Anti-tax activism: an enduring Conn. tradition
Published: Thursday, October 4, 2012
Updated: Thursday, October 4, 2012 23:10
Today is the 21st anniversary of the largest public political demonstration in the history of the State of Connecticut. You may well ask what caused over fifty thousand people to march on the state capitol in Hartford on Oct. 5, 1991. By that point in time, the United States had ended its involvement in the Persian Gulf War, was only beginning to experience economic decline and had not yet embarked upon the 1992 presidential campaign. What drew citizens by the thousands to the grounds of the Capitol on that October afternoon was a populist rage against taxation, which, though it manifested itself twenty years ago, was the ideological and cultural ancestor of today’s Tea Party movement. This chaotic, exciting and often sordid period in Connecticut’s political history is not one that we could have experienced firsthand due to our age, but those belonging to earlier generations surely remember the names of Lowell Weicker and Tom Scott and the sharp political and cultural divides that those two leaders represented.
Lowell P. Weicker, Jr., was the governor of Connecticut from 1991 to 1995 and a former three-term senator. His first year in office he instituted a state income tax. At the time, the state was one out of only eight to not have such a law, and it was made necessary, to its advocates, by an impending state revenue shortfall. The law passed by the narrowest of margins in the Connecticut General Assembly after weeks of passionate debate and back-room bargaining that pitted Democrats and Republicans against dissenting members of their own parties. Weicker, however, refused to accept the many compromise plans proposed by the legislature that did not tax income because they ultimately contributed to the budget deficit and forestalled a long-term solution to the state’s financial crisis. He forced this agonizing decision upon Connecticut lawmakers knowing that he would be perceived as ineffective if he failed and vilified if he was successful.
Tom Scott, a talk radio host from Milford and prominent Connecticut neoconservative, soon afterward became the face of the public campaign for income tax repeal. His Connecticut Taxpayers Committee organized the October 1991 protest and eventually merged its grassroots organizing network into Scott’s 1994 gubernatorial campaign. Scott’s message was simple: Weicker had betrayed the voters of Connecticut by passing the same income tax that he said he did not support in the 1990 campaign. In the legislature, he made enough corrupt deals with legislators to secure the bill’s passage, which would not only have an adverse economic effect on Connecticut’s middle class, but was also emblematic of a broader rollback of constitutional liberties.
The imagery, rhetoric and emotion of the income tax rally seem so familiar to us because they were, in large part, the foundational structures and sentiments of contemporary Tea Party activism. Footage of the 1991 rally shows the mass singing of national songs, waving of oversized Gadsden and American flags and chanting of familiar anti-tax slogans – a sign held by a man shaking Scott’s hand even reads “Hartford Tea Party.” Both movements repeatedly invoke the founding documents and personalities of the Early Republic and appeal to the symbolic nature of rights and liberties. Both movements attack particular scapegoats, whether they be legislators or executives like Weicker or Barack Obama, so as to focus the anger of the protestors on specific, identifiable targets. Both movements adopt institutional and electoral strategies to meet their goals – public protest itself is never the ultimate goal. And, perhaps most worryingly, both movements encourage strong emotions that often exceed the bounds of civility and reason and verge on outright hatred. Scott himself characterized the movement as a “tax revolt” – and signs in the audience concurred, asserting, “This means war.” One wonders if Jefferson’s infamous quotation on “watering the tree of liberty” has been taken a bit too literally.
Thus when we look at today’s Tea Party rallies and campaigns, we need not see them as representative of a new political and ideological phenomenon. Though they are dwarfed by the size of the now-21-year-old demonstration, we can see in them the reinvigoration of an old tradition and the reassertion of certain Revolutionary values. But they must also be seen as a new epidemic of oppositional politics, of a political culture that is spurred on by unrestrained emotion.