Inequality Federalism and Economic Self-Interest in Subnational Progressive Tax Politics

Date01 March 2021
Published date01 March 2021
Subject MatterArticles
Political Research Quarterly
2021, Vol. 74(1) 243 –252
© 2020 University of Utah
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1065912920905111
In the realm of redistributive politics, what evidence is
there of the exercise of economic self-interest by low-
income citizens who stand to benefit the most from redis-
tribution? Focusing on the United States, where economic
inequality has steadily grown since the early 1980s (Stone
et al. 2017) and inequality is higher and redistribution is
lower relative to peer nations (Brandolini and Smeeding
2006), do we observe a relationship between an individu-
al’s position on the income ladder and their support for
redistribution? When evaluating the linkage between
individual income and support for redistribution, we find
an interesting disjuncture between studies providing evi-
dence of self-interest in the realm of “abstract” policy
support and work evaluating specific, and often complex,
national policy proposals. To illustrate, existing research
finds that lower income Americans express greater sup-
port than upper income Americans for federal welfare
spending, guaranteed employment, taxation on inherited
wealth, and the abstract principle of reducing economic
inequality (Fong 2001; Kluegel and Smith 1986; Sears
et al. 1980; Soroka and Wlezien 2008). This work sug-
gests that, when it comes to views about general actions
taken by the federal government in the economic realm,
the preferences of lower income Americans appear to be
informed by economic self-interest.
However, influential work by Bartels (2008) demon-
strates that, when it comes to evaluating complex national
tax policies, such as the “Bush tax cuts” in 2001 and
2003, three pieces of evidence for what is termed “unen-
lightened self-interest” emerge: (1) Americans who
believed their own tax burden was too high were signifi-
cantly more likely to support the cuts despite the fact that
the cuts primarily benefited the wealthy, (2) lower income
Americans expressed a greater level of support for the
cuts than upper income Americans, and (3) support for a
specific feature of the tax cuts—the repeal of the estate
tax—was remarkably high among low-income Americans
who likely did not experience personal material gain
from its repeal. Bartels attributes these findings to deficits
in political information and sophistication (cf. Lupia
et al. 2007). Building on the work of Bartels, Piston
(2018), using more recent survey data, found that low-
and high-income Americans’ support for the federal
estate tax did not significantly differ, which he similarly
attributes to the fact that many Americas are not aware
that only the wealthiest pay the cost of the tax. Moreover,
Piston extends the work of Bartels by analyzing public
905111PRQXXX10.1177/1065912920905111Political Research QuarterlyNewman and Teten
1University of California, Riverside, USA
Corresponding Author:
Benjamin J. Newman, School of Public Policy & Department of
Political Science, University of California, Riverside, 900 University
Ave., Riverside, CA 92521, USA.
Inequality Federalism and Economic
Self-Interest in Subnational Progressive
Tax Politics
Benjamin J. Newman1 and Paul Teten1
In a national context of unabated inequality growth and recurrent tax cuts benefiting the wealthy, we have witnessed
a notable rise in “inequality federalism,” characterized by subnational initiatives to redress economic inequality
through progressive taxation and social spending. While leading research documents the tendency for Americans
to fall prey to “unenlightened self-interest” when evaluating complex national tax policy, recent research suggests
that the simplicity and clarity of emerging subnational redistributive initiatives facilitates the enactment of economic
self-interest, particularly among lower income citizens. This short article builds on prior work by offering the most
extensive analysis to date of the role of economic self-interest in public support for subnational progressive tax
policies. Drawing upon opinion polls covering eight separate state ballot measures or legislative enactments, we find
that in each instance the greatest level of support for the respective progressive tax policy is observed among lower
income citizens.
inequality, federalism, public opinion, redistribution, taxation

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