Tax Aversion Crossed Party Lines Long Ago, Says Historian Molly Michelmore

A new History News Network essay by Washington and Lee historian Molly C. Michelmore reminds us that anti-tax rhetoric is not the exclusively Republican. In "Don't Just Blame the Republicans for the No-Tax Pledge–Democrats are Allergic to Tax Hikes, Too," Michelmore traces the disdain for taxation back to a surprising era–the New Deal. 

That Republicans have used tax cuts to win elections is hardly news. What is perhaps more surprising how much the Democratic Party has done to reinforce Americans’ hostility toward taxes on all but the wealthiest members of society. In the initial campaign to build support for the ACA, President Barack Obama went out of his way to insist that the law was “absolutely not a tax increase.” Indeed, Obama and the majority of the Democratic Party have pledged to hold the line on taxes for 98 percent of American taxpayers. As political analyst Ezra Klein rightly points out, the difference between Republicans and Democrats — at least on the tax issue — is pretty small. “Republicans,” Klein writes, “don't want to raise taxes on anyone. Democrats don’t want to raise taxes on almost anyone.”

When did this happen? How did the party of so-called tax and spend liberals become the party of tax cuts?

History offers an unexpected answer. The fact is Democrats’ allergy to tax hikes is nothing new. Despite their party’s reputation, Democratic liberals have long been reluctant to raise taxes on the majority of Americans–even to pay for politically popular programs.

Budget deficits are a major symptom of this tax allergy, argues Michelmore, author of Tax and Spend: The Welfare State, Tax Politics, and the Limits of American Liberalism. A clearer picture of history may be the cure for what she calls "dysfunctional tax politics."

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