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May 5, 2005
News Analysis: The Importance of Ideology
Joseph J. Thorndike

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Why do Americans support the Bush tax cuts? Since 2001 liberals have been trying to answer that question, desperately seeking a path out of the political wilderness. After all, it's easy to understand why rich people want to repeal the estate tax. But why do average taxpayers endorse that kind of regressive reform?

An old-school Marxist might suggest that false consciousness is to blame: Blinded by an ascendant conservative ideology, the oppressed majority are unable to discern the instruments of their own subjugation. Instead, they embrace unrealistic assessments of their future prospects. As one of the characters in the historical musical 1776 observed: "Most men with nothing would rather preserve the possibility of becoming rich than face the reality of being poor."

False consciousness has gone out of style, even among left-wing academics. But a watered-down version has fared better in liberal circles. Acknowledging the power of conservative ideology, it stresses the transformative power of information. Under that rubric, popular support for the Bush tax cuts is really just a big mistake. Americans are confused about the nature and effect of Republican tax reforms. If we could just set them straight, progressive taxation would emerge triumphant.

Perhaps. Except that Americans already understand their economic predicament -- or parts of it, at least. Analyzing poll data from 2002, Princeton University political scientist Larry M. Bartels has reported that almost three-quarters of Americans recognize that inequality is on the rise. Perhaps even more important, most people in this group are troubled by the trend.

Even more striking, Americans seem predisposed to favor progressive tax reform. Fewer than 15 percent of survey respondents believe the rich pay too much, Bartels reports in his article for the March issue of Perspectives on Politics. And more than half think the rich pay too little. Finally, more than 45 percent say the poor are overtaxed. Fertile ground for progressive reform, right?

Well, no. Most people troubled by inequality and critical of the tax burden nonetheless support the Bush tax cuts. The phenomenon is most evident -- and puzzling -- around the estate tax. "How is it," Bartels asked last year in an article for The American Prospect, "that so many ordinary Americans are troubled by escalating economic inequality, say that they want to shift the federal tax burden from the middle class and the poor to the rich, yet favor the repeal of a tax that is only paid by the heirs of the very wealthy?"

Good question. The answer lies in the connection between inequality and tax policy. Most Americans don't see it. Generally speaking, they aren't convinced that tax policy would help resolve the nation's most pernicious economic trend. They recognize the problem, but that recognition doesn't prompt a change in their policy preferences. Attitudes toward tax reform aren't shaped by concerns about inequality or attitudes toward the rich, Bartels contends. Rather, they reflect personal experience with the tax system. The upshot? Americans support the Bush tax cuts because they don't like their own taxes.

That observation raises a more fundamental question: Why are Americans so unhappy with their own taxes? That's not an easy question to answer. Maybe we are simply a nation of tax haters, culturally predisposed to dislike taxes of every shape and size.

Ideologically driven historians, like Charles Adams, have tried to reduce the grand sweep of American history to a long string of tax revolts. More serious scholars, including Julian Zelizer and David Beito, have also identified a persistent strain of antitax ideology in American political culture.

But tax resistance -- evident even during periods of progressive ascendancy like the 1930s -- has never been uncontested. Americans have repeatedly embraced progressive taxation as an instrument of social and economic reform. The early years of the 20th century saw an upsurge in tax activism, including a bipartisan movement to introduce income and estate taxes. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt managed to recast the American tax system along distinctly more progressive lines, first during the Great Depression and then later - - to a much greater and more lasting effect -- during World War II.

Wars have often been the impetus for progressive tax reform, but we can't explain the history of progressive taxation as a function of wartime exigency. Progressive taxation has always depended on political argument. During the various eras of progressive tax reform, liberals have developed a resonant rhetoric to make their case. As a result, Americans have been convinced to transcend their inherent antitax inclinations and consider the possibilities of redistributive reform.

Today's liberals are in desperate need of an ideological and rhetorical overhaul. It's not enough to educate Americans about the scale and scope of rising inequality. They are well aware of their economic predicament. And as Bartels observes, voters with more information don't reliably endorse progressive reform. Education is always a good thing, and Americans should learn more about their tax system. But liberals would be foolish to vest all their hopes in the transformative power of information.

To see the connection between economic reality and progressive reform, voters will need a better interpretive framework. Liberals need to develop a compelling argument for the role that progressive taxation can play in a fair and just society. And they need to make voters believe it.

Developing that interpretation will be no easy task. It can't be cast as a defense of the status quo. Too much of today's liberal agenda is about staving off Republican reforms. But what are liberals trying to protect? The fiscal framework pre-Bush? Isn't that the same tax system that allowed for the last quarter-century of rising inequality?

If liberals are going to win their battle for progressive taxation, they need to take seriously the popular antipathy to the existing tax system. That's not to say they should take it at face value; Americans don't understand the system well enough to offer an informed critique of specific tax instruments. But Americans consistently voice a profound dissatisfaction with the modern tax system, and until liberals find some way to address it, they will be forever defending an indefensible system.