Years ago, I spent a summer working in a bicycle shop in Tampa, Florida. I had fully paid healthcare and got a weekly bonus for commuting to work by bicycle. These seemingly liberal policies aside, the shop was a hotbed of virulent conservative rhetoric. What surprised me most at the time was how all sorts of rightwing proclamations were prefaced and postscripted with a reference to taxation.
The plight of those without healthcare was trumped by an appeal to keeping taxes low. The need for tighter security at the US-Mexican border was also justified as a fiscal matter. From bike shop workers and customers alike, I repeatedly heard narratives that implied a failure to pay taxes should disentitle someone to public education or even emergency hospital care. In one particularly hyperbolic outburst, one person in the shop rationalized the hypothetical murdering of a household of migrant workers with the comment, "What's it matter? They don't pay taxes."
For some time now, taxes have been a hot-button political issue, and a great deal of resources are dedicated to the matter in the form of large quantitative public opinion polls. But what such survey data cannot capture is the complexity of what I heard while working at the bike shop. To try to get at the more ethnographic dimensions of everyday tax talk, my co-researcher, Isaac Martin, and I set out to create a study that would, as much as possible, replicate the types of discussions ordinary people have about fiscal policy. We were particularly interested in interviewing white, southern, small business owners – a cross-section of the population that is paradigmatically anti-taxation.
Our findings highlight how people can use tax talk as a way of asserting what sociologist Herbert Blumer called "a sense of group position". That is, tax talk can be a symbolic way for people to proclaim their righteousness, in contrast to those they believe are less deserving. Thus, our interviews were filled with abstract descriptions of people our respondents felt unjustly benefited from federal tax policies. The poor were described as "people not trying to work" and "the ones not doing anything".
On the other hand, the rich were also maligned as undeserving. They were unflatteringly characterized as "the big guys", "the fat cats", and "executives paying themselves millions".
In other words, their tax talk is about dollars, but it is also about sense. The sense of self of America's squeezed middle class.