Editor’s Note: Vanessa Williamson is a fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of the new book Read My Lips: Why Americans are Proud to Pay Taxes (Princeton UP). The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Vanessa Williamson: Americans on both sides of the political aisle treat taxpaying as a source of authority
When we argue about taxes, we are often arguing about whose voice deserves to be heard, she writes
Why is it that Tax Day is a lightning rod for protests on the left and the right?
This weekend, thousands of Americans will take part in the Tax March, a national day of protest calling for President Donald Trump to reveal his tax returns. But progressive activists hardly have a monopoly on Tax Day demonstrations. Eight years ago, the Tea Party made national headlines on April 15th by holding rallies opposing President Obama. Despite the conventional wisdom, Americans don’t protest because they do not want to pay taxes. On the contrary: as I show in my new book, Americans on both sides of the political aisle treat taxpaying as a source of authority, and use their status as taxpayers to demand representation from their government. When we argue about taxes, we are often arguing about whose voice deserves to be heard.
The Tax March organizers are only the latest in a long line of American activists to tell their leaders, “You work for us, and we demand answers.” Since the Revolutionary War, Americans have connected taxation and representation, and those denied access to political power have often defined themselves as taxpayers to demonstrate that they should be treated as equal citizens.
In 1866, for example, the National Women’s Rights Convention asked, “Woman now holds a vast amount of the property in the country and pays her full proportion of taxes …. On what principle, then, do you deny her representation?”
One hundred years later, Americans continued to use their status as taxpayers to advocate for equal treatment under the law. In 1959, black activists integrating the beaches of Miami brought with them their property tax receipts to show that they had helped to pay for the beaches’ maintenance and therefore should be free to use them. Their tax receipts were also a reminder for the police, who were expected to arrest them, that the protestors also helped to pay their salaries.
In recent years, immigration reformers have kept up this tradition of taxpayer protest, rallying under the slogan “Viva Taxes!” to urge the government to recognize undocumented immigrants as taxpayers who want to do their part to support the country they live in.
Conservative Americans also have a long history of asserting themselves as taxpayers, but often in contrast to a group of supposed non-taxpayers. It has become a common tactic for Republicans to claim that people who are not taxpayers do not deserve to participate in or benefit from government. In 2012, GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney described those who do not pay net federal income taxes as people “who are dependent upon government” and who do not take “personal responsibility for their lives.” His words echoed decades of political rhetoric contrasting recipients of government benefits with hardworking taxpayers, a distinction that often rests on ugly racial stereotypes.
Denying some Americans the status of “taxpayer” has also served as a rationale for restricting voting rights. In the post-Reconstruction era, Southern white supremacists spoke of a return to the “rule of the taxpayer,” i.e. state governments that benefited propertied whites. Across the South, states used poll taxes to keep black Americans, as well as poor whites, from voting. That rhetoric of the “rule of the taxpayer” echoes into the present day. As more and more states adopt new restrictions on voting access, former Republican representative Michele Bachmann has gone so far as to ask whether people not owing federal income tax should be allowed to vote at all. Such a policy would disenfranchise 70 million households.
In reality, of course, being a taxpayer is an identity shared by nearly every single person in the United States today. It is a rare individual who manages to avoid paying sales taxes, income taxes, payroll taxes, property taxes and gas taxes. Moreover, Americans at all income levels have a right to demand responsiveness from their elected officials; citizenship does not come with a price tag. But as long as Americans see taxes as their contribution to the country, there will continue to be debates about who “counts” as a taxpayer. It is the way many Americans define who counts as a citizen.