- Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz had a pointed back-and-forth Wednesday night about the estate tax.
- Republicans have referred to the estate tax as the “death tax” for at least 20 years.
- Use of the term “death tax” has helped turn public opinion against the estate tax.
At Wednesday night’s CNN debate between Bernie Sanders and Ted Cruz, the two senators had a pointed back-and-forth about one of the centerpieces of the Republican-backed tax plan: the estate tax.
As noted in the CNN debate, the GOP tax plan would repeal the estate tax. However, Sanders and Cruz each talked about the tax in strikingly different terms.
In fact, Cruz never used the words “estate tax” at all, instead opting for the more grim-sounding “death tax.”
It’s an effective tactic that Republicans have been using since the 1990s, and a great example of how the right choice of words can help politicians control the terms of a debate.
Origins of the ‘death tax’
The estate tax in the US is a tax on property that gets transferred to a person upon the death of someone else. Under current law, only estates worth $5.5 million or more have to pay the tax.
But taxes of any kind are rarely popular, and in the 1990s, Republicans sensed an opportunity to take charge on the issue.
The phrase can be traced back to at least 1996, when Jack Faris, head of the National Federation of Independent Business, heard people complaining that the estate tax felt like a tax on death. According to The New York Times, he insisted people in his office start using the term, even forcing them to fork over a dollar into a pizza fund every time they slipped.
The Newt Gingrich-led Republican caucus on Capitol Hill caught wind of the evocative term and ran with it. Use of the term soon became an indicator of which side of the political football you were on.
”Whoever the father is or was, God bless them, because it has really helped us shape the debate on the unfairness of the whole tax, not who is paying it,” Faris told The Times in 2001.
What the numbers say
By 2006, Republicans had data to back up their belief in the term “death tax.” Frank Luntz, a GOP consultant who for decades has been at the forefront of Republican messaging, revealed that in focus groups he conducted, 68% of people opposed the estate tax, but that number shot up to 78% when he called it the death tax.
The 10-point swing was significant enough for Luntz to include it in the appendix of his annual “New American Lexicon” playbook, under the heading “14 Words Never to Use.”
“While a narrow majority would repeal the inheritance/estate tax, an overwhelming majority would repeal the death tax. If you want to kill the estate tax, call it a death tax,” Luntz wrote. The memo was widely circulated among Republicans in Washington.
Since then, the numbers have hardly changed. An Ipsos/NPR poll from April found that 66% of Americans oppose the estate tax while 78% — the same figure Luntz arrived at — opposed the death tax.
No signs of stopping
As Wednesday’s debate demonstrated, Republican use of the phrase “death tax” is showing no signs of slowing down.
President Donald Trump has made frequent use of the term, saying in Pennsylvania last week, “We are going to protect thousands of family businesses by ending the crushing, horrible, and unfair estate tax, sometimes known as the ‘death tax.'”
But while use of the term can make it easy to guess a politician’s party, it also makes it harder for Americans to find common ground — one of the negative consequences of partisan messaging.
“Every tribe has its own words, basically, and it becomes more and more difficult to have conversations across tribal fault lines if we can’t even agree on the terminology,” Dietram Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of Wisconsin, told Business Insider in August.
“It has not just raised real ethical concerns but contributed tremendously to how we have defined political identity,” he said. “Framing is designed in political campaigns to do exactly that — to make the lines more pronounced instead of less pronounced.”