The Washington Post poll today finds yet again that huge majorities of Americans favor higher tax rates on upper-income Americans. Not only that, 54% of Republicans favor it, in sharp contrast with the approximately 0% of elected Republican officials who support higher tax rates on the rich.

One interesting question here is, why have Republicans done such a poor job of persuading their own base? After all, lower tax rates on the rich has been the overriding policy goal of the Republican Party for twenty years. Research shows that most voters are partisan and tend to follow the cues of their elected leaders. They figure out which team they're on, and mold their views according to what their team leaders say. Even when there's an issue that cuts across partisan lines, the fact of parties taking opposing stances will cause voters to follow suit. The GOP has unanimously stood for lower taxes on the rich for a generation, and yet most Republicans oppose this position. What's going on here?

The answer, I suspect, is that Republicans have refused to defend their position openly. Cutting taxes for high-income earners has always been highly unpopular, so the party has always chosen to obfuscate rather than make the arguments they actually believe. During the fights over the Bush tax cuts, the Bush administration relentlessly portrayed its plan as making the tax code more progressive, employing misleading and outright false statements to back up this untrue proposition. More recently, Republicans have defended the upper-income tax cuts by misleadingly portraying the matter as concerning tax rates for "small business." The idea here is to mislead the public into believing that raising taxes on income over $250,000 will hit mom and pop business owners with modest incomes.

In the short term, this works pretty well. In the long run, it has utterly failed to influence public opinion. Republicans oppose progressive taxation either as economically harmful or morally unfair. Rather than try to move public opinion to their side, they instead try to pretend they don't actually oppose progressive taxation. The result is that most of the people who vote for them do so believing that Republicans don't really want to reduce the relative tax burden of the affluent.