If you listen closely to people’s ‘tax talk’, what you hear is not Tea Party extremism but legitimate anxiety from the squeezed centre
Years ago, I spent a summer working in a bicycle shop in Tampa, Florida. I had fully paid healthcare and got a weekly bonus for commuting to work by bicycle. These seemingly liberal policies aside, the shop was a hotbed of virulent conservative rhetoric. What surprised me most at the time was how all sorts of rightwing proclamations were prefaced and postscripted with a reference to taxation.
The plight of those without healthcare was trumped by an appeal to keeping taxes low. The need for tighter security at the US-Mexican border was also justified as a fiscal matter. From bike shop workers and customers alike, I repeatedly heard narratives that implied a failure to pay taxes should disentitle someone to public education or even emergency hospital care. In one particularly hyperbolic outburst, one person in the shop rationalized the hypothetical murdering of a household of migrant workers with the comment, “What’s it matter? They don’t pay taxes.”
For some time now, taxes have been a hot-button political issue, and a great deal of resources are dedicated to the matter in the form of large quantitative public opinion polls. But what such survey data cannot capture is the complexity of what I heard while working at the bike shop. To try to get at the more ethnographic dimensions of everyday tax talk, my co-researcher, Isaac Martin, and I set out to create a study that would, as much as possible, replicate the types of discussions ordinary people have about fiscal policy. We were particularly interested in interviewing white, southern, small business owners – a cross-section of the population that is paradigmatically anti-taxation.
Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called “a sense of group position”. That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness, in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies. The poor were described as “people not trying to work” and “the ones not doing anything”.
On the other hand, the rich were also maligned as undeserving. They were unflatteringly characterized as “the big guys”, “the fat cats”, and “executives paying themselves millions”.
We were conducting our interviews after the financial meltdown, at the heights of public debate about various federal stimulus and bailout policies, and the mass media helped frame our respondents’ discussions. The importance of our findings is in how people brought these economic issues to life in everyday discourse.
In ordinary talk, these matters are not really about balancing budgets and encouraging growth. They are about a moral sense of right and wrong. They are about asserting one’s belief about who should and should not be rewarded by the policies of the federal government. (And it’s worth noting here that even though we attempted to engage people in talk about all forms of taxation, people generally only wanted to talk about federal income tax.)
Ultimately, our respondents’ discursive use of the income tax – as a symbol of a morally illegitimate, exploitive relationship between hardworking middle-class people, and the rich and poor who exploit them – helps to illuminate why tax talk occupies such a central place in American political discourse. Among other things, it clarifies what American conservatives talk about when they talk about taxes. Fiscal debates are about more than money; they are also about the meanings people attribute to how that money is collected in the first place.
The Tea Party is a vivid example. Although the rhetoric of the Tea Party concerns taxes, this is not the main policy concern of the movement. Instead, Tea Party activists use anti-tax rhetoric to position themselves symbolically as a righteous group burdened by policies they believe only benefit the rich and the poor. Thus, when Americans lash out at “takeovers”, “massive taxes”, and “bailouts”, they are locating these fiscal issues within a more general cultural narrative. And that story is of a hardworking middle class besieged on all sides.
In other words, their tax talk is about dollars, but it is also about sense. The sense of self of America’s squeezed middle class.