The Democratic Experiment: New Directions in American Political History

By Meg Jacobs; William J. Novak et al. | Go to book overview

Chapter Eleven
THE UNEASY RELATIONSHIP

DEMOCRACY, TAXATION, AND STATE BUILDING SINCE
THE NEW DEAL

Julian E. Zelizer

MOST POLITICIANS SENSE that Americans hate taxes. We are a nation with a long tradition of tax revolts. Yet despite an abundance of historical studies about state building in the twentieth century, few have confronted the reality of tax resistance and fiscal constraint. Even research on American antistatism has emphasized the intellectual history of liberalism and republicanism rather than oppo- sition to federal taxes, the most concrete manifestation of antistatism. Hostility toward federal taxation has remained extremely strong in all income brackets, ranging from blue-collar workers who were central ben- eficiaries of New Deal programs to elite financial investors. Resistance to local taxation has ebbed and flowed to a greater extent, since the benefits of taxation have been more apparent to constituents; those taxes have also conformed to the localist ethos that Thomas Sugrue examines in the following chapter.

As a result of tax resistance, and the perception among policy makers that tax resistance is and was strong, state builders have been handcuffed by fiscal constraint. The Founding Fathers virtually guaranteed that the task of modern state building would be extremely difficult by locating the power to levy federal taxes in the House of Representatives, where it would be most susceptible to democratic pressure. Revealingly, much of the Progressive Era state growth occurred before the nation had a federal income tax in place; tariffs were the principle source of federal revenue, and the federal income tax touched only a small portion of the population after it became permanent in 1913.1 The next major expansion of the federal government, the New Deal, preceded the creation of a mass in- come tax. Therefore, the problem of revenue extraction has loomed large throughout the twentieth century. In the nineteenth century, federal fiscal capacity was not as important, since the principal form of government

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