By Lawrence B. Glickman / Special to The Washington Post
Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin doesn’t want to extend the $600-a-week extra federal unemployment benefits that the government set up in response to the coronavirus pandemic. “We are not going to use taxpayer money to pay people more to stay home,” he said last week, as negotiations over the next wave of federal support for the economy continue.
Mnuchin framed his position as respectful of taxpayers, critical of “the idle poor,” and an embrace of frugality. In doing so, he was reverting to an old idea of the besieged taxpayer as funding extravagant and immoral people and projects; a notion that has, since the New Deal, justified redistributing wealth upward and against opposed expanding the American welfare state.
Mnuchin’s comment provides evidence that Republicans, after agreeing to two major spending bills at the onset of the pandemic, are returning to their old script as our public health and economic woes are worsening. In this worldview, the “taxpayer” (almost always figured as White, male and affluent, but oppressed) replaces the citizen in the political imagination, and the main task of politics is to ease the burden of this besieged taxpayer rather than support the public good.
Modern “taxpayerism” (a term I introduced in my 2009 book, “Buying Power”) was born in a period of widespread economic suffering, massive unemployment and material deprivation, a time when the grievances voiced by its proponents seemed especially, even perversely, misplaced. Just a few days after Franklin D. Roosevelt was inaugurated as president in March 1933, an editorialist worried that New Deal programs would come at “a great cost to taxpayers.” The following year, a Republican Congressman, inverting FDR’s celebration in 1932 of the “forgotten man at the bottom of the economic pyramid,” called the taxpayer, “the new Forgotten Man.”
For anti-New Dealers, defending the taxpayer went hand-in-hand with delegitimizing public spending. In an August 1936 speech given shortly after he accepted the Republican nomination as vice president, Frank Knox denounced the hubris of an arrogant government that recklessly spent people’s money. Anticipating a popular rhetorical device employed by generations of future Republicans, Knox used hearsay evidence to hint at the existence of grandiose and wasteful New Deal programs, such as a federally funded “dog pound in Memphis, with marble shower baths,” and his coup de grace: “I am informed that there are now in Washington three separate and independent commissions working at taxpayer’s expense to find out why there are so many unnecessary commissions.” For Knox, these examples of “government extravagance” crystallized the essence of the New Deal, excessive spending on frivolous endeavors, funded by coercive mechanisms.
Both the rhetoric of the besieged taxpayer and of wasteful and immoral spending programs were amplified during the Civil Rights era. In response to the Rev. Martin Luther King’s statement in his 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech that “The white man has given the Negro a bad check,” one letter to the Charlotte Observer maintained that “Nothing could be further from the truth. The white taxpayers have about broken their backs providing them [Black people]” with various benefits. Self-identified spokesmen later described the “rich white taxpayer” or the “competent, work-prone, white, male taxpayer,” as among the most victimized members of society.
Ronald Reagan became the master of this rhetoric. His entree to the national political stage and celebrated 1964 speech on behalf of the Republican presidential candidate Barry Goldwater — “A Time for Choosing”— updated Knox. Reagan described “spectacles” of public spending and highlighted wasteful aid of unworthy foreign others (including “a $2 million yacht for Haile Selassie” and “extra wives for Kenyan government officials”) that rhetorically mirrored racist objections to domestic spending. Later personifying public spending in the “welfare queen” driving a Cadillac and the “strapping young buck” using food stamps to buy fancy cuts of meat, Reagan made clear that what made the spending immoral was what he characterized as taxpayer theft to reward undeserving people of color.
As racism entered its “colorblind” phase in the 1970s, protecting the “taxpayer” became part of the coded language of dog-whistle politics. As the Republican operative Lee Atwater admitted in a 1981 interview, politicians who once used the n-word now talked about “cutting taxes” instead. Although generally colorblind after this time, the language of anti-taxism was suffused with images of robbery and even enslavement. A 1968 editorial in the Pampa Daily News claimed that “taxation is even more morally deplorable than outright theft.” Whereas unlawful theft “may or may not involve the use or threat of force,” the editor posited, “the use or threat of overt violence are always present in the actions of the tax collectors.” Decades later, in 2015, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), who rose to prominence as part of the “tea party” revolt against the fiscal excesses of government, said, “If we tax you at 50 percent, you are half-slave and half-free.”
These conservative defenses of the taxpayer and campaigns against public spending have been highly selective. When people like Mnuchin invoke the “taxpayer,” they are usually referring to people who pay certain kinds of taxes, like income, estate and capital gains. Because they ignore sales taxes and other fees that hit people living in poverty disproportionately, they obscure the fact that the rich pay lower taxes than many of the rest of us. They also obscure how many critics have sought government support when that spending funds their own pet projects; “when governmental guarantees give them the opportunity of getting rich,” as an editorialist noted in 1950. Trump’s presidency has given us many examples of government officials, not least, the president himself — sometimes in possible violation of the emoluments clause of the Constitution — using the public purse to benefit themselves.
What really seems to bother the modern Republican Party is not the use of taxpayer money, but what the government is spending that money to support. Trump, as is his wont, said the quiet part out loud in early 2016 at a campaign event in Iowa. Referring to the budget recently passed by Congress, he complained to his nearly all-white audience that it “funds everything that all of us in this room don’t want to see it fund.” In this spirit, the GOP proposal for the new round of stimulus funding, offers minimal help for the unemployed, the soon-to-be homeless, essential workers and other communities hardest hit by the pandemic, and none to the U.S. Postal Service, a popular and essential public good in an era when voting by mail will likely be the only safe way for millions of Americans to cast their ballots. However, it includes $686 million for F35 fighter jets and nearly $2 billion for a new FBI building on top of the dollars that, in the earlier stimulus package went not to small businesses as promised but to large corporations.
Taxpayerism has perverted our political culture by denying the existence of a common good; or, perhaps, more accurately, by falsely defining that good, and even freedom itself, as low taxes for the rich and for corporations. For more than three decades, nearly every Republican politician has signed the so-called “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” initiated in 1986 by the conservative lobbyist Grover Norquist, which calls on politicians to oppose all future tax increases. Norquist famously said in 2001 that he wanted to shrink government “to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub.” This was a view of the government as a menace fit to be murdered and incapable of serving the public good except through private enrichment of the “taxpayer.”
Politicians should scrutinize how they spend money, and tax cuts should be part of the menu of economic policy. But the language of taxpayerism has harmed our democracy. It depicts the wealthiest and most privileged citizens, whom the government generally serves extremely well, as uniquely victimized and in need of protection. And it occludes and displaces the oppression of people without such privilege, those living in poverty and the millions of Americans struggling to make ends meet in perilous times. That was true before the pandemic, but the virus has underscored the danger this misconception poses for all of us.
Lawrence B. Glickman is the Stephen and Evalyn Milman professor of American studies in the department of history at Cornell University. He is author, most recently, of “Buying Power: A History of Consumer Activism in America” and the recently released “Free Enterprise: An American History.”