The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Why Republican tax cuts are still unpopular

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) in Washington on Wednesday. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)
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When President Trump signed the tax reform package into law last year, the measure was unpopular, but Republicans believed that would change. History suggested they might be right. Over and over again, voters have cheered tax cuts that reserved most of their benefits for the highest tier of earners and corporations, while granting a smallish sliver for everyone else. Give it time, the bill’s supporters argued: This time won’t be different.

We can now definitely say they were wrong. This time is different.

It is less than three weeks until the midterm elections, and not only is there still no surge of support for the Republican tax cuts, they remain resoundingly unpopular. On one hand, it should be little wonder that few fell for the Trump tax con. It rained benefits on the highest earners and wealth holders, while offering pennies to the majority of the population. The nonpartisan Tax Policy Center pointed out late last year that the typical middle-income household saw an annual after-tax gain of around $930. That’s not even $18 a week. No surprise, few noticed it in their paychecks. As for the widely heralded bonuses that companies such as AT&T and Sinclair Broadcasting all but immediately announced they would give out as a result of the law, well, workers aren’t stupid and they know the difference between a permanent hourly raise and a one-time gift.

But, as mentioned earlier, this isn’t how many other tax cuts were received. Since the 1970s, tax cuts from Washington and the states have been greeted with cheers — never mind the fact they mostly benefited the richest among us. The two tax laws signed by President George W. Bush cut the typical federal tax bill of a one-percenter by 25 percent, while giving the bottom 95 percent a mere 10 percent break, according to the estimates made at the time by the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. A majority of people supported the cuts, even as it acknowledged that the wealthy were most likely to benefit. Pollsters and political analysts came to the conclusion that those who supported the cuts simply figured they would take what they could get. “Unenlightened self-interest,” political scientist Larry M. Bartels called it.

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It was all part of a greater identification with business — sort of part and parcel of the era, which celebrated stock market gains as gains for everyone, and made heroes of chief executives famed for their job-cutting skills. Many believed the argument that the increasing amount of money accumulating at the top would trickle down and benefit all. That it never seemed to happen, unless you counted increased access to credit and debt, gave few people pause.

So what changed? It is easy to think that dislike of Trump plays no small role — for many voters, if he’s for it, they’re against it (and vice versa). But there’s much more to it. The Great Recession and its aftermath changed how many viewed government, business, and their roles in the system. The number of people describing themselves as a member of the lower classes increased. Business scandals — from the foreclosure crisis to Wells Fargo and Equifax — and the lack of consequences for executives involved made many Americans even angrier. The Occupy Wall Street slogan “We are the 99 Percent” spread the message about an increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots in our society in a way that decades of academics and journalists writing about inequality did not.

Republicans are also not helping make their own case. Their most recent solution to the increasing federal deficit, which is partly a result of the tax cut? Claiming that it is time to take on entitlements, which is Washington-speak for cutting Social Security and Medicare. On Tuesday, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) told Bloomberg that he blamed entitlement spending for the increased deficit. Social Security and Medicare happen to be quite popular, and the number of people outside the Beltway and the one percent who think they should be cut back to fund tax cuts for Trump, his wealthy peers and corporate America can probably be counted on two hands.

But it is bigger than that. The results of decades of disinvestment are literally all around us. Student-loan debt soared as states cut funding for higher education, sticking millennials who attended college with life-altering tabs. Our infrastructure is in an increasing state of disrepair, with the American Society of Civil Engineers giving it a grade of D-plus.

What’s going on is simple: People increasingly don’t see tax cuts as the answer. In California, where the love affair with anti-tax measures began, a proposition on the November ballot which would roll back an increase in the gas tax to pay for road improvements is foundering. Americans say they would like to see taxes raised before Social Security benefits are cut. Belief in trickle-down economics is fading. An era is coming to an end.