The 1 percent played Tea Party for suckers

When the super-rich feel threatened, they foment grass-roots uprising on their behalf. Here's why it always works

Published September 7, 2013 4:00PM (EDT)

Excerpted from "Rich People’s Movements: Grass-roots Campaigns to Untax the 1 Percent" 

On Election Day, November 2, 2010, more than eight million Americans voted for congressional candidates who claimed to represent the Tea Party and its grassroots insurgency against the federal government. Most of the Tea Party candidates won. Their victory marked a sea change in American government. Even before the winners were sworn in, reporters began to refer to the 112th Congress as “the Tea Party Congress.” On the day of the swearing-in, the prominent Tea Party backer David Koch likened the electoral success of the Tea Party to the American Revolution. “It’s probably the best grassroots uprising since 1776 in my opinion,” he said.

The proposals of the new Congress had little in common with the revolutionary slogans of 1776, but many of them would be familiar to activists who had participated in the grassroots uprisings on behalf of the rich in the twentieth century.

On January 5, for example, House Republicans introduced a “balanced budget amendment” that was really a tax limitation amendment—modeled on the precedents that the National Taxpayers Union and the National Tax Limitation Committee had furnished in the 1970s. A flurry of other balanced budget amendment bills followed. On January 23, Senate Republicans, led by Orrin Hatch, introduced a tax limitation/balanced budget amendment bill of their own that was even more restrictive.

The next day, Representatives Steve King (R-IA) and Rob Woodall (R-GA) introduced a one-sentence proposal to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment. On March 15, 2011, Representative Ron Paul (R-TX) introduced the Liberty Amendment, precisely as Willis Stone drafted it in 1956.

And throughout the session, Republicans introduced bill after bill to cut top income tax rates and make estate tax repeal permanent. Many of these tax proposals were regressive enough that they might have made even an Andrew Mellon blush. But they would have warmed the heart of J. A. Arnold if he could have lived to see them. They could almost have been copied from the 1927 program of the American Taxpayers’ League.

Thanks in part to proposals like these, the Tea Party Congress is likely to be remembered as one of the most conservative Congresses in American history. Scholars have described this rightward turn in Congress as “historic,” as “a new phase in the extreme ideological polarization of U.S. politics,” and as a “historically unprecedented development.” And they have pointed to unprecedented conditions to explain it. The historic segmentation of media markets is said to have allowed voters to surround themselves in closed and ideologically extreme social worlds. The influx of money into politics following the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, 558 U.S. 50 (2010), is said to have given an edge to ultraconservative candidates whose policy proposals flatter the pocketbook interests of the very richest Americans.

Some new conditions like these are surely part of the explanation for how such radically inegalitarian tax policy proposals came to dominate the policy agenda of Congress. But these new conditions cannot be the whole story, because so many of the proposals themselves are old: not founding-fathers old, but early-twentieth-century old. They are the harvest of a century of rich people’s movements.

Why Rich People’s Movements Now?

What can we say about the sources of this new radicalism, and how long it is likely to be with us? The answers depend on a proper understanding of the history of rich people’s movements.

Even commentators who recognize that the Tea Party has historical roots might be forgiven for thinking those roots do not go very deep. Social scientists have noticed other movements that share many of the hallmarks of rich people’s movements—including the use of protest tactics by relatively affluent people; the fact that the activists were already fully enfranchised participants in the political system; and the fact that these activists seem to demand the preservation of comfortable consumer lifestyles, rather than the realization of some utopian vision of the future—and have argued that these are distinguishing characteristics of late-twentieth-century social movements. An influential body of scholarship on “new social movements” argues that protest movements took on these characteristics in postindustrial economies of the late twentieth century because economic development had made earlier agrarian and industrial class conflicts passé. The rising incomes of even ordinary wage earners made the late-twentieth-century United States into a consumer society. It is small wonder, to this way of thinking, that some protest movements today consist of affluent consumers protesting their taxes, rather than wage earners protesting their poverty. Another body of scholarship argues that the professionalization of social movement organizations in the late twentieth century made possible a mainstreaming of social protest, by taming the more disruptive protesters and by standardizing tactics so that they became easier for ordinary citizens to learn and apply in new contexts. Some scholars have also credited, or blamed, the mass media for the spread of social movements to the middle classes. Television, for example, brought images of the 1960s protest movements to middle-class households around the country, and thereby taught a new style of politics to previously staid suburbanites. All of these scholars describe how the economic and technological transformations of the twentieth century made the social movement repertoire available to ever-more affluent people. It is tempting to see the rich people’s movements of our time as the endpoint of these transformations—the newest new social movement, the capstone on the social movement society, or the last ripple in the widening circle of people who have appropriated and repurposed the political techniques of the poor.

Whatever the uses of theories like these for explaining the emergence of new social movements in the late twentieth century, they would miss the mark in accounting for rich people’s movements, because rich people’s movements are not that new. When the Texas tax clubs under the leadership of J. A. Arnold mobilized for tax cuts in the top brackets, they were not expressing the demands of suburban consumers in a postindustrial economy; they were advocating for the interests of rural bankers in a predominantly agrarian economy. When Edward Rumely and Vivien Kellems first began to commit civil disobedience in protest against the federal income tax, television had not yet brought images of the Civil Rights movement into the homes of millions of Americans. For much of the twentieth century, these movements relied on tactics that were decidedly old-fashioned even for their times. In the 1940s, Rumely used direct mail techniques to bypass existing civic associations and recruit directly, because that was the model that he had learned in the Progressive Party. In the 1950s, Kellems organized through women’s clubs, argued on the basis of constitutional rights, and attempted to inspire imitators through civil disobedience, because those were the techniques she had learned from the fight for woman suffrage. In the 1960s, Willis Stone recruited supporters for the Liberty Amendment through fraternal organizations and veterans’ organizations, because those were the organizations in which he had acquired his own civic education after the First World War. The tactics of all of these activists hearkened to the early decades of the twentieth century because these social movement entrepreneurs acquired their skills and organizing experience in social movement organizations of that era.

Many activists in rich people’s movements know that their movements have deeper roots in the early twentieth century. In particular, they have often portrayed their movements as reactions to the so-called revolution of 1913. The ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment, according to these activists, was a turning point in the history of the United States. It marked the end of limited government and the beginning of a new era of expanding federal power. If any great social change of the twentieth century paved the way for rich people’s movements, according to this story, it was not economic growth or the development of the postindustrial economy or the development of new communications technologies, but the growth of the federal budget; and that development, the story goes, was set in motion by the Sixteenth Amendment.

This activist story also gets the causal dynamics wrong. It is true that rich people’s movements would not have emerged in the absence of federal taxes on income and wealth. But such movements are not inevitable just because the Constitution authorizes progressive taxes. They did not emerge in direct response to the ratification of the Sixteenth Amendment. To contemporaries, there was no “revolution of 1913.” It was not until after World War I that the dramatic consequences of the new federal income tax became clear. Nor did these movements grow in lock-step with the long-term expansion of the federal budget.

By comparing the campaigns described in this book, we can see instead that rich people’s movements arose episodically in response to immediate policy threats. The particular policies that provoked protest were heterogeneous. The top statutory tax rates on income and wealth nevertheless give us a crude but serviceable index of policy threats to the rich. By fixing our attention on the timing of new campaigns, the figure illustrates the simple point that activists started these campaigns in the wake of policy threats. It was not heavy taxes that caused protest. It was rapid tax increases on the rich that did.

Two late-twentieth-century campaigns look like exceptions to the rule, but these exceptions are more apparent than real. The campaign to revive a tax limitation amendment in 1978, for example, began at a time when top rates of federal income and estate tax were stable. However, activists launched this campaign at that time in order to capitalize on an influential movement for state and local property tax limitation; and that movement was triggered by policy changes that produced a rapid increase in local property taxes. The revival of a campaign for estate tax repeal in 1993, at a time when estate tax rates had not changed for almost a decade, also looks like an exception to the rule. However, the activists who inaugurated that campaign were responding to a proposed increase in the estate tax, and their movement gained adherents when a previously scheduled expiration of the top tax rate was revoked. Even these campaigns were triggered by policy threats.

History teaches us that policy threats are necessary conditions for the emergence of rich people’s movements. Such threats help to explain not just when people felt aggrieved enough to protest taxes on the rich, but also who felt aggrieved enough to support tax cuts for the rich. In every case, the pool of potential recruits extended well below the top tax brackets. The non-rich sympathizers, however, always had particular reasons to see top tax rates as threatening—from the farm mortgage bankers of 1924 who feared that high tax rates advantaged their competitors, to the married women of 1952 who saw that they were subject to higher marginal tax rates than their husbands, to the upper-middle-income taxpayers of 1978 who saw that inflation could push them into higher income tax brackets. Many people like these campaigned for tax cuts in the top brackets because they believed they were also protecting their own economic security.

These movements took advantage of the structure of political opportunities established by the American constitutional order, which may help to explain why they seem so distinctively American. In Western Europe, affluent people who feared taxes on the rich in the twentieth century sometimes started new political parties. But they rarely used the sort of populist tactics employed in the United States, and they never made the sort of constitutional arguments that characterized the American movement. Perhaps it is unsurprising that the American rich and their allies turned to social movement organizing and interest group lobbying instead of third-party politics; the combination of direct presidential elections, single-member districts, and the winner-takes-all electoral system make it difficult for small political parties to achieve anything in the United States. But there is more to the explanation than that. These political institutions merely create obstacles to founding new political parties. They do not dictate which alternative to party politics will be pursued by threatened people.

Why did policy threats to the rich provoke grassroots movements instead of conventional interest-group lobbying? Given the ease with which many rich people have secured selective tax privileges by back-room lobbying, the choice to pursue universalistic benefits for all rich people by means of public grassroots lobbying campaigns is puzzling. The solution to this puzzle is tradition. The rich and their allies joined grassroots social movement campaigns because that is what they were recruited and taught to do by experienced movement entrepreneurs. Those entrepreneurs were passing on tactical skills and lore that they had learned in other movements. To call this set of political practices a tradition is to say that it is more than merely a recurrent phenomenon. It is to say that similar patterns recur because people learn from and imitate the past.

It may be that all social movements rest on a bedrock of tradition. For rich people’s movements, however, the existence of a social movement tradition was almost certainly indispensable. Short-term causes such as policy threats were necessary, but not sufficient, conditions to explain mobilization. Social movement tactics have a history; they must be passed down in order to become available to particular people at a particular time. It is doubtful whether rich people’s movements would exist at all today if activists did not have a long movement tradition to draw on.

Under What Conditions Do They Win?

The history of rich people’s movements may also tell us about their prospects for victory in the future. Even the wildest optimists in the Tea Party Caucus probably did not expect their proposals to become law, at least as long as the Democratic Party retained the presidency and the majority in the Senate. But the comparison of past rich people’s movements shows that such radical proposals may influence policies even when they are not enacted. Rich people’s movements in the twentieth century made extreme demands that made moderate groups appear comparatively reasonable. Sometimes they also used tactics that threatened public order—for example, by calling on businesses to disobey the Internal Revenue Service, or plausibly threatening to call a constitutional convention that could throw American politics into turmoil—and thereby permitted moderate conservatives to sell their own preferred policies as ways to co-opt an unruly movement and restore order. The Tea Party may have similar effects. Its activists have not won the war against the income tax, nor are they likely to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment. By keeping radical tax proposals on the policy agenda, however, they have positioned a radical flank for battles to come.

The history of rich people’s movements shows that the mobilization of a radical flank can indeed influence the shape of federal tax policy. Influential Republican politicians sometimes felt compelled to propose tax cuts in order to obviate the need for more radical proposals to repeal the Sixteenth Amendment. The Republican chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee, Daniel Alden Reed of New York, made this argument explicitly to his collegues in 1944. “[T]he movement to limit federal tax rates by constitutional amendment should be noted,” he wrote; “One way to meet this issue is by voluntary Congressional action to establish moderate tax rate levels.” So did the presidential candidate Dwight David Eisenhower in 1952, when he wrote that “a prudent and positive administration should be able to approach the goal which the amendment seeks without the difficulty and dangers involved in the adoption or continuing operation of such an amendment to our Constitution.” There is no evidence that rich people’s movements had any direct influence on legislation under these leaders. But in a handful of other instances, including the Revenue Act of 1926, the ERTA of 1981, and the EGTRRA of 2001, there is evidence—in the timing of the laws, in the geographic distribution of legislators’ support, and in the statements of some members of Congress—that at least some provisions of the law were intended as responses to movement demands. These acts legislated some of the largest tax cuts in American history. So it is that rich people’s movements, through their influence on the ERTA and the EGTRRA, made a small but real contribution to the growing income inequality—the rise of the so-called 1 percent—that is one of the most important social changes of our time.

Sometimes rich people’s movements had an impact, but at other times, the radical rich found themselves isolated and powerless. Their failure to influence policy is most evident in the case of the Sixteenth Amendment repealers. The activists of the American Taxpayers’ Association and the Committee for Constitutional Government tried for two decades to bend federal tax policy toward greater inequality, with no measurable success. Their peak years of mobilization corresponded to the years when federal income tax rates were highest, and yet there is little evidence that they were able to pull top tax rates down. It is possible that these movements may have exercised a kind of diffuse cultural influence, and thereby helped to restrain policymakers by swaying public opinion against progressive taxation; perhaps federal revenues would have grown even more rapidly in the absence of their grassroots pressure. History does not give us a comparison case that would provide the critical test of this hypothesis. But it is clear that, in many instances, their efforts had no immediate impact. Consider the Liberty Amendment campaign. The peak years of the Liberty Amendment Committee coincided with one of the biggest income tax cuts in American history, but the activists could claim no credit for the Kennedy-Johnson tax cuts. Their radical posture condemned them to stand on the sidelines while liberal technocrats cut rich people’s taxes.

Why were these movements sometimes so influential and other times so impotent? The comparison of campaigns shows that geographically dispersed grassroots mobilization made a difference. Activists sometimes had particular influence when they were able to mobilize in congressional swing districts, as when the tax clubs swayed the votes of Representatives Green and Garner in 1926. As the comparisons across states have shown, policy crafting was also crucial for allowing these activists to get tax cuts for the rich on the policy agenda. Some tax cuts for the rich could not get a serious hearing because they were too politically costly. Activists had the greatest impact when they were willing to craft their policy demands to obscure these costs, and package their favored tax cuts with additional policy benefits for new allies.

But to move beyond agenda access to influence legislation required more than clever policy crafting. It also required a critical mass of ideological allies in Congress and the presidency. There were only three presidents in the last century who allied themselves openly with rich people’s movements—Calvin Coolidge, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush—and it was during their administrations that these movements exercised the greatest sway over legislative outcomes. The late-twentieth-century movement for estate tax repeal provides a critical test of presidential influence. Activists managed to get the Death Tax Elimination Act through both houses of Congress, only to have it vetoed by President Bill Clinton in 2000. Estate tax repeal would become law the following year, when President Bush signed the EGTRRA. The support of the president made the difference.

The program of the party that controlled Congress mattered too. Both the Revenue Act of 1926 and the EGTRRA of 2001 passed Congress when it was united under conservative Republican control. The ERTA of 1981 does not quite fit this pattern. It was passed by a divided Congress, with the help of some Democratic votes in the House. Even in this case, however, it was near-unanimous Republican support that made it possible; and congressional Democrats were under extraordinary pressure from a popular Republican president and an assertive grassroots campaign that nearly called a constitutional convention.

Rich people’s movements, in short, may influence policy when their partisan allies have control of elected policymaking bodies. For this reason, the most important legacy of rich people’s movements for American politics may be the capture of the Republican Party by veteran activists of these movements in the twenty-first century. This also may be the most important lesson of rich people’s movements for students of other American social movements. Sociologists know that activists are most likely to win collective benefits from policymakers when those policymakers are their partisan allies. But our most successful theoretical models of social movements persist in treating the party in power as an external condition, like the weather. The lesson that social movement scholars have drawn from their studies is that a movement may be most influential when its grassroots campaign is timed to match a window of political opportunity opened by its partisan allies in office. The most astute activists in twentieth-century rich people’s movements saw the same historical pattern, but they drew a different conclusion. The lesson they drew was not that they should time their actions carefully, or wait for partisan allies to show up and open a window of political opportunity. It was that they should take over a political party.

The Century of Rich People’s Movements

The first century of rich people’s movements is over. Rich people’s movements emerged in response to big wartime increases in the progressive rates of income tax and estate tax; comparable tax increases are almost unimaginable today. The most influential social movement entrepreneurs who led these movements acquired their skills in social movement organizations of the Progressive Era, and those movements and organizations are mostly long gone too. Rich people’s movements have been thoroughly institutionalized and thereby tamed. Many former activists are now well entrenched in the Republican Party and its allied think tanks, and their tactics are now correspondingly oriented toward inside lobbying. Some movement goals remain unrealized only because they are nigh unachievable. The barriers to amending the Constitution are so high, for example, that the Sixteenth Amendment will almost certainly remain unrepealed. For all of these reasons, it is tempting to think that the story told here is at an end.

I think it is much more likely that the story of rich people’s movements is just beginning. The Tea Party may prove to have been a flash in the pan. The long-term trends, however, suggest that something like it will be back. The population of the United States is growing older. The cost of caring for our elders and our sick loved ones continues to rise. For these reasons, the pressure on the federal budget is unlikely to abate. Pressure on the budget means that pressure for tax increases is unlikely to go away; and the threat of tax increases, in turn, is likely to stimulate more protest. Even when a tax increase can be targeted to a narrow segment of the richest Americans, it is likely to provoke a broader backlash, if people lower in the income distribution believe that this policy change signals further tax increases to come. People need not be dupes in order to protest on behalf of others who are richer than they are. The activists and supporters of rich people’s movements were defending their own real interests, as they saw them. A tax increase on the richest 1 percent may be perceived by many upper-middle-income property owners as the first step in a broader assault on property rights. When it is so perceived, we can expect a movement in defense of the rich.

Knowledge of the history of rich people’s movements will not allow us to predict the date when these movements will arise, or who exactly will join them. Such movements do not arrive like clockwork, any more than tax increases do. What we can predict is that some people will be ready to protest when policy threats come. We can also predict that some skilled movement entrepreneurs will be ready to help them organize. The proliferation of professional tax protest organizations since the 1970s has given rise to a generation of skilled movement entrepreneurs whose experience in rich people’s movements equips them for future campaigns. When policy threats make people ready to protest, there will be no shortage of movement entrepreneurs who have the skills and the mailing lists to recruit them.

No doubt the rich people’s movements of the future will also surprise us. They will exploit new technologies and organizing techniques. They will draw on some very old arguments and policy ideas, but they will recombine them and thereby invent some new ones. They will craft their policy proposals to recruit strange-bedfellows coalitions, just as their predecessors did. We can be confident that they will also continue to have all of the characteristics that so baffled observers of rich people’s movements in the twentieth century. They will use the traditional tactics of the poor on behalf of tax cuts for the rich. They will behave like outsiders, but demand policies designed to benefit people who are consummate insiders in American politics. They will include many protesters who look unusually well heeled, and who will demand collective benefits for people even better off than themselves.

Rich people’s movements have a permanent place in the American political bestiary. As long as one of our great political parties is programmatically allied with the radical rich, it is safe to predict that rich people’s movements will continue to influence public policy in ways that preserve—and perhaps even increase—the extremes of inequality in America.

Reprinted from "Rich People’s Movements" by Isaac William Martin with permission from Oxford University Press USA. Copyright 2013 Oxford University Press USA and published by Oxford University Press USA. ( All rights reserved.

By Isaac William Martin

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