Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2019

Access Restrictions

Access restricted until 07/29/2021

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Young, Rachel

First Committee Member

Durham, Frank

Second Committee Member

Tully, Melissa

Third Committee Member

Reisinger, William

Fourth Committee Member

Pacheco, Julianna


This dissertation explores the effects of mass-mediated taxpayer discourse on citizen perceptions of citizen-government relations in the context of the United States, a country where media and political discourse is heavily saturated with taxpayer talk. Specifically, this study considers two contrasting rhetorical constructions of the taxpayer. The first portrays the taxpayer as subordinate to the state by framing taxpaying as a citizen’s obligation through discussing it in legal and procedural terms of tax collection. The second constructs the taxpayer as a partner to which the government is accountable by emphasizing spending tax revenues and thus foregrounding the role of taxpaying in citizen’s claims for greater control over government actions.

Drawing on a variety of perspectives from political science, mass communication, tax compliance research, history, and social cognition, I developed and tested two models to predict the effects of these contrasting constructions on two dimensions of citizen-government relations: power and trust. To test the models, I conducted two randomized controlled experiments: one that utilized a student sample recruited from a large undergraduate class at the University of Iowa (N=207), and one that replicated the results on a nationally representative adult sample (N=617). An additional experiment on a student sample (N=154) validated the experimental treatment.

Taken together, the findings show that taxpayer discourse can affect citizen political judgement, but those effects do not operate through perceptions of power but instead through changes in political trust. When exposed to the tax-collection rhetoric, individuals in the nationally representative sample responded by deeming the government less trustworthy, which made them more motivated to monitor its actions. Notably, when participants were exposed to the public-spending frame, their reactions were statistically indistinguishable from those who did not read any taxpayer-related headlines at all. This suggest that in the context of the United States, where people are socialized into a public discourse that portrays the taxpayer as the ultimate sponsor and judge of government performance, this perspective can be internalized and become the default framework that citizens rely on in forming political judgement. However, when rhetorically denied this privileged position and placed in a subordinate role, citizens can push back by penalizing the government with greater distrust and reclaiming their right for citizen oversight.

Importantly, the distrust-generating effect of the tax-collection frame is mitigated by the perceived scope of government reliance on taxes. The more reliant on taxpayer money participants perceived the state to be, the more trust this frame generated, which is consistent with a cognitive-dissonance explanation. Finally, changes in trust were triggered by taxpayer framing among actual taxpayers, leaving individuals with no actual experience unaffected.

This study advances political communication research by refining the understanding of politically consequential citizen roles in communication scholarship to include that of the taxpayer as one of the most fiscally significant, personally relevant, media-salient, and — as this dissertation demonstrates — politically meaningful citizen roles. The project also contributes to political-science scholarship by suggesting that taxpayer discourse can prevent democratic backsliding in an established democracy and by making a case for considering the news media as an important element of the taxation-democratization nexus.

In addition to scholarly significance, the dissertation has clear policy implications because it suggests new ways to communicate the benefits of democratic governance in more tangible, relatable terms of paying taxes and claiming greater accountability for government performance.


Democracy, Media framing, News media, Political trust, Taxation, Taxpayer


xiii, 204 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 134-167).


Copyright © 2019 Volha Kananovich

Available for download on Thursday, July 29, 2021