My dissertation examines the causes of the “tax revolt” of the 1970s – including its best-known event, the passage of California’s Proposition 13 in 1978 – as well as the larger significance of the “revolt” for the political economy of the modern United States. It illustrates how the relationships between party politics, social movement activism, policymaking, and public opinion influenced U.S. political and economic realignment from the 1960s through the 1980s. For decades prior to Prop 13, regressive state, local, and payroll taxes rose to record highs. Inflation exacerbated this “pocketbook squeeze” on lower- and middle-income Americans, while exposés of tax “loopholes” that benefitted the wealthy stoked public anger. By the mid-1960s, voters across the country engaged in a now-forgotten “revolt,” defeating local property tax levies at record-high rates. Left-leaning activists – including Ralph Nader, Saul Alinsky, and George Wiley – were the first to successfully harness the public’s tax discontent, both organizationally and legislatively, by framing taxes in terms of distributional fairness. Within the next decade, however, American tax politics would come to be defined by initiatives like Prop 13 and the conservatives, including Ronald Reagan and Milton Friedman, who championed them. Drawing on material from more than a dozen archives across the country and analyses of local, state, and national voting and opinion data, my dissertation explains the puzzle of how a movement that began on the left came to be seen as a key cause of the “rise of the right.”
In answering this puzzle, my dissertation departs significantly from the existing literature authored by historians and social scientists on both the tax revolt and the transformation of American politics and economics since the 1960s, more broadly. Recently, historians have begun casting the “long 1970s” as a “pivotal decade.” In these accounts, the tax revolt assumes a key place in the conservative “backlash” against the racial and economic liberalism of the 1960s, presaging the “fall of the New Deal order” and culminating not only in Prop 13, but also in later events like Reagan’s 1981 tax cuts and the recent “Tea Party” movement. The tax revolt, in this view, is emblematic of whites’ resentment at their hard-earned tax dollars being redirected by liberal government to welfare recipients and people of color. Likewise, sociologists and political scientists have portrayed both the tax revolt and the concomitant welfare state retrenchment as the inevitable outcome of longstanding American social arrangements and political institutions, including the United States’ “adversarial” economic policies, use of “informal” tax subsidies, and racialized welfare politics. My dissertation challenges these accounts. It demonstrates that the “tax revolt” was a movement of economic populism that more often tilted to the left than to the right. It also dispels the myth that a white “backlash” created the revolt. In fact, polls throughout the decade consistently showed that tax discontent cut across lines of race, class, gender, and ideology, while activists from the black freedom struggle were among the first to make taxes a grassroots issue. My dissertation’s most important conclusions are that genuine pocketbook frustrations drove the tax revolt of the 1970s and that the answer to the puzzle of how the tax revolt eventually came to be seen as synonymous with the political right lies in the relationship between party politics, grassroots activism, and public opinion. Specifically, the Democratic Party’s reluctance to embrace the tax politics of left-leaning tax activists and the Republican Party’s willingness to champion the demands of conservative tax activists tilted tax policymaking – but not public opinion or grassroots activism – in a more conservative direction as the decade wore on. While most voters preferred more progressive solutions to the pocketbook squeeze, they ultimately supported conservative tax-cutting measures out of pocketbook anxiety, rather than ideological fervor. As one left-leaning California tax activist said after reluctantly deciding to cast a vote for the property tax-slashing Prop 13, “I want to keep my home.”
I have presented my dissertation research at a variety of professional conferences, including organizing a panel at the Business History Conference and co-organizing a panel at the Policy History Conference. My dissertation research has also been featured in interviews with the History News Network and the Thom Hartmann Show. Since filing my dissertation in September, I have begun revising my dissertation into a book manuscript.
To read my dissertation's Introduction, click here.
In addition to my dissertation research, I am working on three article manuscripts. The first is drawn from chapters three and four of my dissertation and charts the history of the "tax justice" left. The second analyzes the conservative origins of state sales taxes in the 1930s. The third is a data-driven study of the relationship between tax progressivity and welfare state generosity at the state level.
Finally, next year I hope to begin preliminary research for a new project, tentatively titled “Yesterday’s Gone: The New Democrats, the DLC, and the End of New Deal/Great Society Liberalism,” which seeks to explore the rise of modern centrist Democrats in the context of growing economic inequality and persistent racial divides. Like my dissertation, I plan to ground this new project in intensive archival research and extensive use of public opinion data.