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The Dirtiest Word in American Politics

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Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts surprised the news media and legal community alike when he joined the four liberal justices and affirmed the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act, not under the Commerce Clause as widely considered more plausible, but under Congress’ taxing power. Predictably, congressional Republicans pounced on his opinion as evidence that President Obama broke his campaign promise to never raise taxes on middle class Americans.

“The Supreme Court, which has the final say, says it is a tax. The tax is going be levied, 77 percent of it, on Americans making less than $120,000 a year. So it is a middle class tax cut — tax increase,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. “It’s now a tax, since the court said it was a tax,” agreed House Speaker John Boehner. Several Republican politicians and conservative media folks have gone off the deep end, asserting ObamaCare is the biggest tax increase in America’s history – “the largest tax increase in the history of the world,” according to Rush Limbaugh. Such ridiculous claims can be easily disproved, but speak to the broader issue of anti-tax dogmatism we see today on the right.

Much attention has been given to a 2009 interview between the president and George Stephanopoulos, where Obama repeatedly and unequivocally maintained the ACA does not raise taxes. Obama’s predictable political stratagem appalled the conservative media, which has seized the incident as further evidence of Obama’s thuggish, deceptive and socialistic tendencies.

After showing a video of Obama chief strategist David Axelrod claiming the ACA is in fact a penalty, Sean Hannity of Fox News asked Governor Sarah Palin the tough questions:

SEAN HANNITY: This is a tough question, but one I think needs to be asked. Did the president, is David Axelrod — is this deceit or is this a lie? Is this a purposeful lie?

SARAH PALIN: It is a lie and it was a purposeful lie back in September of ’09 when President Obama got in George Stephanopoulos’ face and tried to school him and tell George as a filter for the American public to be receiving information, tried to tell George, you are spinning this up, you are the one lying, George, when you suggest that this is a tax. Well, it as tax and anybody with common or economic sense applied knew that it would be a tax. And that is the only thing that would fly making it legitimate that is constitutional in the Supreme Court as we found out.

HANNITY: You know, as we look at all of these issues though as they’re now unfolding here, I would like to see the media ask the president himself. He’s told the America — you sold this as not being a tax and in fact it is a tax. I think it is a big deal.

What fascinates me most is the implication that Roberts’ opinion somehow changes the substantive reality of the Affordable Care Act. Republican Party political operatives are understandably concerned with public perceptions, so it’s not surprising that the RNC and Republican leadership exploited the ruling as an opportunity to feign outrage at the supposedly new revelation that the individual mandate is a tax. But shouldn’t the conservative media, which is ostensibly not merely a wing of the Republican Party, be more interested in the substance of the policy than in trivial rhetorical semantics? If Congress passed a law collecting an additional 10 percent of each American’s income, but insisted it was merely a penalty for labor and not a tax on income; besides its constitutional implications, why would this distinction matter to the American public? Non-partisan policy analysts, both liberals and conservatives, simply don’t care what the individual mandate is called.

But Republicans do care. They care because tax is a bad word. In fact, to conservatives it is the dirtiest word in American politics.

Liz Marlantes of the Christian Science Monitor reported the history of American tax politics, from Ronald Reagan’s historic tax cuts and subsequent tax increases, to George H.W. Bush’s broken tax pledge, to the militant anti-tax norms in the contemporary Republican Party.

[I]n recent years, the aversion to taxes has become more deeply ingrained. It is more than a policy preference, more than a tenet in a party platform. For many Republican officeholders, raising taxes is a subject they simply won’t broach anymore – period. If there is a third rail of politics today, it might not be Social Security. It might be tax increases.

Massive lobbying apparatuses, most notably Grover Norquist’s Americans for Tax Reform, are dedicated solely to constraining Republican politicians from engaging in good faith budget negotiations. Norquist’s no-new-taxes pledge prohibits even the closing of tax loopholes.

“I don’t think there’s any conceivable way, under current circumstances, that any Republican would vote for any kind of tax increase whatsoever,” says Bruce Bartlett, a former economic adviser to President Reagan and a Treasury official during the first Bush administration, who has become an outspoken critic of the Republican Party’s current economic policies. “Republicans are absolutely convinced that to support tax increases guarantees their [electoral] defeat.”

There are various reasons for the GOP’s resistance to tax increases. The first is substantive: that high taxes suppress business activity, which is necessary for economic growth and job creation. In fact, the United States is “only inches away from no longer being a free economy,” according to Mitt Romney. Second, conservatives argue cutting taxes compels desirable fiscal discipline by forcing politicians to make tough decisions on spending cuts. Additionally, they argue taxes should be lower because revenue is wasted on worthless programs and corrupt causes. Finally, tax cuts are often couched in terms of values, such as freedom and liberty; oppressive tax regimes turn us into docile slaves to Big Government, so the argument goes.

But the anti-tax hysteria expressed by the right doesn’t seem credible in light of historical and cross-national comparisons.

American tax revenue as a share of GDP is substantially lower compared to the vast majority of developed countries.


In fact, taxes today under President Obama are lower than they were under socialist and class warrior Ronald Reagan.

There has been an incredible failure of communication by the left in defense of taxes. Americans like education, public infrastructure and Medicare, but they don’t seem to have conceptualized the link between their tax obligations and these services. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll asking Americans to name what they believed to be the two largest areas of federal government spending found 41 percent listing foreign aid and 40 percent listing welfare, ahead of national defense, Social Security and health. In fact, foreign aid and welfare spending combined account for less than 5 percent of the federal budget. A sizable portion of anti-tax sentiment can therefore be attributed to widespread ignorance about who the government spends its money on.

Professor Douglas J. Amy makes the case that, like the Tea Party protesters who demanded the government stay out of the business of regulating Medicare, most people take the benefits of government for granted.

Government benefits are also different because they are often less tangible than the goods we get from a store. These benefits frequently take the form not of the presence of something, but of the absence of something. Think of it this way: much of the job of government in our lives is to ensure that bad things don’t happen to us. We pay taxes so that our homes don’t get burgled, and our food doesn’t make us sick, our banks don’t fail, and our bridges don’t collapse. In other words, often when people in government are doing their job right – nothing happens. No wonder no one notices. So while we really do get a lot for with our taxes, we often get it in a form that is largely invisible to us. This is one of the reasons why we too easily fall for the illusion that government is doing nothing for us.

Additionally, linguist George Lakoff argues that the rhetorical framing of the tax debate is partly to blame, as it contributes to the notion that hardworking taxpayers merely subsidize the wastes and excesses of Big Government without receiving any of the benefits themselves.

Conservatives have worked for decades to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction, and an unfair punishment – all of which require “relief.” … And on the day that George W. Bush took office, the words tax relief started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. …The word relief evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain. … The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of “tax relief” are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers’ gratitude. Every time the phrase tax relief is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

There’s a kind of immaturity about the notion that taxes should always be lower. Sensible tax policy should be concerned with setting ideal tax rates, not with seeking perpetually lower margins. It is a legitimate policy preference to desire a particular tax rate lower than exists today, and like any other policy preference, it’s wholly appropriate to seek that end in budget negotiations. But to literally swear to never raise taxes under any circumstances is a bizarre practice, completely antithetical to the constitutional ideals of democratic deliberation and compromise. Setting fiscal policy is about navigating competing goals – economic growth, fiscal responsibility, moral fairness. To short circuit good faith policy deliberations with absolutist pledges not only precludes honest negotiations but could very well spell fiscal disaster if institutionalized gridlock becomes the norm.

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About Andrew Casso

  • Zedd

    Well stated. Now how do we get the word out. Beyond commentary about the genius of the “conservative” propaganda machine (which is actually the bullhorn of the immensely wealthy and has nothing to do with conservatism), how does the word go out to the public. We’ve narrowed it down. Bad information has gone out to the American public. We keep writing and talking about it. What do we do next?

    If the problem is disinformation, I’d like to start figuring out clever ways to dissolve that messaging. Where are those conversations. I want to be in on that.