involved in limiting/expanding Government” or “educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.” Golly!
The identity politics practiced by these agencies challenges the very essence of our Founding. The understanding of liberty that prevailed at the Constitutional Convention began with an acceptance of the “inalienable rights” we possess as individuals. These rights inhere in us as human beings and predate the creation of any government. Our liberty is not apportioned to us according to the whims of government officials. Government, rather, exists to defend the liberties we already possess.
The nature of that liberty, moreover, presumes that we are free to plot our life’s trajectory, define our dreams as we choose, and act accordingly. We are not bound by predestination as defined by our race, gender, family lineage, occupation, wealth or poverty, world view, or any other criterion deemed important by the government.
I remember Watergate, and I am sure most of you do as well. It was one of the major formative events of my political identity and beliefs. But Watergate wasn’t a single event, it was a process that connected a series of events.
More than anything Watergate was about the abuse of power. I believe in the rule of law, and the abuse of power is incompatible with that belief. It’s bad enough when a badge-heavy cop violates people’s rights, but is several magnitudes worse when the law-breaking starts at the top.
Until recently my biggest fear with the Obama presidency was incompetence. I feared that more than corruption because we have survived corrupt presidents many times in the past, but most of them were competent crooks.
Recently I have come to fear something else much more than Obama’s corrupt incompetence. No previous administration has been so eager to use the power of the state against political opponents. That’s the definition of authoritarianism.
It really can happen here.