The Internal Revenue Service has been the object of jokes for decades. The one that sticks in my mind, because it's relevant, is Jerry Seinfeld's TV character talking about being called in for a tax audit. "Have you ever been audited?" he asks Elaine. "It's the financial equivalent of a complete rectal examination."
What's funny on TV is not at all funny in real life. The power of the IRS to audit and investigate tax returns is nothing short of life-altering. It's important to place this in context. The IRS targeted conservative political groups and a liberal Jewish group, among others. This "terrible breach of law," as Sen. Harry Reid correctly called it, was uncovered by the U.S. Treasury Inspector General for Tax Administration.
The chilling part is that American citizens exercising the Constitution's First Amendment right to free speech could be harassed and intimidated by the IRS because of their opinions. What needs to be thoroughly vetted is if these unwarranted intrusions were politically motivated (directed from outside the IRS), or if they were overzealous actions by bureaucrats who were blind to political implications.
President Obama fired the acting director of IRS, the Department of Justice has opened a criminal investigation, and the president sent his own chill down the backs of those implicated during a short, televised speech: "I will not tolerate this kind of behavior ... especially in the IRS, given the power that it has and the reach that it has into all of our lives. ... It should not matter what political stripe you're from -- the fact of the matter is, is that the IRS has to operate with absolute integrity."
An important part of the context of the IRS scandal is the knee-jerk partisan atmosphere in which it takes place. Congress has been gridlocked for years, but more important, recent polls show the American people are allowing themselves to become more partisanly divided.
In the May 7 issue of Forbes Magazine, "neuromarketer" Roger Dooley warns about something called "confirmation bias."
"That's the tendency that influences all of us to put more faith in information that agrees with what we already believe, and discount opinions and data that disagree with our beliefs."
In short, when we're in a partisan mode, politicians can manipulate us easier than Jennifer Lopez winking at a guy. But if we allow that to happen, then every scandal will split the public into two camps, and each will believe their partisan bias on the scandal is right.
Dooley advises us: "Be aware of the danger of confirmation bias, and acknowledge that our judgment can be clouded by it."
Donna Brazile is a senior Democratic strategist, a political commentator and contributor to CNN and ABC News.