As the hardships and polarizing inequalities resulting from decades of neoliberal public policies have intensified, “the commons” has emerged as a powerful conceptual framework for an alternative politics that goes beyond the ideological tug-of-war between market fundamentalism and liberal welfare statism (Bollier and Helfrich 2013; Hall et al. 2015; Linebaugh 2009).1 The “commons” is a way of taking seriously public or collectivist values, attachments, and identities that are—or could be—politically resonant as disenchantment with neoliberal capitalism grows. Our research explores four decades of tax- and spending-related ballot initiative campaigns in Oregon, a state in the northwestern United States that allows voters to directly shape some public policies. We analyze the evolution of competing discourses about taxes, redistribution, and the “common” or “public” good, illuminating the historical and political contexts from which “incipient commoning” has emerged. We interrogate the multiple political identities and subjectivities at play in state-level elections about taxes and spending and the animosities, ambivalences, and attachments produced and challenged in these political campaigns.
Paying taxes “is a concrete instantiation of the social contract … between citizens and their state … [and] formalizes our obligations to each other as members of an ‘imagined community’” (Mehrotra 2015: 949). Taxes fund governments, public services, and infrastructure, and are integral to the redistributive processes of modern democracies. Despite the “fiction of taxpayer neutrality” (Knauer 2014: 210), that income alone determines tax responsibility, gender, race, sexuality, occupation, employment, and class relations position taxpayers to benefit differently from many tax provisions (Abramovitz and Morgen 2006; Martin et al. 2009).
We define and analyze fiscal citizenship as the discourses and meanings attributed to tax paying as a particular relationship to the state, society, and community (see also Guano 2010; Mehrotra 2013; Sparrow 2008). Although the dominant discourses in the tax-related ballot measure campaigns we examine reflect the larger ideological divides between neoliberal market fundamentalism and liberalism, we argue that “incipient commoning” emerges as support for the “public” and of the “common good,” often articulated in language about community, belonging, and collectivities that is more and other than the state. Attention to how “publics” conceive of themselves suggests that concepts akin to the “the commons” already circulate in the imaginaries and vocabularies of advocates resisting neoliberal policies.
Fiscal citizenship varies in its historical expressions. In the early twentieth-century United States, after Congress passed a progressive federal income tax (1913), a “seismic shift” was produced in fiscal citizenship, legitimizing the idea that “citizens owed a debt to society in relation to their ‘ability to pay’” (Mehrotra 2013: 9). This laid the basis for change in “the social meaning of modern citizenship,” especially with the subsequent development of the liberal welfare state (11). An equally fundamental shift in fiscal citizenship materialized in the late 1970s. Neoliberal tax policies undermined the progressivity of taxes, especially federal taxes, effectively redistributing the tax burden downwards (Hacker and Pierson 2010; Howard 2007; Phillips 2002). Reduced revenues and ideologically driven retrenchment resulted in fiscal crises, especially in states and localities.
We focus on this second shift in fiscal citizenship, analyzing its production. Taxpayers have been mobilized at different points in US history, but since the 1970s, taxpayer politics has been a political project of the Right (Mickelmore 2011; Prasad 2012), often closely aligned with business elites (Phillips-Fein 2009). In the wake of legal and policy gains won largely by identity-based social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, opponents of progressive change, decrying busing (to achieve racial desegregation), welfare, abortion, affirmative action, undocumented immigrants, and “big government,” crafted and came to the defense of the (racially coded) “hard-working taxpayer” (Morgen et al. 2010; Walsh 2010). Images of this taxpayer circulate in popular culture, including the cartoon in Figure 1 by Dave Granlund. Here he is, the banner of his taxpayer identity across his spreading abdomen, pockets empty, in the role of “supporting” others.
In a political landscape increasingly populated by groups that make claims on the state based on oppressed identities (for example, women, racialized minorities, and sexual minorities), a racially coded taxpayer identity politics was constructed consistent with neoliberal values.2 As we will show, taxpayer identity politics sought to supplant ideologies about the public or common good and the benefits of social protection from unfettered markets with ideologies that valorized personal responsibility, presumed the superiority of the private over the public (sectors), and promised an era of greater prosperity through deregulation and free trade (Morgen 2006). The tax politics of the Right juxtaposed the “hard-working” taxpayer with demonized tax “others,” including welfare recipients, “illegal aliens,” “tax and spend” (liberal) politicians; and “greedy” public employees protected by “Big Labor.” Racist and sexist depictions of tax “others” are present in national and state-level antitax discourses, but more often this discourse works by animating racialized, gendered, and class-inflected images and vocabularies that are so widely assumed they need not be explicit (HoSang 2010).
Taxpayer identity politics did not go unchallenged. Resistance to the assumptions, images, values, and principles promoted by this right-wing discourse produced an alternative version of fiscal citizenship. Progressive coalitions, organized labor, the organized Left and, sometimes, the Democratic Party defended public services, social provisioning, progressive taxes, and a version of fiscal citizenship that explicitly countered the highly privatized, singularly personally responsible taxpayer identity. We argue that this represents “incipient commoning.” We insert the qualifier “incipient” before “commoning” to distinguish it from “commoning practices” that typically are created outside “conventional political venues” and as “alternative systems outside of the market and state” (Bollier 2016: 3).
The discourses crafted in resistance to antitax politics in Oregon, however, share with many commoning projects an alternative to fully marketized identities and values. Activists who counter antitax politics presume people and fiscal citizens who are “creative, distinctive individuals inscribed within larger wholes … with a concern for fairness and social justice; and willing to make sacrifices for the larger good and future generations” (Bollier and Helfrich 2013: xv). Those who work to fight antitax politics conceived of their project as a reclamation of what has been lost by publics in the context of privatization, commodification, and marketization. We explore Oregon tax and spending ballot initiatives to examine these competing versions of fiscal citizenship as they played starring roles in tax politics over four decades.
Oregon tax and spending ballot initiatives: A case study
Oregonians voted on more than 350 statewide ballot measures between 1970 and 2010; of these, 853 concerned taxes or spending. Half the US states permit “direct democracy,” or direct votes on public policies either as legislative referrals or measures qualified by citizen mobilization. Oregon’s ballot measure process is widely regarded as one of the most accessible among states and is among the most frequently used (Ellis 2005). Oregon falls near the middle among states for its tax burden (OCPP 2012), is unusual for not having a sales tax among its revenue sources, and is less racially diverse than many other states. The state’s median household income has been below the national median household income over most of the 40 years we studied (USCB 1970, 1980, 1990, 2000, 2010). Oregon is divided politically, but nationally known as a “blue state.” In recent decades, voters have tended to elect Democrats for national office, but Republicans and Democrats have often had to do a degree of power sharing at the state level.
Not all ballot tax-related measures generate robust campaigns, but some, often including tax-related ones, are fiercely contested. Campaigns use many forums to reach voters. For the sake of consistency and reliability, we used one source in our research: the statements for or against the 85 tax-related measures published in the Oregon Voters’ Pamphlet (VP). The VP, produced by the secretary of state and mailed to all Oregon households before statewide elections, includes statements for and against ballot measures, and information about and endorsements for candidates for office. Submitted statements must be signed, conform to a word limit, and be accompanied by the required modest fee. Our research team read and coded thousands of VP statements as part of a larger study that also involved fieldwork during ballot measure campaigns in 2006, 2008, and 2010, and interviews with 25 leading tax activists. We focus on selected campaigns here, but our argument is based on analysis of all 85 measures. Although we will not provide citations for quoted words or sentences from the VP, these are available online by year and measure (see OSL 2017).
Tax-related ballot measures in the 1970s were contested, but not vigorously, until 1978. Then Oregon became one of more than a dozen states in which right-wing antitax advocates used the mechanisms of direct democracy to reduce taxes and downsize government (Smith 1998). In this period, rising property taxes became an easy target. Unemployment skyrocketed and wages fell as Oregon’s core natural-resource industries faltered in the context of global economic restructuring. Simultaneously, inflated housing prices in major cities led to steeply rising property taxes, the main revenue source for public schools. Despite a bipartisan, broadly held public understanding that Oregon’s property tax system warranted reform, partisan differences thwarted successful legislative action.
In June 1978, Californians (just south of Oregon) passed Proposition 13, a property tax limitation measure that ignited tax revolts simmering in Oregon and elsewhere. Within weeks, a group called the Oregon Tax Limitation Committee qualified an initiative, modeled on Proposition 13, for the general election. Measure 6 was the first of six efforts over the next 12 years to cut and cap property taxes. Repeated campaigns significantly ramped up the visibility, power, and influence of antitax groups in Oregon, helping shape changes in the values, vocabularies, and visions of fiscal citizenship.
Seeding taxpayer identity politics
In the 1978 campaign to cap property taxes (Measure 6), antitax advocates argued that property taxes were “out of control” and that “politicians” and “bureaucrats” had failed to protect homeowners, especially seniors, living on fixed incomes. Labeling the campaign a “people’s tax revolt,” advocates defined their constituents as “taxpayers” and “homeowners.” Taxes owed were conceptualized as “our money” literally “taken” by unresponsive politicians and “bureaucrats” and spent wastefully on “unnecessary” services and programs. Here, as in future campaigns, the “taxpayer” is not a citizen-beneficiary of public services, only a funder. Beneficiaries are always others, including a growing list of demonized “tax others.” VP statements frequently encouraged feelings of anger and frustration, such as “the taxpayers of Oregon have had enough. We’re fed up with skyrocketing property taxes and the apparent unwillingness (or inability!) of our elected officials to give us tax relief.”
The seeds of a polarizing discourse that will become far more aggressive in future campaigns is found in statements such as this from the ad hoc Mid Valley Taxpayer’s Group warning of growing social “threats,” “continued spending increases that outpace the spendable income of our people, more and more rental units, more assisted units, less taxpayers, and questionable changes in our social structure. These increases auger threats of home loss and social tension.” This vague discourse does its work mainly through innuendo. Who are “our people,” and what are the “questionable changes” that pose threats from renters and recipients of housing subsidies? Stereotypes about low-income families, especially racialized minorities and female-headed households who, allegedly, receive undeserved state benefits, lurk between these and many similar lines.
Opponents of Measure 6 emphasized a defense of public services, especially public schools. Public services were portrayed as essential, a shared responsibility, and valuable for children/youth and vulnerable populations who warrant social investment and protection but also for “all Oregonians.” Opponents also derided the measure as a “California solution” for Oregon problems. Some urged voters supporting property tax relief to instead support a legislative referral on the same ballot (Measure 11, 1978). Measure 11 would provide property tax relief to residential homeowners but not commercial property owners, “concentrat[ing] property tax relief where it is most needed—the places where you live,” without devastating local budgets. One VP statement called it “an Oregon plan” for Oregon’s needs.
Despite the offering of homeowner tax relief, antitax advocates opposed Measure 11, defining it as a “political attempt to defeat the people’s Tax Revolt by confusing voters.” One VP statement, under the headline “a Taxpayer’s Opposition,” criticized Measure 11 because passage avoided huge spending cuts and layoffs of presumably inessential jobs identified as “administrative assistants, secretaries, planners, social workers, consultants, clerks, researchers, inspectors, field people and on and on ad infinitum.” Another opponent applauds “responsible citizens [who] do not expect federal, state, county or local governments to provide guarantees through expensive social programs from Cradle to Grave.” Neither Measure 6 nor 11 passed. But 1978 was a turning point, previewing a period of aggressive and increasingly effective antitax politics in Oregon.
In 1980, the first statewide organization explicitly named as a taxpayer advocacy group—the Oregon Taxpayers Union (OTU)—was formed. OTU became the most visible antitax actor in the state, mounting four campaigns for property tax limitations in the 1980s and opposing measures designed to replace revenues from property tax relief through other forms of taxation. In the VP, OTU promoted an evolving taxpayer identity politics, coupling critiques of taxes and “a runaway government which threatens to spend you into the poorhouse” with representations of taxpayers as embattled fiscal citizens.
Amid a deep recession, antitax advocates promoted the neoliberal argument that reducing taxes on business and industry would spur recovery. One example was an OTU VP statement (1982) associating property tax cuts with prosperity: “shifting $500 millions of dollars back into the private sector … will spark capital investment, create new jobs for our thousands of unemployed, and provide job security for those whose jobs are endangered.” The anti-tax narrative both maligned government and encouraged taxpayers to see their interests as aligned instead—as consumer, employee, job seeker—with the private sector. Government spending, OTU claimed, is “making all of us poorer” and “preventing the development of productive private enterprise that can provide jobs and higher standard of living for Oregonians.” The taxpayer/consumer, it argued, “will spend in ways that better satisfy their needs and provide a healthier economy than if that same money is forcibly taken from them to be spent by bureaucrats.”
Opponents of the property tax limitations portrayed these measures as “radical,” “fiscally irresponsible,” “copy-cat” versions of California politics, and destructive of “vital” public services deemed necessary for the vulnerable, local communities, a healthy economy and Oregon’s future. Repeatedly they raised the specter of harm and a diminished Oregon, “For Oregon’s sake, vote no … Passage … will change Oregon’s future dramatically … curb critically needed economic development, further depress Oregon’s building industry, stop the veteran’s farm and home loan program, slash education and other vital services, cut police and fire service at a time of high crime, and stop the elderly housing program.” In contrast to the valorized taxpayer, a fledgling progressive coalition posed an alternative collective identity—“Oregon” and “Oregonians”—while also explicitly naming particular, deserving groups who stood to be hurt by the loss of public goods and services.
In 1984, a new group called the Oregon Committee opposed the fourth property tax limit initiative, promoting the people of Oregon as a collectivity that has and must act beyond personal interest on behalf of Oregon, “Oregonians have a history of protecting and preserving Oregon’s quality of life. … In 1978, 1980, and 1982 you put Oregon’s livability and economic well-being above your pocketbook and said no to property tax relief measures that would have destroyed local services. … Oregon needs and asks for your protection once again.” Note that this is framed as a defense not of the state qua government but of an Oregon that is shared, an Oregon people identify with and care about.
Beyond opposing antitax measures, the coalescing progressive coalition launched or supported several measures designed to increase revenues and enable budgets.4 Many of its VP statements emphasized the importance of restoring distributional fairness in taxation. Anti-tax groups countered by warning that businesses would simply pass these increases onto consumers and be “forced” to lay off workers. Each of these measures failed, fostering frustration about solving the property tax problem.
Then, in 1990, the Oregon antitax movement finally won its property tax limitation. Measure 5 cut property tax rates and constrained property tax rate increases. It required the state to reallocate General Fund (state) revenues to local public schools to (partially) make up for lost property tax revenues. The chief petitioners of Measure 5 further elaborated taxpayer identity politics. On center stage was the “hard working,” burdened taxpayer, ignored and disempowered by “entrenched tax spenders” who cannot “withstand the sweet song of the tax-and-spend lobbyists.” In this (and future) campaigns the “entrenched tax spenders” expanded to include public employees and public sector unions, both portrayed as having “vested interests” and “always wanting more of our money” (emphasis added). Making it worse, one VP statement bemoaned, was that “pro-spending forces, especially public employee organizations … [are] heavily organized while taxpayers are not.” Don McIntire, a Measure 5 chief petitioner and Portland businessman, dubbed his opponents as the “‘Devastation Chorus’ … the predictable cast of … politicians, bureaucrats, well connected corporate types, and, especially the public employee unions.” McIntire dismissed opponents’ concerns about the devastating consequences of spending cuts by suggesting that public employees were motivated by “greed” and “self-interest.”
Opponents of Measure 5 issued dire warnings about “slashed budgets” and “draconian cuts.” Their broad coalition, including labor, human services, senior services, education, Associated Oregon Industries, and the Democratic Party, expressed concern about how cuts would hurt children, seniors, local communities, and the disabled, among others, but would also do “irreparable damage to services essential to all Oregonians.” A labor-authored VP statement maintained that Measure 5 “looks like a tax cut—but is a tax shift onto the backs of working people” and will be a “disaster for ordinary working people.”
In the 1990s, antitax forces won two other important initiative victories and helped to defeat most efforts to pass replacement revenues. Meanwhile, an increasingly well-organized progressive coalition supported measures that sought replacement revenues to rebuild what it saw as a grossly inadequate state budget. In 1992, it tried again to maintain homeowners’ property tax relief, but raise rates for commercial property. Calling Measure 5 a “windfall” for big business, the coalition pointed to its harmful effects on Oregon, especially the deterioration of much-needed public services.
Opposition to this measure included the full spectrum of local antitax groups, but this was the first campaign to attract significant support from a large out-of-state antitax group (through the Oregon chapter of Citizens for a Sound Economy).5 These antitax groups portrayed the proposal as “discriminatory” (against business) and promised it would lead to massive private sector job loss. Nevertheless, the groups dismissed union concerns about public sector job losses, defining defense of those jobs as “self-serving.” Attacks on public sector workers were ramped up in this and later campaigns. McIntire argued for protection of “private citizens and private business” from “greedy and irresponsible government” and the voracious demands of “public people.” “Measure 5 is … slowing the growth of government spending and government people don’t like that … Measure 5 was intended to protect every element of our society and economic system, private citizens and private business alike, from a greedy and irresponsible government … when they say services, 80% … is for ever increasing Pay, Perks and Pensions for Public People” (emphasis added). Notably here the social concept of citizen is transformed into a threatened private identity. Public services are invisible, overshadowed by the undeserved, outsized compensation earned by “public” and “government people.” The progressive initiative lost handily.
He criticizes public employee pensions and benefits as a “luxury” that “taxpayers” can ill afford. Pensions are christened “Cadillac pensions,” and health insurance and sick days are “perks” that come at the “taxpayers’ expense.” He warns “taxpayers not to be fooled by the dire warnings” of “bureaucrats” who “abuse” and “betray … public trust.”
Taxpayers already give government more than sufficient funds to provide needed services. If there really is any shortfall for specific programs it is because public employee and teacher unions dominate every legislative session and consistently win bigger and better perks and benefits for their members … [including pensions] for which Taxpayers foot the entire bill because some politicians sold us out.
Determined to stop legislators from raising taxes, OTU cosponsored a 1994 measure to bar new or increased taxes or fees without “taxpayer” approval. Called the “Taxpayer Protection Initiative,” it was necessary, its supporters claimed, because, “some elected officials consider it their duty to constantly be creating new ways to take from us our hard-earned money. … Taxpayers must protect themselves from excessive taxation” (emphasis added). He promised that this measure would “remind [politicians] that they are accountable to hardworking, taxpaying Oregonians, not big special interest groups.”
Although that initiative failed, two years later Sizemore led the charge to pass a legislative referral (from a Republican-dominated legislature) to require a supermajority (three-fifths majority) in the legislature to pass revenue-raising bills (Measure 25, 1996). His next big victory was Measure 47 (1996), a new property tax limitation that also included a provision that revenue-raising ballot measures must win by a “double majority,” which means winning not only a majority of votes but doing so in an election in which a majority of registered voters participated. Labeling this provision “a necessary taxpayer protection,” Sizemore rallied voters to reject “a system of taxation that puts the never-ending wants of government above the rights and interests of citizens; that allows taxes to increase at rates totally unrelated to the taxpayer’s ability to pay.”
Although the progressive coalition countering antitax activism also grew in strength, support, and funding in the 1990s, its arguments for public education, vital public services, and investments in children and Oregon’s future rarely won the day. In its political narratives, the defense of the public good and of vulnerable populations was not framed as a call for bigger, stronger government. Rather, its counterpoint to the burdened taxpayer was the Oregon-protecting Oregonian/citizen/voter. Activists upheld democracy, calling the proposed “double majority” antidemocratic. They portrayed Oregonians as people who have “always been willing to help their neighbors,” as people who “care,” as people who value the “livability” and “quality of life” Oregon offers. Some VP statements from labor countered the “hardworking taxpayer” rhetoric with their own references to hard work, arguing that the measure’s proponents are “the same folks who have tried repeatedly to take money out of the pockets of hardworking Oregonians” through attacks on prevailing wage laws, collective bargaining rights, and attempts to raise the minimum wage. In the battle over taxes, the adjective “hardworking” became a political football. Although Measure 47 passed, legal challenges led to a revised measure in 1998. Once again, the taxpayer as fiscal citizen reining in and in need of “protections” from “sneaky” and “untrustworthy” politicians meets the fiscal citizen who needs and supports public services and contributes to the “common good” and a bright future for the “people” of Oregon.
Dueling discourses: Taxpayer identity politics versus incipient commoning
In the 2000s, antitax groups, building on their successes, refocused on cutting income taxes and instituting state spending limits. They also vigorously opposed measures referred by the legislature or qualified by progressives to replace lost property tax revenues either with a sales tax or income tax rate hikes on high bracket individuals and corporations. New tax advocacy-focused organizations formed on both sides, and ballot measure campaigns became more expensive and professionalized. Early in the decade, the national libertarian group Freedom Works formed an Oregon chapter, and the anti-tax Taxpayer Association of Oregon was founded. In 2009, the Tea Party, strongly right-wing and brimming with anger and criticism of then president Barack Obama, added fuel to Oregon’s antitax fire. Several ultra-wealthy, out-of-state donors and more national antitax groups formed Oregon chapters and poured money into campaigns.
By the late 1990s, with organized labor (especially public sector unions) at its helm, a more permanent, well-organized progressive coalition had also emerged, with its now familiar affiliate members. The coalition, which played a leading role on the terrain of tax politics in the 2000s incorporated as “Our Oregon” in 2000.6 It aggressively elaborated the alternative identity and form of fiscal citizenship to the taxpayer, or the Oregonian: a socially responsible community member, hard worker, and advocate for Oregon’s vulnerable, its economy, and its future. It led a series of campaigns to fund “fair and adequate budgets to support necessary public services.” Tax Fairness Oregon, another progressive activist group, was founded in 2003. In the context of battles over a series of tax-related ballot measures, “incipient commoning” developed as a powerful, increasingly effective discourse.
Although antitax advocates won neither income tax cuts nor state spending limits, they successfully defeated two legislative referenda to raise income taxes on high bracket earners. But in 2010, with the strong backing of Our Oregon, voters upheld two key revenue raising measures the legislature passed to increase the income tax rate for taxpayers in the highest bracket and the corporate minimum income tax. The progressive coalition also finally repealed the double majority requirement for property tax measures. The antitax tide had begun to turn.
The main political arguments in these campaigns were echoes of arguments now familiar to voters. Antitax advocates defined tax dollars as the property of taxpayers, not as their “fair share.” They denied harm would result from budget cuts; cutting waste and “perks” would be sufficient to maintain “essential” services. They referred to their opposition’s concerns about projected cuts as “scare tactics” and “lies.” Our Oregon defended public services and called the proposed income tax cuts “a bad deal for all of Oregon” because they left “out most Oregonians, especially the middle class … [and] working families.” The majoritarian identity—the Oregonian—the “we” promoted by the progressive coalition was rallied to “preserve Oregon’s quality of life” and to “take control of the state’s destiny and our children’s future [with a] secure and stable state budget to ensure Oregon’s proud future and to keep Oregon ‘Our Oregon,’ a place to be proud of.” Stewardship of Oregon—as place, shared identity, community—embodied and required shared social responsibility. Although government is implicitly the vehicle for protection and investment, the language of government is rarely visible.
The two sides also battled over job-creating strategies and the value of public versus private sector job protection. Antitax groups expressed alarm over higher taxes on “job creators,” predicting that higher taxes on business would mean private sector job losses. Our Oregon countered that to preserve the state’s industry-attracting “quality of life,” investments in public education, infrastructure, and services were critical. Our Oregon gave faces to public employees who stood to lose their jobs without additional tax revenues. Rather than the selfish and greedy inessential workers portrayed by antitax narratives, these workers were depicted as breadwinners, taxpayers, educators, first responders, care providers, and people contributing to a “place we can be proud of,” especially now, in “hard times.”
The discourse, however, is less a defense of the state than of “hard work” and ways in which public sector workers serve their “many neighbors, friends and family.” Beneficiaries of public services are depicted in ways quite different than the undeserving tax “others” who had long populated antitax rhetoric. In the context of the fiscal crisis in 2008 and following, with Oregonians laid off from more than 107,000 jobs and Oregon at or near the top among states for rates of hunger, poverty, and unemployment (Margheim and Ordóñez 2009), the fiscal citizen promoted by Our Oregon gained greater purchase.
In the context of the deepening economic crisis in and after 2008, anger about federal government bailouts of Wall Street and the automotive industry intensified. Class identities and class-based arguments, while not neglected, had not been prominent in the rhetoric of most previous ballot campaigns7 but now were threaded more explicitly into the narratives of campaigns. For example, the antitax chief petitioner of the proposed income tax cut cast it as an “Oregon family tax cut,” targeting “those who need it most: Oregon’s hardworking middle class families.” Another antitax leader claimed the tax cut would help “the little guy … everyday Oregonians who are struggling just to get by and take care of their families.” Responding to opposition’s argument that tax cuts would solely benefit the “wealthy,” an antitax VP statement chastised “tax and spenders” for fomenting a “politics of envy … pit[ting] groups of taxpayers against each other to persuade each voter to reject his or her tax cut because someone else, who is paying more taxes, might get a larger tax break.”
Our Oregon did indeed promote sharp class-focused images and arguments to demonstrate how little most “Oregonians” would gain from the proposed tax cuts. In one election, the group prepared charts comparing projected tax savings, including no savings for those with incomes below $47,000, but $13,000 for a taxpayer at $500,000. It relentlessly associated these measures with the wealthy out-of-state donors who were bankrolling the campaigns. One labor leader juxtaposed “the harm to many” from cuts that “far outweighs the benefit to a few.” Another VP statement argued the proposal “violates the most basic value of our tax system: fairness to the average Oregonian.”
In 2010, bucking national trends and Oregon’s tax history,8 voters passed two measures that increased taxes on Oregon’s more affluent households and raised the corporate minimum tax. This campaign pitted “Oregonians Against Job-Killing Taxes,” a business-led coalition, against the Our Oregon-led coalition named “Vote Yes for Oregon.” The antitax group predicted the tax increase would result in the loss of 70,000 private sector jobs and claimed that many allegedly “high income” taxpayers were actually small-business owners who could not afford these taxes. One antitax VP statement from a dairy owner advised, “We’ll all end up paying more for groceries, gas, and other services … impact[ing] all Oregonians, especially the poor. … Small businesses9 like ours would be forced to lay off workers, reduce wages and benefits or close their doors.” Another urged voters not to punish the heroic “job creators” who are “the economy’s heroes—successful business people and workers who’ve achieved success in 21st century industries.”
“Yes for Oregon” advocated for the protection of “vital” pubic services that had been, for decades now, underfunded. Of those higher income households and businesses facing higher taxes, the coalition claimed neither had paid its “fair share” for years. It argued that working-class and middle-class families had been shouldering a disproportionate tax burden for decades while “CEOs, high paid lobbyists, and corporate lawyers and accountants” had successfully won tax advantages for the wealthy and corporations. A vineyard owner argued that decisions made “by Wall Street and credit card companies” have resulted in “hard-working, rural families like my own” feeling “pain.” Our Oregon portrayed the campaign as ultimately about “greed versus need.”
Alongside pointed class arguments about curbing the “unfair” advantages disproportionately enjoyed by the wealthy, the progressive discourse continued to emphasize arguments about the shared needs, interests, interdependence, and social responsibilities of Oregonians. This progressive discourse clearly articulated incipient commoning in many statements such as this one: “in times of crisis, Oregonians do what’s right to help out their neighbors, friends and families.” Tax Fairness Oregon’s VP statement asked, “Why is Oregon such a special place?” and answered, “Because we care about each other.” Another coalition affiliate called “caring for the most vulnerable … particularly women, children, elderly and the disabled … a moral issue of the common good.” Another urged to voters to “remember the common good for Oregon and our responsibility for our fellow Oregonians.”
These appeals are an expression of what Janet Newman and John Clarke call “‘publicness’—as something more than the sum of individual interests or choices” (2015: 105). What is this publicness? How is it expressed in a fiscal citizenship that, to use commoning language, envisages people as imbedded in “larger wholes … with a concern for fairness and social justice; and willing to make sacrifices for the larger good and future generations” (Bollier and Helfrich 2013: xv)?
The evolving tax politics we have traced in Oregon was, at its core, about shaping solidarities, responsibilities, and identities. These campaigns articulated rival ideologies and conflicting versions of fiscal citizenship tied to competing political identities. First the taxpayer, and then the Oregonian, became political subjects, deployed to tap, shape, and attract the allegiance of voters. The publicly minded fiscal citizen represented by the “Oregonian” becomes legible only in discursive fields in which taxpayer identity politics had narrowed and focused the meaning of citizenship to a privatized and privatizing taxpayer.
On that political terrain, the politicized “Oregonian,” if not a full-fledged “commoner,” belongs to a larger social whole and values, and enacts (by voting) caring, sharing, and fairness, defending public programs, resources, work, and investments deployed for the “common good.” This fiscal citizen reclaims the meaning of citizenship as more than (though inclusive of) the taxpayers. They are citizens who benefit from, are responsible to, and are imbedded within a meaningful public. Although the state is invoked in this discourse, often it is only implicitly. Rather than vocabularies that reference government or its institutions, notably maligned by the Right as “big government” (and sometimes condemned by progressives in its coercive guise), the defense of the public sector was, as we have demonstrated, articulated in language about the “common good,” community, the public, belonging, and collective investment. Oregonians and Oregon, the (geographic) state, represent these values, rather than Oregon, the State (government).
Some insist that the “commons” is, by definition, other than or an alternative to, the market and the state as institutions. But commoning discourses and practices resistant to hegemonic ideologies and institutions may, as we have shown, emerge within or in relationship to those institutions. Incipient commoning (with its qualifying adjective) developed within and was deployed to influence conventional political/electoral processes. It exemplifies “public-making,” a politics that promotes “notions of the commons, that reasserts collective (public) interests, and enables collective (public) action” (Newman and Clarke 2015: 105). Public-making, Newman and Clarke argue, “offer[s] scope for a progressive politics reinventing the state and enabling a popular structure of feeling centred on collective identifications and attachments” (2015: xx).
Assessing the achievements and discourses of the progressive coalitions examined here as exemplary of “reinventing the state” would be an overstatement. But in countering antitax initiatives and taxpayer identity politics, these groups are reclaiming and defending as valuable and necessary the much-maligned social provisioning and social investment facets of the state. In promoting a version of fiscal citizenship that fosters public-making, a vision of “common good,” and concepts of distributional fairness more inclusive and equitable than the hegemonic alternatives, they may well be harbingers, perhaps incubators, of more radical political visions.
Professor Sandra Morgen passed away from ovarian cancer on 27 September 2016. Sandi left a remarkable legacy for future anthropologists in the areas of women’s health, social movements, welfare, and taxes. She is dearly missed.
Sandra Morgen is deeply grateful to the Russell Sage Foundation Program on Social Inequality for funding for the research on which this article is based.
This is a conservative estimate. Measures related to bonding authority or technical adjustments were not counted or examined.
US states are bound by “balanced budget” requirements, which is not the case with the federal budget that is allowed to run in deficit.
The exceptions were a few initiatives, especially those proposing “split roll” property tax rates that sometimes developed class-related associations for the division between homeowners and commercial, especially large, out-of-state property owners.
These were the first voter-approved statewide income tax increases in Oregon since the 1930s (Esteve 2010).
Bollier, David. 2016. Commoning as a transformative social paradigm. Next System Project, 28 April. https://thenextsystem.org/commoning-as-a-transformative-social-paradigm.
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