For weeks, Republicans in the House and Senate have been trying to pass the the GOP's tax plan — a massive overhaul of the U.S. tax code that several analyses and critics have argued would redistribute money from the middle class and the poor to the wealthy and corporations. Hundreds of wealthy women spoke out in opposition to that plan this week, and signed onto an open letter arguing the tax overhaul is wrongheaded and dangerous. One of them, Abigail Disney, says she was excited to see so many other women of money and privilege speaking out.
"I think it’s great when people of wealth speak up against their own self-interest," she says. "If all a democracy is is people defending their own self-interests, it’s more of an anarchy than a democracy. We have to be sticking up for the larger good. So when I saw a lot of women signing on, I was thrilled to pieces.”
Disney, 57, is a filmmaker and philanthropist — and the great-neice of Walt Disney — who's long been vocal about her support for liberal and progressive causes. The tax bill is a pointed example, however, owing to the fact that, as one of the heirs to the Disney family's considerable fortune, she would stand to greatly benefit from its passage.
The letter, which was signed by more than 200 women of significant personal wealth, blasts the Republican tax plan as "morally bankrupt, intellectually corrupt, and economically indefensible."
It's clear Disney feels the same way. She tells Bustle she's particularly fired up by the GOP's effort to push through several policy changes in the tax bill that she believes are consequential enough to each require its own vote. Specifically, she points to the effort to ram through a repeal of the estate tax, a provision in the tax code that only affects inheritances of more than $5 million.
"The bottom line for me is they would never be able to pass these one at a time," she says. "The estate tax should be an up-or-down vote on its own, and we should have a long conversation about our values as a democracy. But it’s just hidden in there. It’s a big mess."
Disney also notes that her grandfather and great-uncle ― Roy O. Disney and his brother Walt ― amassed a tremendous fortune to pass onto their children and grandchildren, but did so during a time when that fortune brought with it an incredible tax burden.
"My great-uncle and grandfather when they accumulated their massive wealth, enough to pass on to secure now four generations after themselves, they did that under a tax environment that was something we can’t even imagine at this point," she says. "Ninety percent, sometimes 70 percent, and a big estate tax."
The money the government collected in taxes from her great-uncle and grandfather went toward investing in things like the GI Bill and former President Dwight D. Eisenhower’s public roads project, which Disney notes were all investments in building a healthy, vibrant middle class.
As for her own motivations in speaking out, Disney points to the Children's Health Insurance Program (CHIP) as an example of a common good that she says society needs to protect. Currently, the Senate needs to re-authorize funding for CHIP, and states are rapidly running out of money to maintain the program, imperiling the health insurance of millions of children nationwide. "I just want to scream," Disney says of the failure to pass new funding for CHIP.
"We have to be sticking up for the larger good."
Needless to say, Disney is taking a forceful stand on this issue, one that places her out of step with many of her wealthy peers. Asked why she thinks more people in her position aren't following her lead ― with the exception of the women who signed onto the letter with her, of course ― Disney says that she tries not to be cynical about anyone's motivations.
Given all the reports that suggest the GOP tax bill would be destructive to the poor and the middle class, however, she finds herself unable to escape the simplest explanation. "As much as I'd like to be an optimist about human nature," she says, "I think greed is an enormous part of this problem."