The social science research that explains why Republicans are losing the battle of public opinion.
Congressional Republicans have succeeded in passing a signature $1.5 trillion rewrite of the tax code, which now awaits President Donald Trump’s signature. Yet the prospect of lower taxes has not sold the public at large on the bill. Surveys find that the bill is relatively unpopular, with more people disapproving of the tax-reduction package than approving of it. Indeed, the bill is considerably less popular than previous tax cuts overseen by Presidents Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. Americans generally despise paying taxes—we literally had a revolution about it—so this is quite a neat trick.
So, what’s different this time? Undoubtedly, it’s no single thing. For example, Trump is considerably less popular than Reagan and Bush were when they and their party pushed through their own tax-relief packages, and some of this ill will is presumably spilling over to legislative initiatives he is associated with. What’s more, the bill received far less bipartisan support than previous tax overhauls, particularly the Reagan tax cuts of the 1980s. Not a single Democrat joined the GOP in supporting the new bill in either the House or the Senate. With solid opposition like this, Democratic partisans among the general public may have received a stronger signal than in previous eras of tax legislation that the bill is unworthy of their support. And, as conservative pundits have complained, the media coverage of the effort has been overwhelmingly negative.
But there may be another factor behind the lack of public support for the tax overhaul: the public’s perception that some people are more likely to cash in than others. Though the bill will offer most taxpayers some relief in the near term, analysts believe that the benefits to corporations and relatively wealthy taxpayers will be much greater—especially over the long haul. Importantly, the public seems to see this: Recent polling suggests that most people see the bill as a boon to the wealthy above all.
Still, even if the rich are likely to benefit the most from the new tax cuts, shouldn’t the promise of some tax relief generate at least some enthusiasm for the bill in the broader public? As it turns out, many years of research in both psychology and political science suggest not. For the most part, studies indicate that self-interest in the pocketbook sense matters a lot less than we assume: Citizens are not moved to political action by perceived shifts in how they are doing as isolated individuals. They can, however, be roused to political anger when they think others will end up doing better in comparison to people like them—that is, when they experience what social scientists refer to as “relative deprivation.” Thus, even the promise of a few more dollars in one’s wallet might be dissatisfying if other folks end up with thousands more.
Relative deprivation can produce an especially strong reaction when a policy seems to make one’s own group worse off compared with some other group of people. This group element seems to be present in people’s thinking about the GOP tax bill. Since most people tell pollsters that the wealthy and large corporations will benefit disproportionately from the tax rewrite, it’s quite likely that many citizens have concluded that this round of tax relief will benefit “them” (the wealthy and large corporations) more than “us” (average Americans).
Psychologists also find that relative deprivation can be especially powerful when it appears to violate some standard of fairness. So, if a citizen thinks that tax reform will benefit the wealthy more than the average person and that the wealthy already fail to pay their fair share, her anger might be stronger.
Although citizens’ perceptions about what makes taxes “fair” are complex, polls suggest that most Americans do not believe that upper-income people and corporations pay enough in federal taxes. For example, according to Gallup’s 2017 Economy and Finance Survey, when asked whether they felt various groups paid their “fair share” of federal taxes, 63 percent felt that the wealthy paid too little in taxes. Sixty-seven percent felt the same way about corporations. In contrast, 51 percent felt that middle-income people paid too much in federal taxes. Other recent research indicates that tax provisions that appear to help the wealthy avoid taxes are seen as especially unfair.
So maybe the level of opposition we are seeing to the bill should be no surprise. Even if many taxpayers knew that they would personally see a lower tax bill in the next few years, they might still feel like they had gotten a raw deal—and perhaps an unfair deal—relative to the well-off. In this regard, even the assumption that citizens are aware of the benefits that many taxpayers will receive in the near term might be overly generous: A great deal of research in political science suggests that most of us lack the time and resources to become well-informed about the technical details of policy. As a result, there might not be much information out there working against the knowledge that the coming tax reform will in fact aid the rich more than others.
Of course, how people end up feeling about the coming tax reform won’t always boil down to whether they think it unfairly benefits the wealthy more than it helps people like them. For some citizens, feeling like one is on the losing end of the tax deal might be outweighed by partisan considerations. The flip side of the overwhelming Democratic opposition to the tax bill in Congress is the heavy support it received from congressional Republicans. As a result, some Republicans who are not keen on the idea of tax cuts for the wealthy might still end up supporting the bill out of sheer tribal loyalty. Indeed, polls suggest that Republicans at large are more supportive of the bill than Democrats are, though even their support is relatively weak (coming in at only 53 percent in one poll).
Moreover, even if personal self-interest usually matters less than other things when people make up their minds about policy, it can matter in some cases. Defending the bill this week, House Speaker Paul Ryan said that voters might change their minds about the tax bill once they realize how they personally benefit. Maybe that will prove true, but the tax overhaul will still create winners and losers—and the losers are likely to express their displeasure loudly, even if they’re outnumbered by the winners. There’s a social science concept at work here, too. It’s called “loss aversion”: We tend to fear the potential loss of $5 more than we treasure a potential gain of $5. Accordingly, when the costs of a policy are clear and substantial and political messaging makes an issue out of those costs, self-interest can kick in.
This is exactly what happened with Obamacare—we tend to hear more from the relative few suffering from huge premium increases, and less from the majority of recipients who are satisfied with the subsidized health care they’re getting for the first time. With taxes, changes made by the bill will have a big impact on certain taxpayers. For instance, the overhaul’s trimming of the state and local tax deduction is likely to increase the taxes of many citizens living in high-tax states like California, New Jersey and New York. Should Democrats choose to highlight this change when campaigning in these states next year, voters might act on more than a mere distaste for how much the tax plan’s tilt toward the wealthy—potentially adding to the headwinds the GOP is facing going into the 2018 elections.