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Romney's 47% attack is 'gospel on the right'

COMMENTARYWhen the video of Mitt Romney uttering his now infamous assertion that 47 percent of the American public pays no federal income tax, is "dependent on
Ben Adler

by Ben Adler


When the video of Mitt Romney uttering his now infamous assertion that 47 percent of the American public pays no federal income tax, is "dependent on government," and is certain to vote for his opponent, many liberals were taken aback. "Shocking" was the favored response

But anyone who closely follows politics should not have been surprised. A look at recent history shows that for a while now, many prominent conservatives have been insulting those who do not pay income taxes and fretting that they 'll vote the country into debt-financed oblivion. In short, Romney was only parroting a sentiment that's become "gospel on the right,"as Steve Kornacki said on The Rachel Maddow Show Tuesday evening.

The meme kicked off with a Wall Street Journal editorial in 2002 that derided the "lucky duckies" who were too poor to pay income taxes. Back then, the epithet applied to less than 40 percent of the public. Thanks to George W. Bush's tax cuts and the economic collapse that began in 2008, the proportion shot up to 46.4 percent last year. The conservative media glommed onto this number, inflated it slightly, and declared—exactly as Romney just did—that almost half the country are indolent slobs who support policies that enrich themselves at the expense of hardworking taxpayers.

From there, it went viral. This week, Media Matters collected a long list of examples: In July 2010, Fox News's Steve Doocy asked if the "47 percent of Americans not paying taxes" should "be allowed to vote?" Last November, Rush Limbaugh said the 47 percent are "content to be slovenly, lazy takers," and that it's "obvious" President Obama's campaign is "aimed at the welfare state."

From there, it was mainstreamed into the GOP presidential campaign, prompting The Wall Street Journal to refer to it as “the new Republican orthodoxy.” Rep. Michele Bachmann and other candidates argued that everyone should pay at least some taxes so that they appreciate the burdens of the welfare state, instead of only enjoying its benefits. Supposedly intellectual institutions, such as the Heritage Foundation, repeated the false description used by Fox News ignoramuses like Doocy that all 47 percent of these folks pay no taxes at all, ignoring that many of them pay more in payroll taxes than the 13.9% Mitt Romney pays in income taxes. The movement reached its apogee when Josh Trevino of the Texas Public Policy Foundation and Erick Erickson of the Red State blog, both prominent conservative pundits, launched a “We Are The 53 Percent” Web site where grassroots activists could post self-righteous and sometimes vitriolic messages. (One recent missive: "If you don't like the way we live, Go Occupy China.")  


Just a couple weeks ago I saw Neal Boortz, a conservative talk radio host who has an estimated audience of 6 million, give perhaps the ultimate expression of the anti-47 percent attack at a Tea Party rally in Tampa on the eve of the Republican National Convention. Boortz argued that there are two groups of Americans: the people who pay for government and the people who live off of it. “Barack Obama takes your money and gives it to someone more likely to vote for him,” he said, apparently ignoring that many of his listeners were seniors, a group that receives almost twice as much in government transfer payments as low-income Americans do, studies show. “The Democrats—the looters, the moochers, the parasites—know how they will vote, for access to your pocket.” Compared to that, Romney was generous.

That’s why Rich Lowry, editor of the conservative flagship magazine National Review, offered this summation of Romney’s statement: “The overall impression of Romney at this event is of someone who overheard some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read.” 

Indeed, Romney appears to have reproduced the line pretty accurately. And when his only listeners were the donors at that Boca Raton fundraiser, that was fine. The problem is that it was never intended for a mainstream audience. 


Ben Adler is a contributing writer for The Nation.