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  • Family Taxes: Conservatives Frame Estate Tax Repeal
  • Richard J. Meagher (bio)

In January 2009, the Family Research Council published a report entitled "Taxes in the Stimulus Package."1 Its first recommendation might seem surprising for an organization typically concerned about social issues like abortion: "Reduce the U.S. corporate tax rate sharply." Why would Christian social conservatives be concerned about tax rates, let alone taxes on corporations?

The answer lies, in part, in the history of the conservative movement. Social and economic conservatives have been enmeshed in a long-standing alliance that, intellectually at least, stretches back to the 1950s. But the electoral calculus of this alliance does not give equal weight to both parties. Economic conservatives act as senior partners within the coalition, with social conservatives filling a more junior role. As part of this dynamic, GOP officials look for ways to mollify social conservatives without granting them big policy gains on the controversial social issues that are foremost on their agenda. Conservative operatives turn to discourse, particularly issue frames, to help shape social conservatives' agenda. By framing economic issues in a way that makes it easy for social conservatives to adopt them as their own, coalition leaders give social conservatives another reason to believe they are gaining from their alliance with economic conservatives and the Republican Party. [End Page 73]

An instructive historical example of this framing dynamic in action can be found in efforts by conservatives to repeal one particular tax during the late 1990s. While social conservatives included certain family-centered tax issues on their agenda by that time, the tax on inheritances, or "estate tax," was not one of these. But as the estate tax began to be framed as a "family" or moral issue, the political calculus changed. Social conservatives, primed by decades of describing themselves as a "pro-family" movement, and helped by other, less prominent ideological commitments, began to pay attention to the issue. When a phased estate tax repeal was included as part of the 2001 Bush tax cuts package, social conservatives turned out to be vocal supporters. The alliance between economic and social conservatives thus was strengthened by this newly shared agenda item.

Below, I describe the history of this movement of estate tax repeal onto the agenda of social conservatives. First, I briefly describe the structure of the conservative coalition and make a case for the usefulness of an informal distinction between economic and social conservatives. Next, I show how a group of outside-the-Beltway lobbyists and activists worked within conservative networks to provoke congressional action on the estate tax. Then, I establish how conservative operatives framed the issue using the language of morality and the family, and demonstrate some of the ways that this frame spread. I then reveal how social conservatives became receptive to this family frame, inspired in part by a quietly influential theological commitment to free market economics. Finally, I offer some preliminary conclusions about the results of this framing process, both for the conservative coalition, particularly in light of today's "Tea Party" conservatism, and for our politics as a whole.

Strange Bedfellows

Today's American conservatives are several degrees removed from the foundation of conservative ideology that goes back to Edmund Burke. American conservatives may claim to rely on ideas; indeed, scholar Russell Kirk did his best to tie American conservatism into the Burkean tradition.2 But the American variant is instantiated in an explicitly political coalition, one that uses the Republican Party as a vehicle and often differs from conservative orthodoxy.3 Like any political coalition, American conservatives adhere to a motley collection of assorted goals and ideologies—the movement has "a protean character," notes Gregory Schneider4—with varying degrees of commitment to Republican political leaders. [End Page 74]

As a result, there are a number of ways to analyze the component parts of this coalition. Donald T. Critchlow historicizes it as an association between intellectuals and populists, focusing on the tensions between the GOP "establishment" and various constellations of the grassroots right.5 By contrast, George Nash's influential study of the intellectual roots of conservatism emphasized a tripartite intellectual division within conservatism, with moral traditionalism, economic libertarianism, and...


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