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Think Again: The Tea Party’s Forebears Are a Movement of the Rich

Anti-tax march

SOURCE: Flickr/Bob Simmons

Tea Party protestors take part in an anti-tax march outside the Capitol in Washington, September 12, 2010.

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It is an unfortunate irony of our age that describing academics’ work as “journalism” and journalists’ work as “history” risks insult to the respective authors. Each profession suffers tremendously from its prejudice against the other. Academics rarely write with sufficient clarity to communicate outside their specific disciplines and often neglect to draw useful conclusions, lest they be accused of overreaching their evidence; conversely, journalists rarely imbue their stories with sufficient context to reveal a situation’s underlying complexity. As a consequence, even relatively conscientious reporting can be misleading—often focusing to a fault on the “new” in “news.”

Isaac William Martin, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego, has written an eloquent and powerful new book that demonstrates exactly the kind of history our benighted public debate so desperately needs. Rich People’s Movements: Grassroots Campaigns to Untax the One Percent examines the historical predecessors of the contemporary Tea Party movement. Martin’s work expands not only our knowledge of American history but also of the American present.

Martin writes that, “Social movements that explicitly defend the interests of the rich and the almost-rich have been a recurring feature of American politics” throughout our history. Such movements tend to occur when their leaders take “advantage of the structure of political opportunities established by the American constitutional order.” This is not simply a “recurrent phenomenon.” The rich and their allies “practice a tradition” of recruiting the lower classes to their cause, Martin explains, “because people learn from and imitate the past.” In the case of the anti-tax movement, this tradition began “before the Reagan era and before Barry Goldwater ran for president—before, even, the New Deal.”

In fact, the foundations of the modern Tea Party started with the passage of the 16th Amendment, which gives Congress “the power to lay and collect taxes on incomes,” in 1913. American big business was filled with “rich men who were scared of progressive taxation, but did not know how to fight it.” Enter a fellow named J.A. Arnold, who enjoyed what Martin terms “a talent for flattering rich and powerful men” and organized these rich men into a movement. Arnold would “seek out a rich patron” and organize “tax clubs” on their behalf to fight the imposition of the 16th Amendment. Within a month, he inspired 216 tax-club meetings in Texas alone. While these were formed, according to Martin, “in the pure image of the Texas Farmers’ Union and the Farmers’ Alliance,” the “members” were hardly farmers. Instead, “[t]hey were overwhelmingly bankers,” including fully 93 percent of the conference chairs. Does this sound at all like the modern Tea Party?

But there’s more. According to Martin, Arnold was most successful in the South—where the Tea Party is also most powerful today. In the early 1900s, local planter elites were concerned that increased government spending might “endanger the willingness of the black poor to work for low wages,” thereby threatening their livelihoods. These powerful individuals were receptive to Arnold’s message. Mississippi, Martin reminds us, had been an early ratifier of the 16th Amendment—the state was so poor that fewer than 300 residents owed any federal income tax. Soon after, Arnold’s organizing paid off and, in a complete reversal, the state voted to repeal it.

Like the Tea Party, the anti-tax movement was not entirely confined to the South. During the 1940s, Vivien Kellems—a wealthy Connecticut businesswoman—gave fiery, controversial speeches that are reminiscent of today’s Tea Party rhetoric. She insisted that small businesses in America were “marked for liquidation” and even declared, “[W]e are one step removed in this country from the Firing Squad and the Concentration camp.”

Much like today, moderate Republicans in the past also sought to hold off anti-tax radicals with their own tax proposals. Rep. Daniel Alden Reed (R-NY), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, suggested back in 1944 that Congress needed to resolve the issue through “voluntary Congressional action to establish moderate tax rate levels.” President Dwight D. Eisenhower, while running for his first presidential term in 1952, similarly advised that “a prudent and positive administration should be able to approach the goal which the amendment seeks without the difficulty and dangers involved in the adoption or continuing operation of such an amendment to our Constitution.”

The anti-tax movement has been revived time and again over the course of the last century. In 1978, for instance, a national conversation about taxes was spurred by the local anti-tax movement’s success in California and elsewhere. These victories helped President Ronald Reagan lower the tax rate for the wealthy to just 28 percent under the Tax Reform Act of 1986. The movement resurfaced again in 1993 in response to changes in the estate tax. Later, the movement enabled President George W. Bush to lower taxes on long-term capital gains and dividends to a mere 15 percent. Although the anti-tax movement has often recruited lower-class folks to its cause, these changes have only benefited our society’s most wealthy individuals. As the financial journalist David Cay Johnston points out, “More than 30 percent of America’s capital gains now flow to the fewer than 8,300 households with annual incomes of $10 million or more, while the nearly two-thirds of U.S. households making less than $50,000 collect just 3 percent.”

While the anti-tax movement has sought policy changes that benefit the rich, other forces have stigmatized the poor. Oxford recently published what might be considered a political and intellectual companion to the Martin book: a new, updated version of historian Michael B. Katz’s The Undeserving Poor: From the War on Poverty to the War on Welfare. In it, Katz examines how conservative thought leaders have sought to reduce and delegitimize societal sympathy for the poor. This narrative describes the poor as lazy, indolent, and immoral, and these personal failures are the principal cause of their poverty. Today, these arguments are resurfacing as Congress cuts food stamps and as anti-poverty programs such as Head Start are gutted by the sequester.

Even Ohio Gov. John Kasich (R) expressed alarm at this tendency recently, saying, “I’m concerned about the fact there seems to be a war on the poor. That if you’re poor, somehow you’re shiftless and lazy. You know what? The very people who complain ought to ask their grandparents if they worked at the W.P.A.”

The Tea Party and its anti-tax forebears are a movement of the rich—rooted in elite fear of a more equitable society and legitimized by a belief that the poor are undeserving. This historical context is grossly neglected in our current public debate. Maybe these people ought to read some history.

Eric Alterman is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and a CUNY distinguished professor of English and journalism at Brooklyn College. He is also “The Liberal Media” columnist for The Nation. His most recent book is The Cause: The Fight for American Liberalism from Franklin Roosevelt to Barack Obama, recently released in paperback.

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This is part of a regular column: Think Again

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