Stupid is as Stupid Does – IRS Edition

                How quickly the second Obama administration has become scandal-plagued is astounding. Unfortunately, scandals seem to be commonplace in the second term of our presidents. In my humble opinion the controversy with the most potential to permanently damage his ability to govern is the IRS scandal. The IRS is one of the most feared departments in our federal government. The idea that individuals in that department may use that fear to unfairly promote their political agenda is terrifying. It is also taxing the trust people have in that government and thus the legitimacy the government needs. What has occurred at the IRS is still being investigated and I am not going to draw conclusions about who is responsible until more evidence comes out. But needless to say, this controversy will have my attention until all of the facts come out.

                One thought comes to my mind whenever I think of this scandal. That thought is, What were the IRS officials thinking? I have little doubt that most of them likely had progressive political leanings. Yet, they had to realize the tremendous risk they were taking and the damaging consequences of getting caught. If caught, these officials may not only lose their job, or even go to prison, but they would also greatly damage the causes they espoused. What can give the members of the Tea Party more sympathy than the knowledge they were unfairly targeted for their beliefs? Previously (or prior to this scandal) when I heard conservative groups belly ache about being mistreated by the IRS, I thought that they were just playing a victim card. Now I know that they were indeed victimized. I am now hearing stories of conservative individuals who believe themselves to be singled out for audits because of their political support for Romney. Given what I now know I dare not automatically dismiss their complaints. These IRS officials damaged themselves and their own political causes with their foolish actions.

                I have a curiosity about why people do foolish things. I have blogged about the stupid things people do without thinking before. So I am very interested in considering how these IRS officials decided to engage in such actions. I do not believe that they were ignorant of the political implications of the names “Tea Party” and “Patriot.” They may have told themselves that they were being politically neutral, but it is hard for me to believe that deep down inside  they did not know that conservative groups were being disproportionately punished. Furthermore, while I do not know how high up this goes in the bureaucracy, clearly this was not just one or two individuals. Why did not someone at some point stop and say, “What are we doing? This is not fair.”? Somehow many of these individuals had on intellectual, or possibly ideological, blinders, allowing them to make the mistakes that have been documented at the IRS.

                In an effort to speculate about what may have occurred to produce the cognitive dissonance that allowed for this dysfunctional approach at the IRS, I draw upon some of my previous work on cultural progressives, particularity what I discuss in my book (co-written with David Williamson) What Motivates Cultural Progressives. We found that one of the stereotypes cultural progressive activists have towards members of the Christian right was the image of corrupt leaders manipulating ignorant and foolish followers. Some of the respondents were even sympathetic to the members of the Christian Right but felt that they suffered from being indoctrinated and fooled by the more evil leaders of the movement.

                I am not sure if the IRS officials are cultural progressive activists, but they may share the stereotype of those activists in that members of conservative political groups – such as Tea Party and Patriot groups – are relatively ignorant and being manipulated by the wicked leaders of that group. When I listen to critics of conservative social movements, I often hear this argument about members of these groups being manipulated by more powerful individuals. If the IRS officials have similar beliefs then they may not see those conservative groups as legitimate groups. They may perceive them as mere fronts for the interest of certain conservative political and social agents. Their relative willingness to give a pass to progressive groups can be linked to a belief that those progressive groups do represent the desires of the members of those groups, who they do not see as manipulated by evil leaders, and thus can be legitimate social welfare groups. This type of differentiating between conservative and progressive groups can account for the distinct ways the groups were treated.

                My speculation is not about whether the Tea Party and Patriot groups should have undergone such speculation. Personally I have my suspicion about the entire notion of these types of groups being “social welfare” groups that deserve tax exempt status. But to be fair there are progressive groups that also seem to be misusing this status. The disturbing aspect of this entire affair is the clearly unequal treatment that conservative and progressive groups received. My speculation, based on results from my previous work, help explain that unequal treatment in a way where the IRS officials may believe they are being fair in their differential assessment, when clearly what they did was not fair or ethical. As more information comes out, I will be interested to see if some of that information confirms or refutes my speculation.

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  • Adam Shields

    While I am not debating that what was done (at least as far as what we know) was wrong. It was not to the point of actually inappropriately denying the status to any conservative group. There were inappropriate amount of questioning, but all conservative groups thus far identified were approved. So if they were trying to do more than intimidate, they didn’t do a good job.

    I have done 50-60 applications for 501c3 (a slightly different exemption) and there are widely different amounts of investigation that has gone into my applications. Depends an aweful lot how interested the person reviewing the application is in making things go slow. Some have taken 1 months, some as much as 9. Fundamentally, there is very little different about the applications.

    • georgeyancey

      I think the complaint is not that the organizations are rejected. If they are rejected then they can protest it. The complaint has been that decisions have been delayed for up to three years. That sort of limbo keeps the organizations from having their status just as badly as if they are rejected. Nonetheless I will be watching for more evidence to come out before coming to a final conclusion on what I think about it.