‘Enemies List,’ Updated
At fault is not Obama personally but his progressive philosophy of government.


Since President Obama entered the Oval Office, federal agencies have harassed entire classes of American citizens. Yet in an insightful post on Real Clear Politics, Ben Domenech suggests that this is different from previous Washington scandals: “The scandals we are talking about in Washington today are not tied to the individual of Barack Obama.” Rather, he argues, the harassment stems from the facts that “the progressive approach to modern governance and policy is inherently flawed and that vast governments are ripe for abuse.” 

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.

Earlier abuses targeted individuals or organizations whose specific actions had incurred the wrath of the powers that be. Criminal and immoral as that harassment was, the criteria that earned one a spot on Nixon’s or LBJ’s enemies list were fundamentally different from the philosophy of group identity guiding the IRS decisions that have landed the Obama administration in the soup.

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.

Lincoln believed ours was the “true system.” “I want every man,” he said, “to have a chance . . . when he may look forward and hope to be a hired laborer this year and the next, work for himself afterward, and finally to hire men to work for him.” Consigning Americans to a preordained fate that flows from group characteristics is the antithesis of this.

The Obama administration’s pervasive adherence to group over individual identity creates a slippery slope that hastens other abuses of government. Favored groups — e.g., unions and “connected” corporations — receive waivers from burdensome laws and regulations, as we have seen since the passage of Obamacare. Favored organizations — environmental groups, for example — need not pay the costs associated with the Freedom of Information Act, while other groups — say, conservative outfits that question the current wisdom concerning the environment — must cover all such costs.

And just as some government agencies find it easy to “connect the dots” between certain conservative viewpoints (belief in limited government) and anti-social and violent behaviors, other agencies find it easy to interpret ordinary business decisions (opening a new facility in a business-friendly right-to-work state) as illegal animus toward favored groups (unions).

The challenge is to make sure ordinary Americans, already skeptical of the federal government and convinced of its incompetence, understand the real significance of the IRS scandal. These illegal acts extend well beyond the president and his White House cronies. They are the natural and predictable consequence of the world view brought to us by the left-of-center political and intellectual establishments. It is an indictment of an entire philosophy of governance and of a flawed understanding of human nature.

And, just as important, Americans must appreciate that an alternative and more appealing view of human nature and of our proper relationship to the government is available for the asking. Let’s make it easy for them to ask.

— Michael G. Franc is vice president of government studies at the Heritage Foundation.