Tax Day Protest

The cheerleaders during the American revolution led the crowds in chanting, “No Taxation without Representation.”  At least the first part of that cheer has found a permanent place in American political discourse, as activists have found a way to label personal frustration at paying taxes as a moral and political cause.  Every year, conservative and libertarian activists stage protests on tax day.

April 15th (this year, April 18th, but go with me on this) provides an obvious hook for organizing and a news peg for journalists.  I’ve heard rumors of some people who were so grateful to America that they took delight in filling out the forms and writing the check (allegedly, this included the great songwriter, Irving Berlin), but most of us resent the time spent organizing records and, maybe, writing a check for goods and services that we take for granted (roads, food inspection), or even resent (wars, for example, and any kind of waste you want to find).  So, people are more ready to protest–and journalists more willing to cover such protests–on tax day.

Tax Day Protest, Washington DC 2010

Historically, the anti-tax forces have owned the day.  Since the emergence of the Tea Party as an umbrella of conservative causes, demonstrations in Washington–and around the country–have been branded.  The New York Times reported several thousand demonstrators last year,  organized by Tea Party groups, including FreedomWorks, and addressed by political heroes including Michele Bachmann.

This year, however, things may be a little different.  The biggest tea party groups have announced that they’ll be foregoing the Washington rallies in favor of organized events around the country (Roll Call report).  Since the large Republican gains in the 2010 elections, Tea Party groups have had a more difficult time generating large crowds; activists expect elected officials to carry their cause.  Americans for Prosperity’s Tim Phillips, explains, “It’s a little harder on offense. On defense, it’s more unifying. You’re simply saying no.”  (That’s pretty much what I said.)

It’s a great risk for any movement to use the same tactic and generate smaller numbers and less attention.  Announcing that you’re moving out to the grassroots is an effort to make a virtue of necessity.

Meanwhile, liberal activists are staking a new claim on tax day, trying to get into the stories about protest and the larger debate about taxes. is organizing parties, rallies, and other events around the country about tax justice.  It’s not exactly taking pride and pleasure in writing checks to the US Treasury, but an effort to mobilize people who think that you have to pay for worthwhile services from government—but the emphasis is on making the wealthy and corporations pay their fair share.

As a matter of policy, the interesting thing here is that the anti-taxers talk about keeping taxes low for everyone, but their allies on Capitol Hill focus on cutting the taxes of the very rich.  Their opponents focus their rhetoric on the very rich, mostly avoiding the notion that the rest of us might have to pay more for government.

As a matter of movement politics, the question will be whether the anti-anti-taxers get into the stories on Monday and Tuesday, and into the larger political debate.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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