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My New Book!

Thursday, April 11, 2013

April 11, 2013: Taxes in America: The Populists and Taxes

[As you finalize your taxes—not you, I know you’re done already, I mean everybody else—this week’s series will focus on some American moments and issues related to this controversial national theme. Leading up to a special weekend post that will frame that theme very differently!]
On the influential third party’s support for an income tax, and how that history reinforces yet changes our perspective on the politics of taxation.
In 1892, the People’s party (generally known, then and now, as the Populist party) held its first national convention in Omaha, the only convention at which the party would nominate its own third-party candidate for president (it did nominate a vice presidential candidate for the 1896 Democratic ticket). The convention nominated James B. Weaver of Iowa as that candidate (with Virginia’s James Field as his vice presidential nominee), and passed the so-called “Omaha Platform” (which had been drafted by Minnesota Congressman Ignatius Donnelly) to express the principles for which that candidate and the party were running. That platform addressed multiple controversial issues, both in its list of “demands” and in the subsequent “Expressions of Sentiments”; but among the former, stated as clearly as any single idea in the platform, was this sentence: “We demand a graduated income tax.”
The Populist party and the Omaha Platform comprise interesting and significant national histories in their own right, but that specific demand proved particularly influential, and is telling in at least two distinct yet complementary ways. For one thing, when the Democratic Party explicitly allied itself with the Populists in 1896—both by aligning presidential candidate William Jennings Bryan with that aforementioned vice presidential nominee, Georgia Senator Thomas Watson; and by adopting aspects of the party’s platform—it did so in significant measure by endorsing a federal income tax, the first time that one of the two major parties had done so in its national platform. The two parties’ political identities and priorities were of course far different in the late 19th century than they are in the early 21st; but this endorsement of the income tax could be seen as one of the Democratic Party’s earliest moves toward its overall identification with taxation as a necessary and meaningful part of government’s responsibilities.
In that sense, the existence and arc of the Populists’ support for the income tax likely reinforces our general, communal perspective on the politics of taxation. But on the other hand, I think it’s worth noting the complex dynamics of social roles and classes in these moments and details. The Populists were the self-identified party of farmers, laborers, and the working class, and articulated their support for the income tax (as with every part of their platform) in contrast to the bankers, railroad magnates, and other corporate interests in explicit opposition to which the party had come into being. The same could be said of the Democratic Party’s 1896 endorsement of the tax, as part of the presidential platform for “The Great Commoner” Bryan. I would argue that our 21st century narratives tend to frame taxes as the enemy of the working man, created and supported by “elites”—certainly the Tea Party’s rhetoric does so—, but what the Populist influence reveals is that the income tax’s origins lie, in large part, within one of the most working class-centered political movements in American history.
Final taxing topic tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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