If foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, then Americans have very big minds, indeed.
While trying to make sense of Donald Trump’s statements on tax policy, I was struck by their disparate quality; to call them random is to exaggerate their coherence.
But then I realized that Trump might be on to something. Politicians are vote maximizers, skilled at channeling voter preferences. A developer-turned-reality-star is probably even better at it. So I took a look at recent polls on tax policy – and discovered a nation of Donald Trumps.
In July a poll by Quinnipiac University asked Americans if they “support or oppose increasing taxes on higher-income earners to reduce the amount of taxes paid by the middle class.” It wasn’t close: 60 percent said they liked the idea and only 36 percent opposed it. (All poll data in this post are drawn from the iPOLL Databank provided by the Roper Center for Public Opinion Research at the University of Connecticut.)
So Americans want to soak the rich.
Except when they don’t. A June poll by NBC News and The Wall Street Journalfound a near majority supporting the idea of a flat tax with “one single tax rate for every person”; 47 percent said they would look “much” or “somewhat” more favorably on any candidate espousing the idea.
Trump likes the flat tax, too – except when he doesn’t. Which makes him just like voters, who also harbor some conflicted feelings about a flat tax. In 2011, CBS News found that 32 percent of those polled liked the idea, but 36 percent opposed it. That’s a close call, but hardly a ringing endorsement by any measure. (In fact, the flat tax seems to poll well in the early stages of a campaign, and less well later on; just ask Steve Forbes.)
To be fair, I’m never sure if poll questions on tax reform can really tell us very much. Voters often don’t have enough information to make a considered judgment about specific tax plans, and when questions are worded to impart that information, they often imply their own answer.
What polls do seem to demonstrate, however, is that leading questions (and slated political rhetoric) can be shaped to produce the desired response. In June, Democracy Corps explored the resonance of various talking points offered up by both Republicans and Democrats. Asked if they supported “lower taxes on businesses and middle-class families which will immediately jump-start our economy like it did under Ronald Reagan,” 79 percent said they did, at least a little.
That same poll, however, found that 76 percent supported plans to “raise taxes on the top 1 percent, limit skyrocketing CEO pay and close the performance-pay tax loophole so companies will invest for the long term and create jobs.”
Somewhere, a Democratic strategist deserves a raise.
These views are not wholly inconsistent. Many reduce to a nagging sense that some (rich) people are getting away with murder while other (less rich) folks are getting hosed. That doesn’t strike me as crazy, let alone stupid. But it does strike me as angry. And Trump is a master at channeling anger, whether directed at immigrants, hedge fund managers, the media, or politicians.
When it comes to policy specifics – on tax or anything else – Trump is more or less silent. He deals in broad generalities and emotional declarations. When he deigns to answer a direct question, he stakes out a strong position, only to tweak, denounce, abandon, and deny it later on. It can be hard to keep up.
But that’s the point. In polls, voters endorse a lot of different tax reforms, many in tension with one another and none of them very strongly. Trump has capitalized on that ambivalence. But he’s layered it with a strong dose of anger and resentment. Which, unlike his policy agenda, is no joke.