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The 99% vs. the 53%

October 14, 2011, 12:28 pm | Posted by Nick Sementelli

The “We are the 99%” tumblr has garnered a lot of attention as an easy way to understand the pain and frustration behind the #occupy movements spreading across the country. Featuring pictures of Americans describing their economic hardships, it has given specific faces to these national sentiments.

Conservatives, however, have not taken too kindly to this 99% language–responding by casting the #occupy participants as envious class warriors whining about their condition. To counter the 99%’s powerful narrative, they’ve started promoting their own statistical language, bragging about their membership in the 53% of Americans who pay federal income taxes. Conservative commentator Erick Erickson even started a rival tumblr to promote the message. Jon Chait explains:

The “47 percent pay no income taxes” statistic, which has gained sudden ubiquity on the right, is an attempt to create a different kind of class consciousness — a reflection of the right’s Ayn Rand-inspired conviction that politics pits virtuous producers in a struggle against venal looters and moochers.

Erickson’s feed features conservatives proclaiming their faith in their own hard work, boasting that they pay taxes, and castigating the freeloaders living off their effort. It’s a framework that binds the middle class with the rich against the poor — 53 versus 47, not 99 versus 1. And it explains away skyrocketing inequality as reflecting the pure genius and effort of the successful. (There is no effort to explain how the rich have gotten so much smarter and more hard-working relative to the rest of America over the last three decades.)

E.D. Kain lets the stories on the 53% tumblr speak for themselves:

For one thing, most of the fifty-three-percenters are probably not actually in the 53%. Many describe a life of hardship, unemployment or underemployment, and dependence on government jobs and services. Take this one, for instance:


After this young woman’s father was diagnosed with thyroid cancer, he was told by the doctor to take it easy since he’s a manual laborer. Yet he went back to work full-time, working 12 hours a day, six days a week. She writes, “The cancer still grows. That is the American dream.”

Tell me this isn’t heartbreaking. Not just the story, but the sentiment.

The notion that this is the American dream, that men diagnosed with a horrible cancer should work 72 hours a week to support their families, is deeply tragic. There ought to be better visions of society than this.

And of course, a third tumblr–”Actually, You’re the 47%“–has popped up to investigate Kain’s hypothesis.

What saddens me about the stories of these Americans boasting about their difficult situations isn’t just their immediate struggles; it’s the fact that they don’t appear to believe they deserve better. They seem to have bought into the conservative myth that blind faith in the free market and an “every-man-for-himself” social ethic is the best we can do, even when faced with communal problems like widespread unemployment and unaffordable healthcare.

“You’re on your own–tough luck” isn’t the message of the America I know, and it’s definitely not the message of hope that my faith inspires me to believe in.


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