Americans want people to pay their taxes and tax cheats to be held accountable.
Over decades of surveys, Americans have described taxpaying as a responsibility to the country and reacted extremely negatively to the idea of tax cheating. Even when respondents are prompted to think about government waste, very large majorities say that not paying all your taxes is wrong.
It seemed possible that Trump’s election would change these answers. After all, he broke with bipartisan tradition by refusing to release his tax returns and by declaring tax avoidance to be the “smart” thing to do. But whatever people think of Trump, nearly everyone opposes cheating on taxes. In 2019, 95 percent of Americans described paying your fair share of taxes as a civic duty and 91 percent agreed that “everyone who cheats on their taxes should be held accountable.”
Most Americans worry that rich people aren’t paying enough taxes and want to raise their tax rates
About 6 in 10 Americans think the wealthy are paying too little in taxes. In fact, Americans think the main problem with the tax system, ahead even of the tax code’s complexity and the size of their own tax bills, is that corporations and the wealthy are avoiding their fair share of taxes.
It is no surprise that a majority of Americans express support for progressive taxation and for a wide array of proposals to increase taxes on the rich, including higher top income tax rates, mandatory minimum income tax payments and new wealth taxes. Even the much-pilloried estate tax is more popular than you might think; plans to expand the estate tax are more popular than plans to repeal it. Anger at wealthy tax avoidance might also help explain the striking unpopularity of the 2017 tax cuts.
Ironically, some people who support a flat tax do so because they believe that such a system would make the wealthy pay more. In reality, a flat tax would be a windfall for the wealthy. But in interviews, I’ve found that supporters of a flat tax tend to perceive the current system as so riddled with “loopholes” as to be regressive and, therefore, conclude that a flat tax would be higher for the wealthy.
This view is reinforced, of course, when prominent people such as Trump end up paying next to nothing. In other words, Americans are wrong that a flat tax would improve matters but correct that the tax code is regressive when it comes to the super-rich.
Working-class Republicans want the rich to pay more taxes, but they aren’t likely to vote for Democrats anytime soon
In principle, a progressive economic platform might help Democrats make inroads with working-class Republicans. When it comes to raising taxes on the rich and corporations, Democratic voters are unified and Republicans are divided. Overall, about 1 in 5 Republicans, mostly working-class, hold economic views more in line with Democrats than their own party. These voters can be swayed toward even more progressive views when they are given more information about tax policy. For instance, lower-income Republicans become more supportive of the estate tax when they are told it is paid by the rich.
But survey results don’t necessarily translate into voting behavior. With the hyper-partisanship of contemporary American politics, as well as the success of the Republican Party in using racial and ethnic resentment and cultural issues to unify their base, few Republicans are likely to switch parties because they hope that a Democratic administration will raise taxes on rich people.
While the GOP strategy has kept most White voters in the Republican fold, the Democrats may have helped. In 2016, unlike in previous elections, Democrats failed to convince voters that they were the party most likely to stick it to the wealthy. Voters who expressed resentment of the rich were no more likely to support Hillary Clinton than Trump.
The president’s tax returns have certainly given Joe Biden an opportunity in tonight’s debate to cast the Republican Party as the party of corrupt big business. If he does so, it will be a return to the traditional rhetoric that Democrats have used since at least the New Deal — and a break from the recent past.
Vanessa Williamson is a senior fellow in governance studies at the Brookings Institution and the author of “Read My Lips: Why Americans Are Proud to Pay Taxes” (Princeton University Press, 2017).