Be afraid. Be very afraid.
That’s the message coming from Republicans as they warn Americans about President Biden’s “shadow army” of gun-toting, freedom-crushing … tax auditors?
“Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents will be coming for you,” warned House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) last month. “How long until Democrats send the IRS ‘SWAT team’ after your kids’ lemonade stand?” wondered GOP chair Ronna McDaniel.
While this rhetoric may seem overheated, it’s effective. According to a recent Morning Consult/Politico poll, voters support every major provision of the Inflation Reduction Act except one: $80 billion in new funding for the IRS.
Indeed, the IRS hasn’t pleased many people since it was first established during the Civil War. Critics have attacked it for being heavy-handed, inquisitorial, bureaucratic and just too big. Those attacks have resonated with a powerful and persistent anti-statist strain in American political culture.
Republicans, in other words, have history on their side.
But history isn’t destiny, and Democrats eager to defend the agency (or at least its funding) might consider tapping into a different long-standing strain of American political culture: the tradition of fiscal citizenship. Like anti-statism, this tradition tends to surface in tax debates, but to opposite ends — to actually encourage tax collection. Fiscal citizenship urges all Americans to pay their fair share to fund the necessary functions of government and at various moments in history it has won out in this debate between American philosophies.
The task of countering Republican rhetoric won’t be easy, as attacks on the IRS have been remarkably consistent over time. Strikingly, today’s criticism of the agency could have been leveled in almost any American era since the Civil War. In particular, critics have shown a penchant for military metaphors, talking about “armies,” “invasions” and the occasional “strike force” to malign tax collection.