Romney's 47 Percent Line Is a Common GOP Trope, and it's Wrong*


As GOP strategist Patrick Ruffini tweeted last night, in the middle of Mitt Romney's secretly taped fundraising comments going viral, "The media probably didn't know that this 53/47 thing is common currency on the right." This dynamic explains a lot about both the media (and its outraged reaction to Romney's comments yesterday, today, and tomorrow), and about the right, which is used to making such claims without sanction.

For instance, as Ramesh Ponnuru points out in a Bloomberg View column entitled "The Right Is Wrong to Pin Obama's Edge on Welfare State,"

[M]any conservatives have expressed worry that the growth in the percentage of Americans who pay no federal income tax will make the electorate more supportive of big government. Paul Ryan said as much after a speech at the Heritage Foundation last year: "We're coming close to a tipping point in America where we might have a net majority of takers versus makers in society and that could become very dangerous if it sets in as a permanent condition."

Or as Sen. Jim DeMint (R-South Carolina) told Nick Gillespie and I earlier this year,

Almost half of Americans are getting something from government, and the other half are paying for it. And we're on a track where 60 percent are getting something from government and 40 percent are paying for it. You can't sustain a democracy with that mix.

reason: Because the 60 percent is going to be voting a bigger and bigger share of the 40 percent's money?

DeMint: It's hard to win elections when you're talking about limited government if the constituents want more from government. You see that phenomenon on display in Greece. When the country is going down in flames, there are still people in the street, demonstrating for more government benefits. We've got to understand we're in trouble, that we don't have much time. 

Ponnuru and New York Times columnist David Brooks make the same sensible retort to this line of argument, namely that the biggest "takers" of federal government largesse are seniors, ergo Republicans. While it can–and should!–alarm true advocates of limited government that appetite for entitlements is a strongly bipartisan affair, posing an important political obstacle to necessary spending reform, the arbitrary distinction that Romney, Ryan, DeMint, et al are making involves the allegedly iron link between paying no federal income taxes and voting Democrat.

Perhaps the worst thing about this 53/47 analysis is how it infantilizes voters of all income levels.

Go back to Romney's full description:

There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what. All right, there are 47 percent who are with him, who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it. That that's an entitlement. And the government should give it to them. And they will vote for this president no matter what…These are people who pay no income tax…[M]y job is is not to worry about those people. I'll never convince them they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

This is economic determinism at its worst, going against the very message the Republican Party was trying to sell to the world during its quadrennial national convention last month. Over and over again, we heard speakers there talk about how their immigrant grandparents came to this country, worked hard, built "that," never asked for a handout, and as a result their descendants have enjoyed the American Dream of ever-upward mobility. What the 53/47 dividing line says, to the direct contrary, is that income status is a permanent political condition, defrocking all Americans of agency and independent thought.

Most people at some point will be part of the 47 percent (indeed, nearly most already are). When my friends and I were comparatively poor, as people often are in their 20s and early 30s, we (for the most part) didn't "believe" that we were "victims," didn't "believe the government has a responsibility" to care for us, and didn't vote for Democratic political candidates "no matter what." We mostly took personal responsibility and care for our lives, and acted according to our idiosyncratic individual values and whims.

I should theoretically be the target audience for this stuff. I never took out a federally guaranteed student loan, never enjoyed the mortgage-interest deduction; I worry all the time about government spending and entitlements, and I am not unfamiliar with the looter/moocher formulation. But this kind of reductionism does not reflect individualism (as David Brooks charges), it rejects individualism, by insisting that income tax is destiny. It judges U.S. residents not as humans but as productive (or unproductive) units. (Though as long as people are thinking that way, is there any category of resident less taker-y than illegal immigrants with fake Social Security cards who file income taxes?) And it prematurely valorizes one class of government-gobbling Americans while prematurely writing off another.

There are to my mind many more important things to consider in this presidential race than Mitt Romney's reductive parroting of plausible-but-wrong GOP tropes. But the reason this controversy will have legs is ultimately because many Republicans think Romney's comments were just fine. They are about to learn what the rest of the country thinks about that.

UPDATE: Nick Gillespie has a post above well worth reading.

* UPDATE 2: I see from the (mostly disagreeing) comments that my headline is being misunderstood. I'm not saying that the number 47 percent is wrong, but that the political description about the 47 percent is wrong.