As leading Democrats roll out proposals to increase taxes on the rich, the American people are largely behind them.
A majority of people support Democratic proposals to raise taxes on the wealthiest Americans, according to a poll conducted this month for The New York Times by the online research platform SurveyMonkey, though their opinions vary between specific plans. Voters overwhelmingly see income inequality as a problem the government should be trying to address.
Support for taxing the rich cuts across party lines: A majority of Republicans support a proposal from Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, a Democratic presidential candidate, to tax a group of the wealthiest Americans on their net worth. Views on raising the top income-tax rate are more sharply split.
The tax-the-rich sentiment is strongest by far among Democrats, who see it as a moral issue. Subscribing to a view expressed recently by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the first-term New York Democrat, nearly two-thirds of Democrats say it is immoral to have an economic system where some people have billions of dollars while others have very little.
“They’re not paying their fair share,” said one Democrat, Fred Wood, a retired teacher in Williamsport, Pa. “It’s just not right when folks cannot afford health care.”
Polling support is by no means a guarantee that Americans would elect a tax-the-rich challenger to President Trump — who mused as a candidate about raising taxes on the rich but as president signed a $1.5 trillion tax cut that reduced the top marginal income tax rate and primarily benefits high earners. Polls by Gallup and other organizations over the decades have regularly found that a majority of Americans believe that corporations and the wealthy pay too little in taxes, but voters have frequently elected presidents who cut those taxes, instead.
What appears different this time, analysts say, is the emphasis that leading Democratic candidates are placing on taxing the rich. “This is about politicians catching up to where Americans have been,” said Leslie McCall, a political scientist at the CUNY Graduate Center.
As a result, progressive policy hands say they are increasingly confident that if a Democrat wins the White House and the party gains full control of Congress, taxes on the rich will go up. That is partly because of the “finally dawning realization among Democrats that taxing the rich is good politics along with good policy,” said Michael Linden, a fellow at the liberal Roosevelt Institute.
“My bet is that it won’t be one big thing” that ends up raising taxes on the rich, Mr. Linden said. “I bet it will be a lot of medium-sized things. A higher top rate, for sure. Rooting out or limiting some of the tax expenditures that disproportionately benefit the rich. I think the corporate rate will start to creep back up. And I think new taxes like a wealth tax, or some other form of capital taxation, are very likely.”
More Democrats are taking up the theme.
Rising inequality and policies to fight it have emerged as a central theme in the Democratic primary campaign. Senator Bernie Sanders, the Vermont independent who three years ago railed against “millionaires and billionaires” in an insurgent bid for the Democratic nomination, said on Tuesday that he would again seek the nomination on a platform of free public college and “Medicare for all.” This time around, he will face competition for the left flank of his party, including from Ms. Warren, who has proposed taxing the assets — not just the annual income — of the richest Americans to pay for universal child care.
“Across party lines, Americans want the very wealthiest families to pay their fair share so we can have an economy that works for everyone,” Ms. Warren said in a statement in response to the polling for The Times.
Such proposals are likely to draw strong support from a Democratic electorate that has shifted sharply to the left since Mr. Sanders’s last run. Eighty-seven percent of Democrats in the Times poll said the government should seek to reduce the wealth gap.
But it isn’t just Democrats who are concerned by inequality. A majority of independents, and substantial minorities of Republicans, want the government to tackle the issue. And a slim majority of Republicans support a wealth tax like the one Ms. Warren has proposed.
Virginia Connolly is a conservative Republican who supports President Trump and wants to build a wall on the Mexican border. But she says she wants to tax wealthy Americans to pay for programs for veterans, children and the homeless.
“I think that raising taxes on the rich should have happened a long time ago,” she said. “The rich, what are they going to do with all that money?”
Ms. Connolly, 47, runs a business cleaning homes in DeLand, Fla., north of Orlando. When that work failed to pay her bills, she took a part-time job at Winn-Dixie, a grocery store chain where she earns $14 an hour. Even so, she barely makes enough to feed herself and her three children.
A wealth tax finds support, but challenges loom.
The Times poll found strong support for a wealth tax akin to Ms. Warren’s plan. Sixty-one percent of Americans said they approved of imposing a 2 percent tax on the wealth of households with a net worth of more than $50 million. (Under Ms. Warren’s plan, the rate would rise to 3 percent on wealth over $1 billion, but the Times survey didn’t ask about that provision.) An earlier Morning Consult poll found similar results.
“We pay taxes on our property, why not on your wealth?” said Gary Montoya, a school safety officer in Panama City, Fla.
Mr. Montoya, 39, is a registered Republican and a supporter of Mr. Trump. But he said taxes on the rich must rise to reduce the federal budget deficit, among other priorities.
The idea of a wealth tax, however, is newly prominent in American politics, and it isn’t clear whether support will hold up. Republicans haven’t had time to attack the policy, as they have with the estate tax, and it would face legal challenges if enacted. Moreover, voters used to hearing about income-tax rates might not fully understand the idea of a wealth tax, said Vanessa Williamson, a political scientist at the Brookings Institution who has studied public opinion on taxation.
The wealth tax also raises practical challenges that could turn off some voters. Kris Stallard, a data analyst in Tulsa, Okla., says he wants to raise taxes on the rich, and has no problem with a wealth tax in principle. But he questions how it would work in practice.
“You might own houses, businesses, that sort of thing,” said Mr. Stallard, a Democrat. “Is the government going to take parts of businesses from people?”
On higher income-tax rates, a sharper split emerges.
Other Democrats are taking a more traditional approach to taxing the rich: raising income taxes on the highest earners. Ms. Ocasio-Cortez has proposed a marginal rate as high as 70 percent on annual income over $10 million. The top rate today is 37 percent, down from 39.6 percent before the Republican tax law that passed in late 2017.
Ms. Ocasio-Cortez’s proposal avoids the legal and logistical challenges of Ms. Warren’s plan. And it is just as popular with Democrats, 75 percent of whom support the idea. But it is less popular over all. Only a narrow majority of Americans, 51 percent, support the idea. Republicans oppose it by a ratio of more than two to one.
A self-described “left-leaning independent,” Kathy Holmes could be the sort of voter Democrats need to win to defeat Mr. Trump. A small-business owner in Kansas City, Mo., Ms. Holmes once voted for Ross Perot, the Texas billionaire who sought the presidency twice in the 1990s, but these days mostly supports Democrats. Still, she says she has been disappointed by both parties, and is intrigued by the possible candidacy of the former Starbucks chief executive Howard Schultz.
Ms. Holmes, 54, said she would like to see the rich pay more in taxes. But she said a 70 percent rate “could get a little too out of control.” She said higher taxes on the rich should be a means to an end, not an end unto themselves.
“I don’t think that they should be incredibly penalized for being wealthy,” she said. “It’s a tough balance between free enterprise and ‘go for it and be a gazillionaire.’”
About the survey: The data in this article came from an online survey of 9,974 adults conducted by the polling firm SurveyMonkey from Feb. 4 to Feb. 10. The company selected respondents at random from the nearly three million people who take surveys on its platform each day. Responses were weighted to match the demographic profile of the population of the United States. The survey has a modeled error estimate (similar to a margin of error in a standard telephone poll) of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points, so differences of less than that amount are statistically insignificant.