Welcome 53 Percenters to the 99 Percent

Terrance Heath

It was inevitable, I suppose, that the success of Occupy Wall Street and “We Are the 99 Percent” would spawn reactions and imitators on the right. But the newly launched “We Are the 53 Percent” is a miracle of the kind of contradiction and contortionism that has become typical of conservatism’s attempts at a relevant response to the economic crisis, in that it not only contradicts its own points, but goes a long way towards proving the point of the movements it tries to critique or ridicule.

The best response we on the left can offer is: “Welcome to the 99 percent, 53 percenters.” (And, to borrow a quote from “Blue Collar” comedian Bill Engvall, “Here’s your sign.”)

The overriding message is that the protesters have failed to take personal responsibility, blaming their economic troubles on others. “Suck it up you whiners. I am the 53 percent subsidizing you so you can hang out on Wall Street and complain,” writes Erickson, in the Tumblr’s inaugural post. “I don’t blame Wall Street because it doesn’t matter what Wall Street or anyone else does. I am responsible for my own destiny. I will succeed or fail because of me and me ALONE,” writes another contributor, who describes himself as a Marine Corps veteran. Another irate contributor writes: “I take risks so my kids can have a better life. Not so you can sit on your [expletive] at my expense.”

Trevino explains the message he believes the “53 percent” could bring across. “Even if you’ve had a difficult time, that this is America, and there is still value in hard work, and individual self-reliance…times are hard, we are in the worst economic crisis since Great Depression, but nonetheless, the same American values are really the way out of it,” Trevino says. He adds: “On a more visceral level, there’s always the reaction against the hippies.”

The irony, lost on the conservative behind "53 Percent," is rich. As Suzy Khimm points out, they trip over their anti-tax message right out of the gate. There are two main reasons that about 40 percent don't pay taxes. First, because Republicans fought so hard to lower them, not just for the wealthy but for middle class families as well. (Of course, now conservatives want to make the tax cuts for the wealthy permanent, while raising taxes on middle- and working-class Americans.) Second, the 23 percent who don't pay income taxes because they don't have enough income, or benefit from tax breaks given to the the elderly, low-income families, and students.

And even then, most of those people pay other taxes, like federal payroll taxes, sales taxes, excise taxes, etc. And in states like Mississippi and Texas, where "tax and spend conservatism" has devastated budgets, Republicans — instead of raising taxes on the rich or closing tax loopholes for corporations — seek to make up the difference by squeezing "non-tax revenue" out of these same people, in the form of increases in everything from tuition to fees for things like drivers licenses.

It's bad enough that they get the facts wrong about who doesn't pay taxes and why, but then they step on their own message without seeming to notice it.

What’s more the “53 percent” Tumblr also implies that there’s a certain mantle of responsibility that paying taxes confers upon people — i.e. grown-up, self-directed Americans like us can earn enough money to pay taxes, so you should, too. That’s an unusual message coming from conservatives who’ve pushed so mightily for an anti-tax agenda.

Trevino responds that most conservatives would agree that “paying taxes is the responsible thing to do,” saying that the question of whether taxes are too high is another issue altogether.

But what "53 Percent" showcases more than anything else is what Republicans own economic policies have done to their own constituents. It's downright scary, yet admirable at the same time. Despite everything they get wrong when it comes to politics and policy, you gotta admit that conservatives have one thing going for them even in the worst of times: They must make some damn good Kool-Aid, and back it with a nearly irresistible sales pitch.

Yet, "53 Percent" undermines that sales pitch, because it lays bare the stunning lack of truth in their advertising. Digby points to a post in which Jonathan Schwartz looks at one story as an example of how successfully conservatives have sold their own people on not only accepting their economic pain but blaming themselves for it.

I've been looking at this tumbler We Are the 53%, which of course is a response to We Are the 99%. If anything, the first tumblr is even more heartbreaking than the second. Here's a good example of the "We Are the 53%" people:

I look at that and it tells me that I've failed, you've failed, we've all failed, and because of that we're all going to die. These people not only won't fight the killer billionaires stomping on their windpipe, they'll brag about getting stomped on and ask for more.

The statements from the "53 Percent" tumblr immediately reminded me of my previous post, about the connection between empathy and activism in this economic crisis, and the disturbing nature of the conservative response, which encourages people to turn off the their human — and possibly even hardwired — capacity for empathy and compassion.

Brooks makes an interesting point in the conservative case against empathy, by first arguing that no one is against empathy, and then arguing why sometimes one should be. He instead argues for strong moral codes that allow "pro-social" action without empathy, driven instead by duty. It doesn't end up with any answers. It doesn't replace empathy, because with empathy comes compassion, and Brooks almost extolls morality driven action that may be void of compassion.

We take care of the poor because we "must." Because "God" commands us to. But it doesn't mean we have to "expand our moral imaginations" (as President Obama put it, in his Tucson speech) and put ourselves in their shoes or put ourselves in their places. Moral judgment like that Brooks favors over empathy allows for a separation between "us" and "them," it casts "them" as "Other," and puts a comfortable distance between "us" and "them." Empathy requires some level of identification with another, and a recognition of some basic degree of commonality.

Empathy makes casting moral judgments upon others more complicated and more difficult, because seeing something of our reality in them gives them a context — a "story" like our own, which frames their choices and actions with complexities that bleed over into our stories and those of others.

The statements that Khimm featured from the "53 Percent" tumbler, are strikingly similar to the takes of various conservatives like David Brooks, Ron Paul, and Herman Cain. The commenters seem to have accepted Brooks' argument that the government should not protect them from their "sins." In keeping with Occupy Wall Street supporter Ron Paul's argument, they apparently believe that "When you make a bad decision, it only hurts you," and that they are not impacted by the sins of others. (Thus, there's no need for the government to protect you from the "sins" of others, as well as your own.) And, when you live in a world where nothing anyone else does affects you, they Herman Cain is right — the only person you can ever blame is yourself.

The "53 Percent" post Schwartz featured could just have easily appeared on "We Are the 99 Percent," except for the last few lines. It illustrates a couple of things. Conservatism's economic "Kool-Aid" is so effective that countless numbers of its supporters, like the former Marine in question, have accepted what Robert Reich defined a while ago as "Republican Economics as Social Darwinism."

John Boehner, the Republican House leader who will become Speaker if Democrats lose control of the House in the upcoming midterms, recently offered his solution to the current economic crisis: “Liquidate labor, liquidate stocks, liquidate the farmer, liquidate real estate. It will purge the rottenness out of the system. People will work harder, lead a more moral life.”

Actually, those weren’t Boehner’s words. They were uttered by Herbert Hoover’s treasury secretary, millionaire industrialist Andrew Mellon, after the Great Crash of 1929.

…The issue isn’t just economic. We’re back to tough love. The basic idea is force people to live with the consequences of whatever happens to them.

In the late 19th century it was called Social Darwinism. Only the fittest should survive, and any effort to save the less fit will undermine the moral fiber of society.

…Herbert Hoover and Andrew Mellon thought their economic policies would purge the rottenness out of the system and lead to a more moral life. Instead, it purged morality out of the system and lead to a more rotten life for millions of Americans.

And that’s exactly what Republicans are offering yet again.

As I said in the previous post, this defies common sense to such an extreme that it qualifies as what I call "self-evasion of the mind" — a phrase I borrowed from a college professor of mine, which basically means "the act of contorting the mind so as not to have to see or acknowledge what is obvious to anyone who simply looks."

The self-evasion of the mind, in this case, is required for the "53 Percenters" to avoid acknowledging what the the "Occupy" movement and its supporters have figured out. Certainly it's what the people who post their stories on "We Are the 99 Percent" — who have "played by the rules" only to come lose everything, or know someone who has — know in a visceral way. The "53 Percenters" are in the throes of a "visceral…reaction against the hippies," but as Dean Baker put it protesters occupying Wall Street are in the process of having a visceral reaction not against Wall Street, but against a whole hell of a lot more.

While some number of the wealthy may have succeeded by working hard and being smart or creative, many of the very wealthy got their money directly or indirectly through the big hand of the government tilting the playing field in their direction. Their hard work involved rigging the rules to ensure that they ended up on top.

Nowhere is this better seen than on Wall Street, which is chock full of multimillionaires and billionaires who got to the top by taking advantage of items like "too big to fail insurance" for their banks, gambling with government insured deposits, ripping off state and local governments on pension management fees and, of course, the trillion dollars in bailouts bucks given at interest rates that were way below market levels. These people know the role of government very well, even if they pretend this is all about a free market.

…The list of ways in which the wealthy have structured the rules to ensure that they stay rich and get richer is lengthy. But the fact that the Very Serious People are looking to cut Social Security for the elderly and Medicaid for the unemployed at a time when Countrywide's Angelo Mozilo and Citigroup's Robert Rubin are still immensely rich is only the first reason that the public should be furious at those in power.

The second is the cause of the current downturn. The reason that we have 26 million people unemployed, underemployed or out of the work force altogether is not that we are poor, but rather that we are rich. The immediate problem facing our economy is not one of too few goods and resources; it is a problem of too little demand. And this is what should make the Wall Street Occupiers and everyone else absolutely furious at our leaders.

They're furious, not at the rich for being rich, but for "rigging the rules." They're "absolutely furious at our leaders," not only for allowing it to happen, but for making it worse. Those who are occupying Wall Street are taking their indictment of Wall Street to the scene of the crime — where wealth went to vanish. Those who are occupying 853 cities across the country, are doing so in cities where Republican policies decimated the public sector, to the tune of over Catherine Rampell noted at NYT's Economix, the income level at the high end of the 99 percent curve is pretty high, meaning that a considerable number of millionaires are in the 99 percent. But David Atkins points out that the people who are declaring themselves part of the 53 percent really aren't.

The fact that the bottom 47% of Americans are too poor to pay federal income taxes doesn't bother conservatives. Nor does the fact that even if they did, they have so little income that it wouldn't do much for the federal budget if they did. Nor apparently does it bother them that by making this argument they are playing "class warfare" of the middle class against the poor, and essentially advocating for raising taxes. That was supposed to be against "conservative" beliefs, last I checked.

Most of all, the bottom 47% pay all sorts of other taxes, including sales, social security and payroll taxes that end up taking up as great a percentage or more of their income as the total tax burden for any other group. So the idea that 47% of Americans are skating by on the backs of 53% of Americans is ludicrous in the first place.

All that aside, however, the Republican activists who were responsible for We are the 53% have faced in a choice in the stories they chose to tell. They could choose to tell the stories of the well-to-do (mostly from older white males), which would come off as tone-deaf, arrogant hectoring. Or they could choose to tell the stories of hardworking people struggling to get by who still hold onto conservative beliefs about the economy.

They have chosen to do a little bit of both, which is smart from a messaging point of view. But the irony is that in doing so, they put the lie to their website, because many of the people in the photos aren't in the 53%. They're part of the 47%.

Inasmuch as the 47 percent are included in the 99 percent, the 53% is part of the 99% as well. And if the protesters Zucotti Park demanding justice on behalf of the 99 percent, then they're demanding it for the same "53 Percenters" who've decide to simply accept their fate, and who really wish that the rest of us would join them do the same.

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