Tax protests are part of America’s political DNA. It is a time-honored tradition, rediscovered by every generation, reminding both government and citizens of the roots of our republic.
At its best, it is a sign of an active citizenry trying to rein in the government and strike the right balance between the individual and the community. At it’s worst, it is an impulse that can be exploited by demagogues for short-term political gain, ignoring the interplay between freedom and responsibility in a democracy.
The founding fathers
Reasserting the principles of the American Revolution is rejuvenating, but it must be done with a sense of perspective for full benefit.
For example, tax protesters invariably invoke the language of the founding fathers – making the stakes of their fight the future of liberty itself, rather than the mundane if confiscatory reality of paying taxes. This offers them an enhanced sense of purpose at the expense of common sense.
On the flipside, we can take some comfort from the fact that however heated our debates over taxes get, except in the most extreme cases, our protests today are tame compared to the tar-and-feathering that was routine in colonial days.
But still the debates go on, as we try to find the right balance between taxation and representation.
Barack Obama and taxes
In 2008, then-candidate Barack Obama ignited a new tax debate with his commitment to “spread the wealth around” by letting the top rate rise back to pre-Bush levels. Given a sense of historic perspective - especially with an eye toward Wilson’s 77% and FDR’s 94% - conflating the relative merits of a 35% versus 39.6% top bracket with a struggle over socialism seems a stretch.
But after the fiscal crisis, stock market crash, bank and auto-industry bailouts, and the unprecedented $787 billion stimulus package which led to a quadrupling of our national deficit, the most recent incarnation of the Tea Party protests erupted first online and then outdoors. They were grassroots at their inception but soon promoted by partisan interests, especially anti-tax groups like FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.
By April 15, 2010, there were 750 Tax Day protests scheduled around the United States. But the federal taxes due that day were in fact the lowest they had been since Harry Truman had been president, back in 1950. For all the populist anger, 98.6% of all tax-filers saw a tax reduction – albeit temporary, due to the stimulus many were protesting– during the first year of the Obama administration.
Fact checking tax protests
Armed with a larger sense of history, however, contemporary tax protesters are justified in their skepticism toward the federal government when it comes to taxes and spending. After all, the federal income tax began with a single page 1040 form and promises that it would impact only a small number of Americans at 7%. Today, the federal tax code contains over 9 million words – the Constitution is roughly 5,000 words by comparison – and Americans spend nearly 6.5 billion hours each year just to fill out tax forms and comply with the federal tax code.
“One thing is certain: the America’s civic debates over taxes will not stop.
Experience tells us that cutting taxes has to be a proactive priority, otherwise the tendency to reach ever deeper into the pockets of citizens is too much for most politicians to resist. The current chronic budget shortfalls and looming insolvency of individual states – in addition to the pension obligations owed to public sector unions - will create greater pressure for an increase in state and local taxes. The unprecedented deficits and national debt we face will have a similar effect on a federal level. This will likely lead to a renewed round of tax protests and pressure for spending cuts. Whether the current political climate will lead to constructive proposals like tax simplification or innovative solutions like a flat tax, remains to be seen. One thing is certain: the America’s civic debates over taxes will not stop.
While we can never hope to make taxation popular, we can strive to make taxation fair – and as limited as practically possible. The concern comes when tax protests become a political end unto themselves, encouraging an obsessively adversarial approach to government. It locks supporters into a perpetual position of opposition and weakens our shared sense of investment in the long-term success of society.
When anti-tax advocates cast themselves as the sole defenders of the revolution, they divide fellow citizens into exaggerated heroes and villains, making even the word ‘freedom’ a partisan slogan. Of course, in the end, no political party or ideological movement owns the mantle of the Tea Party or can claim to be the direct inheritor of the founding fathers’ ideals. Their legacy belongs to all of us. Protest is only a half step toward the shared responsibility of self-governance in a democracy.
There is a fundamental difference between the founding fathers’ fight against taxation without representation and our frustrations over taxation with representation. It is the difference between subjugation and citizenship.
John Avlon's new book Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America is available now by Beast Books both on the Web and in paperback. He is also the author of Independent Nation: How Centrists Can Change American Politicsand a CNN contributor. Previously, he served as chief speechwriter for New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani and was a columnist and associate editor for The New York Sun.