It’s been several days since CBS News tweeted out a clip of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY) floating a 70 percent marginal tax rate on income over $10 million to finance a Green New Deal program, and her comments are still generating news stories, commentary, and bluntly dishonest attacks from the right. It’s unusual to see such a media frenzy surrounding a proposal from a newly elected member of the House. But the glut of coverage has provided a needed lesson in how media discourse on taxes is heavily distorted by conservative policy priorities and right-wing political messaging.
For decades, we’ve been told that tax cuts of any stripe are good, popular, and a political winner. Tax hikes, on the other hand, are presumed to be a political non-starter and something to tiptoe around. The Republican Party obviously bears primary responsibility for this: Anti-tax extremism is a mainstream Republican position, and most GOP politicians will eagerly sign a pledge to never vote to raise taxes. The United States is a low-tax country both by historical and international standards, and yet we’re constantly told that taxes are too high and that economic prosperity can be realized only with still another round of tax cuts.
One consequence of this dynamic is a persistent double standard that treats Republican tax extremism as de rigueur while Democratic proposals to hike taxes on the rich are met with shock, incredulity, and the knee-jerk assumption of political radioactivity. Anderson Cooper’s immediate reaction to Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks was to call them “a radical agenda compared to the way politics is done right now.” Political analysts like CNN’s David Gregory said Ocasio-Cortez wants to “really soak the rich with the idea that that’s ultimately going to help the economy” and that “it’s out of sync with a lot of Americans.”
The assumption that any public discussion of tax increases is politically toxic for Democrats is baked in even though polling shows that strong majorities of Americans believe that the wealthy don’t pay enough in taxes. (The Republican position of slashing taxes for the rich and businesses, meanwhile, is deeply unpopular.) Jacked-up rates on the super wealthy is a historically moderate policy that would help reduce income inequality, which has ballooned since the Reagan era. In spite of all this, pundits and reporters default to treating tax rhetoric like Ocasio-Cortez’s as extreme and unpopular.
This mode of thinking is helped along in part by the fact that Democrats in general don’t aggressively make the case for sharply increasing taxes on America’s ultrarich. But mainly it is perpetuated by bad-faith conservatives who lie and deliberately misunderstand tax policy.
Ocasio-Cortez’s explanation of her thinking on tax policy included a breakdown of the basics of progressive taxation. “Your tax rate, you know, let's say, from zero to $75,000 may be 10 percent or 15 percent, et cetera,” she said. “But once you get to, like, the tippy tops -- on your 10 millionth dollar -- sometimes you see tax rates as high as 60 or 70 percent. That doesn't mean all $10 million are taxed at an extremely high rate, but it means that as you climb up this ladder you should be contributing more.”
My guess is that she included this explanation as a means of inoculating herself against scurrilous accusations that she was proposing a 70 percent rate on all income. Either way, that’s exactly what happened.
Grover Norquist, anti-tax propagandist and president of Americans for Tax Reform, posted a deliberately obtuse tweet arguing that “slavery is when your owner takes 100% of your production” and “Ocasio-Cortez wants 70%.” Sean Hannity (who is very concerned that rich people be able to buy their luxury seacraft of choice) complained that Ocasio-Cortez “wants a 70 percent federal tax rate for the rich” and warned that “would mean no businesses, no wealthy individual would ever invest, spend money, create jobs in a place where they are taking $0.70 or $0.80 of every dollar.”
A top-ranking House Republican got in on the disinformation as well:
It feels safe to assume that all these people know how progressive taxation works and understand what a marginal tax rate is. Even if they don’t, the person they attacked spelled it out for them in basic terms. They’re all just pretending to be ignorant in order to whip up anti-tax sentiment.
The critical thing to understand about this poisonous dynamic is that it will persist so long as figures like Hannity and Norquist remain the loudest voices in the room and are given the space to dishonestly frame any talk of tax increases as extreme and politically damaging for the left. These cretins aren’t going to stop lying, which means if progressives want to change the media discourse on taxation then they'll have to set ambitious policy goals and make unflinching, affirmative cases for them.