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Public support for tax hikes on the rich is nothing new

In a 60 Minutes interview in early January, newly elected US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez started a serious political debate when she suggested creating a new 70% tax bracket for annual incomes above $10 million.  As a national-level policy proposal, Ocasio-Cortez’s idea is a sharp break with historical trends since 1980. Currently, the top marginal rate is 37 percent for incomes above around $500,000 for single filers (or about $600,000 for joint returns). Predictably, the proposed tax increase on the wealthiest Americans has attracted legions of vocal supporters and detractors among politicians, activists, and analysts. Such tax hikes were almost certainly among the policies President Donald Trump had in mind when he delivered a conspicuous denunciation of socialism in the United States during this year’s State of the Union Address.

But a poll showing nearly 60% support for Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal among registered voters surprised even some analysts sympathetic to the idea. Because registered voters tend to have significantly higher incomes, and lower-income people usually express greater support for tax increases on the wealthy, favorability toward Ocasio-Cortez’s idea would likely have been even greater had this poll sampled US adults overall. Given consistent decreases in upper-income taxes since the early 1980s, the prevalence of free-market/anti-tax rhetoric in the political sphere, and Americans’ oft-cited cultural aversion to paying taxes, how could so many people actually endorse such a steep money-grab from Uncle Sam?

As it turns out, public support for Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal is quite consistent with responses to dozens (perhaps hundreds) of credible polls over several decades. When given an opportunity to weigh in on the general contours of tax policy, significant majorities or pluralities of Americans have long backed higher taxes on the wealthy (and on the large corporations whose shares are disproportionately owned by those at the top of the income scale, and whose leading executives occupy that same economically privileged position). The magnitude of favorability has varied a bit with political and economic conditions, but support for leaning on the rich to pay a greater share toward the common good has been an enduring feature of popular opinion for many decades.

This trend reaches at least as far back as the 1970s and 1980s, sometimes considered the crest of popular anti-tax fervor in the United States. From the George H.W. Bush presidency through most of Barack Obama’s first term, an average of 66% of respondents in 14 Gallup polls said “upper-income people” pay “too little in federal taxes.” In the same polls, no more than 7% said “middle-income people” pay too little, and no more than 22% said the same of “low-income people.” Across the George W. Bush and Obama years, 60% to 70% of adults expressed the belief that corporations pay too little in federal taxes. And from 1985 through 2015, general support for the notion that “the money and wealth in this country should be more evenly distributed among a larger percentage of the people” spanned 56% to 68%. Favorable sentiment toward taxing the rich and big corporations continued to be strong as Obama neared the end of his presidency: A November 2015 CBS News/New York Times poll registered support for “increasing taxes on wealthy Americans and large corporations in order to help reduce income inequality” at 63% of all US adults — including nearly 40% of Republicans. The dawn of the Donald Trump era did little to change these tendencies (see, for example, this ABC News/Washington Post poll from September 2017).

To be sure, there have been notable inconsistencies between Americans’ views on the general shape of tax policy and their responses to specific legislative proposals debated by their representatives. Broader contexts of ideas and communication dynamics often channel and influence poll responses. Information (or its lack), question framing, and the political rhetoric and visual imagery associated with policy issues as they are discussed in the media can significantly influence how the public responds to survey questions. Indeed, Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive image and facility with social media seem to have resonated with many Americans: Public opinion research demonstrates that the messenger and the medium – not just the message – matter. More broadly, there’s little doubt that political and economic circumstances (especially increasing wealth and income inequality) have played a role in the positive responses to Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal and other plans to hike taxes on the rich. America’s changing demographic profile is probably reinforcing these attitudes: The dwindling majority of non-Latinx whites in the United States tends express less worry about economic inequality than does the rest of the population. And even Gen X’ers (let alone Millennials and the rising Generation Z) are more likely than their aging parents to see the economic system as unfair. Still, public support for the 70% tax on top incomes clearly reflects a deeper historical dynamic that has been remarkably impervious to population changes, shifting political winds, and the dizzying 24-7 cable news/Twitter cycle.

Whether or not Ocasio-Cortez’s idea is a “radical” one depends on how that thoroughly loaded term is defined. Her proposal, and similar progressive plans to tax concentrated wealth floated by Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, are major departures from the normal operation of US tax policy for the last 40 or so years. Such ideas, however, have long resided very much in the center of public opinion. Will higher taxes on the wealthy be endorsed or tolerated by the critical mass of elected leaders needed to enact and sustain these policy changes? The looming tax battles may pose a pivotal test for the American political economy and American democracy alike.

Image Credit: 1 U.S.A dollar banknotes by Sharon McCutcheon. Public Domain on Unsplash 


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