Editor’s Note: Julian Zelizer, a CNN political analyst, is a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University and author of the forthcoming book “The Presidency of Donald J. Trump: A First Historical Assessment.” Follow him on Twitter @julianzelizer. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion on CNN.
Sen. Rick Scott of Florida, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, caused quite a stir this week when he discussed his “Plan to Rescue America” at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. The plan calls for taxing the income of over half of Americans who do not pay taxes now and sunsetting all federal legislation after five years, which would likely include popular programs like Medicare and Social Security.
When news of the plan first surfaced last month, Republicans, including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, were quick to distance themselves from it. “We will not have as part of our agenda a bill that raises taxes on half the American people, and sunsets Social Security and Medicare within five years,” he said.
Whether McConnell will admit it or not, Scott is just giving voice to the ideas of conservative populism in America. Since the election of President Ronald Reagan in 1980, Republican politicians, including McConnell himself, have argued conservatism can be more empowering to working- and middle-class Americans than Democratic policies that focus on expanding the size of government and the social safety net.
They have claimed economic policies skewed toward helping the wealthy and curtailing the size of government programs somehow help average Americans. And Scott, though proposing a less conventional set of economic policies than his conservative predecessors, appears to be trying to do just that. According to the nonpartisan Tax Policy Center estimate, Scott’s proposal asks families making $54,000 or less to pay more than 80% of the tax increase, while also potentially reducing the size of government support for social programs.
The problem is that Republican economic policies, historically speaking, have not fulfilled the promise to empower the average American. Since Ronald Reagan’s administration, conservatives have pushed for supply-side tax cuts, government deregulation and a contracted social safety net. Their policies have skewed toward the wealthy, giving the most direct benefits to affluent Americans and corporations, all the while promising those benefits would “trickle down” to the rest of the population.
Reagan made the trickle-down economics argument when he championed a historic tax cut in 1981. Former President George W. Bush did so as well, both in 2001 and 2003, when he slashed taxes, with the biggest breaks going to the highest earners. And for all his anti-establishment rhetoric, former President Donald Trump largely stuck to this conservative economic playbook. He pushed through a major tax cut in 2017, which slashed the corporate tax rate from 35% to 21%, and spent a good deal of his term moving forward with deregulations in the workplace.
In each of these cases, the results have largely been the same. As the historian James T. Patterson wrote of Bush’s 2001 tax cut, “the law worsened the capacity of the federal government to expand domestic social and economic programs, let alone to deal with the substantial obligations it was certain to face in the future in order to fund entitlements such as Social Security and Medicare. Above all, critics reiterated, the cuts contributed substantially to a worrisome aspect of American economic life: rising inequality of income.”
Republicans have endeavored to bolster their standing by focusing on cultural issues. From reproductive rights to same-sex marriage to immigration to school curricula, they have tried to wean voters away from the Democratic Party, hoping they will ignore the contradictions between conservative economic policies and many of the immediate financial needs of middle America.
In their book, “Let Them Eat Tweets,” political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson argued that Republican dependence on wealthy donors has pushed the party in this direction. They have stoked social and cultural divisions to distract non-elite voters from unpopular economic policies that may hurt them. Simply put, if you are going to cut the social safety net that so many families depend on, then focus their attention elsewhere by stoking their outage over migrant caravans at the border or so-called “dangerous” books about critical race theory.
By proposing to start taxing the income of more working-class Americans, however, Scott’s plan exposes the realities of what conservative populism is all about. When it comes to pocketbook politics, there is a reverse Robin Hood dynamic in effect: taking money from those at the bottom so there is more room to relieve those at the top from their tax-paying obligations.
Get our free weekly newsletter
One of the big mysteries in American politics has been why Democrats have so much trouble making this case to the electorate. As former President Barack Obama said in 2011, supply side economics was a “simple theory … And that theory fits well on a bumper sticker. But here’s the problem: It doesn’t work. It has never worked. It didn’t work when it was tried in the decade before the Great Depression. It’s not what led to the incredible postwar booms of the ’50s and ‘60s. And it didn’t work when we tried it during the last decade.”
Yet Republicans have been effective at painting Democrats as the party of elites, more concerned with living an upscale coastal life than with the real concerns of middle America. And this despite the fact the Democratic Party still supports popular social programs and has been more insistent that tax cuts be centered on the lower income brackets. Though Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona stifled President Joe Biden’s Build Back Better bill, an ambitious social spending bill that would have expanded the social safety net, the legislation had overwhelming support from the rest of the party.
To be clear, conservative populism has never really meant economic populism. It has been more of an effective campaign strategy than a genuine effort to assist Americans who struggle to pay their mortgage and make ends meet.
If Republicans are really upset with what Scott has to say, they should take a deeper look at the implications of a party agenda they have embraced since the 1980s.