A substantial majority of Americans believe that rich people ought to pay more taxes. For example, consider public opinion about the “Buffett rule,” named after its most prominent backer, the billionaire investor Warren Buffett. That change to the tax code would require all millionaires to pay at least 30 percent of their income in taxes. One recent poll completed by Global Strategy Group and provided to us by Not One Penny shows that 86 percent of registered voters (including 74 percent of Trump voters) support Buffett’s proposal.
More generally, 82 percent of voters (including 68 percent of Trump voters) support hiking taxes on the richest 1 percent. Surveys with nationally representative samples of the general public also show that public support for increased taxes on the rich is high and has been this way for decades.
Why, then, have taxes on the rich decreased so much over the last few decades? And how is it possible that congressional Republicans are on the verge of passing a tax bill that is an obvious tax cut for the very wealthy?
To answer this question, we examine findings of scholarship reported in the forthcoming book Class Attitudes in America. (Spencer Piston, a co-author of this piece, wrote the book.) Policymakers have a clear playbook when they want to change the tax code to benefit the rich: Try to confuse the public, and if that doesn’t work, just ignore voter preferences.
Let’s consider the current tax legislation under consideration. Its final formulation awaits the outcome of the reconciliation process, but all reasonable accounts indicate that Congress is proposing an immense transfer of wealth to the richest Americans. According to data from the Tax Policy Center, for example, a full 62 percent of the tax cuts would accrue to the top 1 percent of the economic distribution. The George W. Bush tax cuts, which were also heavily skewed to the rich, delivered 27 percent of the benefits to the top 1 percent.
This is particularly striking given the extreme degree of economic inequality that already exists in the United States, in which the top 1 percent already control 38 percent of the country’s wealth.
Because the United States is so economically unequal, and because democracies are often thought to be driven by the preferences of the public, many political pundits have erroneously concluded that Americans admire, rather than resent, the rich. The Economist, for example, claimed without direct evidence that “Americans want to join the rich, not soak them.”
To the contrary, Piston’s findings reveal that resentment of the rich is widespread among the American public. A majority of Americans believe that rich people have more than they deserve, and one of the biggest frustrations Americans express with government is that it does too much to help the rich. Other social-science scholarship has reached similar findings. Sociologist Leslie McCall’s book The Undeserving Rich shows that many Americans perceive the rich’s success as interfering with economic opportunity. The research of Susan Fiske and her colleagues showed that subjects smile when they hear stories about an investment banker accidentally sitting in chewing gum on a bench or a yacht owner being pushed into the water.
But this doesn’t mean that resentment of the rich always influences how Americans feel about policy. If Americans do not comprehend that a policy will disproportionately benefit the rich, their attitudes toward the rich will be irrelevant to their opinion about the policy. This is especially likely to happen when the media encourages political ignorance by framing tax cuts for the rich as broadening the pie for all Americans.
Politicians recognize that this form of political ignorance is widespread and seek to exploit it. Consider the federal estate tax on large inheritances—which may be eliminated by 2024 if the proposed tax legislation passes. Only the wealthiest Americans, the approximately 0.2 percent who have over $5.49 million dollars, are subject to the estate tax. But opponents of the estate tax have long portrayed it as hurting “small businesses.” In September, Trump said that his tax plan will end the estate tax in order “to protect millions of small businesses and the American farmer.”
This misleading rhetoric is strategic. It attempts to confuse the public about who is affected by the tax. And this strategy of confusion has worked. A survey conducted by Piston shows that less than 13 percent of respondents correctly reported that less than 1 percent of Americans are wealthy enough to be subject to the federal estate tax.
Ignorance about the Estate Tax is Widespread
Piston’s research found that support for the estate tax is substantially lower among those respondents who do not recognize that only the wealthiest have to pay it. Furthermore, in an experiment, Piston informed some respondents that the estate tax only affects the richest Americans. Support for the estate tax grew considerably upon receipt of this information—especially among those respondents who resent the rich. Outside the social scientist’s laboratory, however, most Americans remain ignorant, and the estate tax remains unpopular. Politicians’ efforts to confuse the public about the estate tax have been remarkably successful.
Hence, Speaker Paul Ryan has misled the public about the effects of the pending tax legislation before Congress. He has portrayed the proposal as an attempt to fix an “outdated and broken” tax code. Senator Orrin Hatch described the bill as “tax reform,” while the official website of the House Ways and Means Committee incorrectly portrayed the legislation as providing “real tax relief to Americans across the country—especially low- and middle-income Americans.”
There’s a simple reason these politicians don’t mention that the legislation they support will disproportionately benefit the rich—they want to get the legislation passed without incurring the wrath of the public. Representative Chris Collins, in a rare moment of candor, admitted recently that “My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again.’” And indeed, research suggests donors are more supportive of the Bush tax cuts and tax cuts in general than the public at large. When the preferences of donors and the public run crossways, politicians sometimes respond by trying to satisfy their donors without angering the public. To do so, they distract the public by talking about anything other than ways in which their policies will benefit the rich.
Unfortunately for the GOP, this strategy has largely failed. Despite the best efforts of proponents of Trump’s tax plan to confuse and distract the public, the bill is wildly unpopular. On average, the bill is 14 points underwater, making it actually less popular than tax increases under Clinton and G.H.W. Bush. This is in no small part because many Americans recognize that it would benefit the rich.
When this happens, politicians still have one last possibility to hope for: that even if they go against what the public wants, once Election Day comes around the public won’t care about the issue anymore. This may be an especially useful strategy for those politicians who are early in their terms, since voters may discount early events while weighting recent events more heavily. Donors, in contrast, are more sophisticated and have longer time horizons. They are not as easily ignored.
So what can be done? When politicians confuse or simply ignore the public, it is easy to become cynical or feel helpless. There is certainly good reason for pessimism, because political science scholarship has shown that there can be a vast gulf between what the public wants and what government does.
But it is possible to strengthen the connection between public opinion and policy outcomes. To do so, activists need to coordinate on a central message: Government should stop handing money over to the rich. Furthermore, social movements—who, like donors, can have long time horizons—need to remind voters of what their representatives did years ago once Election Day rolls around.
Recall the fiscal cliff debates of 2012. During Obama’s first term his rhetoric against bankers become so populist that donors and centrist operatives called his campaign team to complain and ask him to tone it down. But Obama was also able to turn that rhetoric into impressive showings. Obama and leading Democrats argued, over and over again, that government was about to shut down because Republicans were unwilling to raise taxes on the rich. Eventually, Republicans began to see their electoral fate as connected to their position on the fiscal cliff. They caved, and taxes on the rich increased.
This can happen again. New polling shows that the bill is unpopular in many swing districts. The Not One Penny survey cited above suggests that voters do not appear to believe in “trickle down” economics. Only 28 percent agree that “lowering taxes on the highest-earning Americans will help grow the economy.” On the other hand, 88 percent of voters agree that “making sure the wealthiest Americans pay their fair share in taxes will help grow the economy.”
Democrats and progressive activists can leverage resentment of the rich to extract political gains. When your opponents make up 1 percent of the population, the numbers are on your side.