Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Kornhauser on Hidden Taxes and the 1936 Election

Remembering the "Forgotten Man" (and Woman): Hidden Taxes and the 1936 Election is a new article by Marjorie E. Kornhauser, Arizona State University College of Law. It is forthcoming in Studies in the History of Tax Law, John Tiley, ed. Here's the abstract:
Hidden (indirect) taxes were a major theme in the Republican Party's attempt to defeat Roosevelt in the 1936 presidential election. Republicans argued that New Deal programs were not free, but rather, were funded by the very people they were supposed to help - the common or "forgotten" men and women--who paid in the form of increasingly heavy hidden taxes on everything from bread to electricity. By stressing the issue of hidden taxes, Republicans hoped to reveal Roosevelt's hypocrisy, raise the average voter's "tax consciousness," and thereby undermine support for Roosevelt. Once sensitized to taxes, the masses would - Republicans believed - vote for Landon because he would provide the necessary relief and economic stimulants in a less costly manner and would reform the tax system to rely more on direct taxes such as the income tax.
Experts versed in public relations - including advertising professionals and journalists - ran the campaign using modern advertising techniques and media to sell Landon to the public, just as they would sell any product. Although the hidden tax campaign was aimed at all the forgotten people, women were both major targets and active participants in their traditional private roles as wives and mothers and in their public roles as voters, workers, and investors.
Despite its ultimate failure to defeat Roosevelt or to initiate the tax reform which many contemporaries hoped would follow the exposure of hidden taxes, the hidden tax campaign did successfully gain media attention and engage many voters in political action. Its tactics remain in use today. Modern anti-tax campaigns, using populist rhetoric and exploiting modern media, are remarkably similar to those used in the 1936 campaign: partisan attacks that confuse more than they illuminate (estate tax effects and burdens), catchy phrases (the death tax), attention getting gimmicks (reenacting the Boston Tea Party), and the same strident rhetoric about soaking the rich and burdening the forgotten (middle class) taxpayer. The end results also appear to be the same today as they were in 1936. The masses do not achieve any better understanding of the true tax burdens and establishing the foundations of a better tax system through tax reform remains a dream.