When thousands of people in all 50 states assemble to protest government policy, you might suppose that this is news. Not according to the coverage on the front pages of the Washington Post, New York Times, or the Wall Street Journal. The "tea party" rallies went unmentioned. In Washington, D.C., despite temperatures in the 40s and a driving rainstorm, about a thousand demonstrators assembled across from the White House. The front page of the Times found space for a big story with accompanying pictures of competing public demonstrations in Kabul, Afghanistan, but not a word about the American protestors.
Perhaps this snub was intentional. Fox News (becoming a participant itself and not a recorder of events) had been beating the drums for these rallies for days, and some pressies clearly regarded them as therefore necessarily illegitimate. One reporter, Susan Roesgen, who "covered" the Chicago tea party for CNN, was downright confrontational with attendees she interviewed, challenging a protestor who referenced Abraham Lincoln with "What does this have to do with taxes?" The man attempted to explain. But the reporter interrupted him. "Did you know that you are eligible for a $400 rebate? Did you know that your state, the state of Lincoln, gets $50 billion out of the stimulus? That's $50 billion for your state." She then tossed back to the anchor noting that "This is really not family viewing."
What Ms. Roesgen and others like her do not understand is that some people are interested in more than their own narrow self-interest. Perhaps the protestor she interviewed, who was holding his 2-year-old son, is eligible for a tax rebate. And perhaps his state will get a juicy piece of the stimulus money. It is possible, just possible, that such a bribe does not influence him. Perhaps it doesn't buy his support because he is skeptical that his taxes can remain low when the federal government is embarked on a record-shattering spending spree. He may be offended by the bailout culture, and worried that the obligations of taxpayers cannot remain low when it seems that every irresponsible borrower, failed car company, and free spending state is being rescued by the federal government. Additionally, he may be dubious that the government will spend the money wisely. It has been rumored that government spending has produced waste, fraud, inefficiency, and corruption. But he also may simply believe that engorging the government and enfeebling the private sector -- no matter who is writing the checks -- is not good for the economic or spiritual health of the country.
The tea parties demonstrated that resistance to big government persists in the hearts of many Americans. And yet, Roesgen has a shadow of a point. When the vast majority of Americans are getting benefits from the government but not paying the bill, the constituency for tax reform does shrink. As Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam note in their book "Grand New Party": "Just before the Reagan tax cuts, a median-income four-person family paid about 12 percent of their total income in federal income taxes. Reducing that burden, predictably enough, yielded a political windfall for Republicans ... Today the bite the federal income tax takes out of working class and middle-class paychecks stands at roughly half the pre-Reagan level."
A recent Gallup poll found that only 46 percent of Americans say their taxes are "too high." Fifty-two percent of those earning between $30,000 and $75,000 said their taxes were "about right." IRS data show why this should be so. Those earning more than $388,806 in 2006, the top 1 percent of earners, paid about 40 percent of the taxes. The top 5 percent, those earning above $153,542, paid 60 percent of the taxes. And the top 10 percent, those earning more than $108,904, paid more than 70 percent of all taxes. Some, including President Obama, argue that the wealthy were disproportionately benefited by the Bush era tax cuts. But as the American Enterprise Institute's Kevin Hassett has pointed out, the tax share shouldered by the wealthy increased more than the share of income going to that group during the past decade.
Still, the numbers suggest that income tax reductions are not going to be the royal road back to popularity for the Republican Party. The path back to political viability will have to be found elsewhere. More on that in future columns.