How Americans use “tax talk” to assert their own status

In a timely follow-up to an earlier post, a sociologist further explains a study about “tax talk” in America:

Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called “a sense of group position.” That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies…

The importance of our findings is in how people brought these economic issues to life in everyday discourse. In ordinary talk these matters are not really about balancing budgets and encouraging growth. They are about a moral sense of right and wrong. They are about asserting one’s belief about who should and should not be rewarded by the policies of the federal government, and it’s worth noting here that even though we attempted to engage people in talk about all forms of taxation, people generally only wanted to talk about federal income tax.

Ultimately, our respondents’ discursive use of the income tax – as a symbol of a morally illegitimate, exploitive relationship between hard-working middle-class people, and the rich and poor who exploit them – helps to illuminate why tax talk occupies such a central place in American political discourse. Among other things, it helps to illuminate what American conservatives talk about when they talk about taxes.

Fiscal debates are about more than money; they are also about the meanings people attribute to how that money is collected in the first place. The Tea Party is a vivid example. Although the rhetoric of the Tea Party concerns taxes, this is not the main policy concern of the movement. Instead, Tea Party activists use anti-tax rhetoric to position themselves symbolically as a righteous group burdened by policies they believe only benefit the rich and the poor.

This sounds like boundary making, to put it into terms used in the sociology of culture. One way groups can differentiate between themselves is to draw strong symbolic and moral boundaries. In this case, paying taxes is seen as this moral boundary. Hard-working Americans pay their “fair share” while those above and below them find ways to shirk their civic duty. This is a clear value judgment that is then used to back or undergird political action.

Given the current political situation, we need a follow-up study that then looks at how taxes are talked about in social groups beyond this limited sample. As I noted in the earlier post, this ethnographic study had a targeted sample: “24 semi-structured, open-ended interviews with white Southerners who owned or managed small businesses—a demographic group that is typically anti-taxation.” How do other Americans wield taxes as a symbolic and moral boundary in their own actions and politics? President Obama has clearly used another moral boundary, suggesting those with more income and wealth should be paying more in taxes. This is a different kind of “fair share” but it might also give these higher-income Americans their own moral boost.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s