Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage from

Democrats, show some spine on taxes

By Julian Zelizer, CNN Contributor
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Mon April 14, 2014
In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908. In the early 20th century, industrial tycoons like the Rockefellers and Carnegies amassed fortunes in railroads, steel or oil. Here, a view of Cornelius Vanderbilt's residence in New York in 1908.
HIDE CAPTION
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
Income inequality in America
<<
<
1
2
3
4
5
6
7
8
9
10
11
12
13
14
15
16
17
18
19
20
21
22
23
24
>
>>
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julian Zelizer: When Republicans attack progressive taxes, Democrats usually hide
  • He says Democrats need to advocate for a progressive system and use it to fund programs
  • The GOP's "starve the beast" strategy has kept government from tackling key problems, he says

Editor's note: Julian Zelizer is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. He is the author of "Jimmy Carter" and "Governing America." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- Democrats need to show more political spine when it comes to the issue of taxes.

This week, income taxes are on everybody's mind with Tuesday's filing deadline in view.

Republicans have no interest in defending the progressive income tax system. Rand Paul, with an eye toward 2016, has called for a flat tax with one rate for all income levels.

Julian Zelizer
Julian Zelizer

In their minds, the progressive tax is system has often been inequitable, and they claim that those who work hard are penalized for spurring economic growth rather than rewarded.

Ever since conservatives undertook their "starve the beast" strategy in the early 1980s, Republicans have also been aware that continually cutting taxes is the best way to ensure that Democrats won't have the money they need to start new government programs.

But Democrats can't afford to sit still when it comes to this issue. Too often in recent decades, Democrats have desperately tried to avoid the subject of taxes. When Republicans complain that taxes are bad, Democrats slip into the corner so that nobody asks them what they think.

Ever since Ronald Reagan came to Washington in 1981 and slashed tax rates to historically low levels, Democrats have always felt that talking about a more vigorous progressive income tax system that brings more revenue into the federal government is toxic.

They all remember when Democratic presidential candidate Walter Mondale admitted in a debate against Ronald Reagan in 1984 that he would raise taxes and suffered as a result. When President Bill Clinton took the step of raising taxes in 1993 to curb the deficit, his party suffered in the 1994 midterm elections. President Obama, who simply decided not to restore some of the Bush tax cuts, came under intense criticism and was branded a tax and spend liberal.

The failure to defend taxation has its cost. At a time everyone is celebrating Lyndon Johnson's historic achievement with the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Democrats should remember the consequences of another piece of legislation passed 50 years ago -- the Revenue Act of 1964 which provided an across-the-board tax cut, reducing top rates from 91% to 70%, the bottom rate from 20% to 10% and the corporate rate from 52% to 48%.

This too was a historic tax cut, unequaled at the time, that liberal economists had proposed as a way to stimulate consumer demand. While many liberals signed on to the tax cut, including President Johnson, others warned that it would starve the government of needed revenue right as the President was embarking on an effort to build a Great Society.

To obtain passage of the tax cut, which Johnson believed would stimulate the economy by the time of the 1964 election, he agreed to a stringent budget in order to win over the support of Virginia Democrat Harry Byrd, the conservative southern chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

As a result of the tax cut, Johnson didn't have much money to play with early in his term. When he convinced Congress to pass the War on Poverty in 1964, it was done on the cheap.

Congress didn't allocate, and he didn't ask for, sufficient money to construct programs capable of really taking a bite out of economic inequality. Many of the programs still did well and provided a huge boost to the disadvantaged, but the money that would have been needed to really eradicate poverty was never there.

Johnson also backed away from other proposals, like the public works programs his Secretary of Labor Willard Wirtz was proposing, because he didn't want to endanger the tax cut and didn't have enough funds to do more.

Later in his presidency, Johnson would also hesitate to propose increased taxes to finance the war in Vietnam. He waited too long, fearful of the political consequences, finally approaching Congress in 1967 to ask for a temporary tax surcharge. But he did so when his political stock had fallen and the war was controversial. Congress passed a 10%, temporary tax surcharge in 1968, but only after forcing Johnson to agree to steep cuts in domestic spending and after inflation had really taken off.

Another Democrat who took a very different approach to taxes was Franklin Roosevelt, the architect of the New Deal. Early in the 1930s, FDR displayed an antipathy toward taxation, generally resisting any efforts to undertake a mass expansion of the tax system, which then only touched a small portion of the population. But did finally take steps to increase taxes on the wealthy, such as the enactment of the "Wealth Tax" in 1935 as well as the earmarked taxes tied to Social Security.

In the middle of World War II, FDR became even bolder. He understood that we have to pay if we want the government to do great things. In other words, we needed "Taxes to Beat the Axis." In 1943 and 1944, FDR undertook a massive expansion of the income tax system, expanding the number of people subject to the income tax from 4 million to 44 million and instituting the policy of withholding at the source.

The Department of Treasury conducted an aggressive campaign -- using film, radio and more -- to sell Americans on the idea that they had to sacrifice, through taxes, while other Americans were sacrificing their lives. Even Donald Duck was called in with the movie "The New Spirit" to persuade the nation that taxes were a patriotic duty.

Irving Berlin wrote "I Paid My Income Tax Today," which reminded Americans: "You see those bombers in the sky? Rockefeller helped to build them -- so did I!" The campaign worked and the tax system put into place remained a permanent part of the political landscape with upper level taxes reaching over 90% in the 1950s.

While proposing taxes is politically frightening, it is necessary. And Democrats, as the party that believes in government, must also be willing to defend and fight for the progressive tax system that has been the backbone of domestic and foreign policy since the start of the 20th century. They need to find a way to build support for increasing rates and filling loopholes such as lower rates on dividends and capital gains and the earnings of hedge fund millionaires -- all of which exacerbate the problem of inequality in America.

If Democrats don't do something to shore up the progressive income tax system, they will continue to see the funds of government erode, limiting what they can do or even imagine.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:26 PM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
updated 6:42 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
updated 9:21 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
updated 9:19 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
updated 7:35 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
updated 7:26 AM EDT, Wed August 27, 2014
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
updated 4:53 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
updated 4:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
updated 3:19 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
updated 11:58 AM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
updated 3:50 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
updated 4:52 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
updated 12:29 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
updated 5:04 PM EDT, Mon August 25, 2014
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
updated 5:45 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Tue August 26, 2014
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
updated 8:31 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
updated 9:05 PM EDT, Sat August 23, 2014
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
updated 6:47 PM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
updated 10:50 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
updated 7:03 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
updated 8:23 AM EDT, Fri August 22, 2014
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
updated 3:51 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
updated 1:42 PM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
updated 11:38 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
updated 8:00 AM EDT, Thu August 21, 2014
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
updated 6:03 PM EDT, Tue August 19, 2014
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
updated 1:27 PM EDT, Wed August 20, 2014
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT