Wednesday, May 9, 2018

Kornhauser on Anti-Tax Lobbying during the New Deal

Marjorie E. Kornhauser, Tulane University School of Law, has posted The "Invisible Government" and Conservative Tax Lobbying 1935-1936, which is forthcoming in Law and Contemporary Problems 81:2 (2018):
By the 1920s lobbying in the United States was so pervasive that many congressman and commentators feared that it was an “invisible government” unduly influencing legislation and distorting democracy. Of particular concern was a new style of lobbying that used recent psychological research and mass media to shape public opinion and motivate voters to pressure legislators to act in their favor. Many viewed “patriotic” societies as the most common — and most invidious — practitioners of these techniques. These groups, generally formed by small numbers of wealthy people, vociferously advocated for the American form of government which they defined as one with a very limited central government and strong states’ rights. Consistent with this view, they claimed that many federal programs and policies were unconstitutional and opposed the high taxes that funded them.

This Article describes the 1935–1936 tax activities of two such organizations — the Sentinels of the Republic and the American Liberty League. These two groups helped delineate the parameters of politically-possible tax laws and policies. They did so by bombarding the public with a standard conservative message that high taxes endanger American democracy. Their method of conveying this message, however, was anything but standard. They flooded the mass media with often biased (mis)information that did not clearly specify the source of the information. Frequently they used entertaining, attention-catching gimmicks and rhetoric to do so.

Today, some conservative groups use similar methods to deliver similar messages with the same goal of shaping public opinion and actions. There are other similarities between then and now. First, the eras share many general conditions: economic uncertainty, divisive politics, and large social upheavals. In both eras the lobbying occur(ed) in the context of presidential elections in which actual results overturned widely held political expectations. In both eras tax legislation is/was a priority and very much contested. Additionally, in both periods, new forms of mass communications allowed wider and more effective dissemination of (mis)information. Back then it was radio and film; now it is the internet and social media. Then and now, individuals and groups more-or-less anonymously contribute(d) large sums of money to be used in often subtle or invisible ways to influence the public. Given these similarities, it is not surprising that in both eras concern about lobbying’s deleterious effects on the democratic process increased.

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