Why are Democrats so afraid of taxes?

Most people are fine with paying them.

Why are Democrats so afraid of taxes?

Most people are fine with paying them.

Welcome to TAKE DOWN, a column in which Sean McElwee holds pundits accountable for their hot garbage takes (and isn't afraid to be held accountable for his).

What The Pundits Say

When Democrats try to appeal to the almighty college-educated voters, they tend to emphasize their opposition to anything that would bring about tax increases. In June Jon Ossoff, a candidate in Georgia’s sixth district who narrowly lost earlier this year, said that he didn’t “support any increase on income tax rates.” An August article in The Los Angeles Times reported that California Congressional candidate Katie Hill told a private group that “one of the issues she can’t discuss directly is single-payer health care.”

In a February Bloomberg piece, columnist Conor Sen correctly argued that Democrats need to win over districts like those in California that moved toward Clinton. However, Sen ultimately concluded that the winning message for Democrats will be one of free trade and global business, rather than labor and class issues. And sure enough, when Democratic candidates try to woo the suburbs, they tend to tone down their progressive message in favor of the more conservative-minded talking points of technocracy, deficit reduction, and bipartisanship out of the mistaken view that college-educated voters care more about the deficit than their children’s education.

Political analysts like John Judis have long argued that the Democratic party was doomed due to its opposition to higher taxes and redistribution among college-educated suburban Americans. In a 2015 National Journal article titled “Dear Democrats, Populism Will Not Save You,” Judis wrote that “middle-class voters became susceptible to fears that they would have to pay higher taxes in order to aid those below them.” In another piece from the same year, he argued that college-educated voters exhibit “more marked opposition than any other educational grouping to government spending.”

This vision of tight-pocketed college-educated whites persisted after Trump's electoral victory, with New York magazine writer Eric Levitz writing about "the growing number of upper-middle-class Democrats who like the parts of the progressive agenda that don’t cost them money (legal abortion, gay marriage, humane immigration policy, etc.) but have no great appetite for issues of labor or redistribution."

In 1988, the philosopher Richard Rorty wrote in his book Achieving Our Country that “suburban white-collar workers — themselves desperately afraid of being downsized — are not going to let themselves be taxed to provide social benefits for anyone else. At that point, something will crack.” This sentiment has been cited by some on the left, who view college-educated whites with skepticism because many believe they will impede a leftward movement within the Democratic Party.

Democrats Lose When They Abandon Class Rhetoric

Congressional voting records don’t suggest that the way to win over college-educated Americans is through a moderate, skills-based, austere platform, nor do they suggest that there is some unique allergy to spending among college-educated people. Democratic politicians who represent a higher share of college-educated people have more liberal voting records in the House and Senate. Despite the focus on the purported conservatism of college-educated whites, surveys consistently suggest that college-educated whites have progressive preferences on issues from health care to guns to climate change. Democrats are not wrong to target the suburbs for opportunities to pick up seats, but they are wrong to believe that the way to win these voters is by communicating a mushy centrism and avoiding talking about tax increases.

Such a trope is rooted in the politics of the ‘80s and ‘90s, when Democrats were pilloried as the party of high taxes and big government. The widespread rejection of property tax hikes in California, coupled with the rise of President Ronald Reagan, left Democrats in the dust. Ever since, Democrats have struggled to gain the upper hand on tax issues, while feeling like they were constantly on the wrong side of public opinion. After “tax and spend big government liberals” like George McGovern and Michael Dukakis lost bids for the presidency, Democrats thought they had a new model in President Bill Clinton, who declared the “Era of Big Government” to be over in his 1996 State of The Union speech.

Democrats are wrong in communicating a mushy centrism to voters.

But Clinton made a major tactical error as president. By leaving the Republican party a budget surplus when he left office in 2000, Clinton set the stage for President George W. Bush’s tax cuts. Republicans chose to spend down that deficit on tax cuts, rather than funding government services. In turn, Clinton gained very little in terms of policy achievements (a recent collection of his biggest accomplishments included a desert protection act — important, sure, but impossible to compare to Obama��s achievements). Under Obama, Democrats regained their footing, and the government was able to successfully raise taxes on the rich and dramatically expand the social safety net. Still, Obama’s campaign frequently received calls from donors and consultants warning him that he was being too mean to bankers. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s campaign abandoned class-based rhetoric, a strategy that paid off in winning over voters making $250,000 or more, but that lead many working and middle-class voters to stay home.

The structure of inequality has benefited Democrats electorally: rather than aiding the broad upper class (say, the top-fifth of the income distribution), the economy has given gains to a small sliver of the one percent — or even one percent of the one percent. The result is wage stagnation, even from the highly educated moderate-income voters who are supposedly allergic to taxes. Democrats can safely advocate for taxes on the rich without many electoral consequences: less than two percent of Clinton’s voters in 2016 made more than $250,0000 a year, according to my analysis of Cooperative Congressional Election Studies. And according to American National Election Studies data from 2016, 74 percent of non-college Americans and 72 percent of college-educated Americans think it’s harder to get ahead in America compared with 20 years ago.

The Suburbs Yearn For Class War

If the passage of the GOP tax bill in December shows us anything, it is that if Democrats bring class war to the suburbs, they might be surprised by which side suburban voters join. Far too many people buy into the narrative, outlined by pundits like John Judis, that college-educated whites balk at economic redistribution. The reality is far from this notion: the chart below, which I created using American National Election Studies 2016 data, shows that white people’s views on class issues are quite similar across education levels. College-educated whites are about equal to non-college-educated whites in terms of their embrace of class politics.

In a ten-question economic issues scale I created using the same data, (including job guarantee, millionaire’s tax, support for government services and spending), working class and college educated whites are less than a percentage point apart. This is not surprising when we consider the structure of inequality: the rise of inequality in America has not benefited college-educated folks, it’s mostly benefited the owners of capital. The Republican party, which has long sought to win over the suburbs by contrasting their low-tax vision with a racialized caricature of liberalism, have now designed a tax cut that will crush upper-middle-class voters while giving a massive handout to corporate interests.

Among people of color, support for class-based politics is higher and, again, there is no evidence of aversion to class politics among those who are college educated. People of color make up 14 percent of college-educated voters, but are universally liberal. According to the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Studies survey, 79 percent of college-educate people of color voted for Clinton in 2016 (along with 80 percent of non-college people of color).

As I argued with political scientist Spencer Piston in The Nation last year, the American public dislikes the wealthy and is incredibly supportive of policies to tax the one percent. Polling suggests that Americans broadly oppose the recently passed Republican tax bill and most college-educated whites see it as a handout to the rich at the expense of their pocketbooks. According to a December Quinnipiac poll, 61 percent of college-educated whites said that the GOP tax plan, passed late last year, favors the rich at the expense of the middle class, compared with 48 percent of non-college-educated whites. Among whites with a college degree, the tax plan has a net unfavorability of 27 points (30 percent approve, 57 percent disapprove), compared with a 3 point net disapproval among non-college whites (37 percent approve, 40 percent disapprove).

Tax hikes on the rich to fund child care, universal health care, higher education, and a green infrastructure bank would immensely benefit both the college-educated and non-college folks who are seeing their standard of living threatened by the GOP. According to Global Strategy Group polling, 85 percent of working-class whites and 80 percent of college-educated whites support higher taxes on the one percent.


Class politics do not threaten the Democratic Party — they may be the only way to save it. But all camps in the Democratic Party are grasping at different parts of the problem. Many strategists on the Hillary Clinton-end of things have rightfully noted that a shift in college-educated white support for Democrats is a positive harbinger for the party. But they have seemingly failed to grasp that the Bernie Sanders wing has a point: these voters can be won over on classic tax and spend social democracy. In 2016, only three percent of college-educated white Clinton voters made more than $250,000 a year, according to the Cooperative Congressional Election Study from that year. Far from worrying about taxes, these voters are increasingly worried about proving health care and child care for their children. Most have seen their retirement security erode and worry about whether their children can afford college. Instead of trying to appeal to a mushy center that doesn’t really exist, Democrats should embrace high taxes, particularly on the rich, to fund social services. The public is ready.

Sean McElwee is a freelance writer in New York City. He last wrote about how Democrats do not need to move to the center.