Republicans need to get over their '47 percent' obsession
It's factually wrong. It's morally repugnant. And it's politically stupid.
Don't make the same mistake as Romney.
Don't make the same mistake as Romney. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Mitt Romney's defeat in 2012 had many causes, but the one that crystallized his reputation as an out-of-touch plutocrat was the "47 percent" tape. In case you've forgotten, he went on at awkward length about how those who pay no federal income tax are a bunch of whining moochers whose will to work has been drained to nothingness by government handouts.

It is now clear that this kind of thinking is dangerously attractive to Republicans, and is going to be a consistent political liability if they can't deal with it. New tape released last week shows Bob Beaubrez, a GOP gubernatorial candidate in Colorado, saying similar things back in 2010:

I see something that frankly doesn't surprise me, having been on Ways and Means Committee: 47 percent of all Americans pay no federal income tax... I'm guessing that most of you in this room are not in that 47 percent — God bless you — but what that tells me is that we've got almost half the population perfectly happy that somebody else is paying the bill, and most of that half is you all. I submit to you that there is a political strategy to get slightly over half and have a permanent ruling political majority by keeping over half of the population dependent on the largesse of government that somebody else is paying for. [Denver Post]

His remarks came several years ago, but according to the Post, his campaign stands by the comments, spinning them as being "about lifting up and creating more opportunity."

The reason Republicans are so drawn to this 47 percent meme is that it confirms all their darkest fantasies: that social insurance is luring the poor into a hammock of dependency, that a small minority of "job creators" responsible for all economic growth are being expropriated by a rapidly growing horde of lazy takers, and that the country is near a tipping point in which the takers will outnumber the makers.

It fits right in with the brutal Randian worldview that has come to dominate the GOP. The problem is that it's a crock. The hammock theory of poverty is bogus, the job creator view of economic prosperity is bogus, and the United States welfare state is, if anything, threadbare when compared with our peer nations (except for the parts that subsidize the rich, of course). And though the 47 percent number is true with respect to federal income taxes, when you include state and local taxes, nearly everyone pays.

But even if you set all that aside, the most ludicrous idea is that the bottom 51 percent of the income distribution scale are in an electoral position to help themselves to the national trough. The undeniable reality is that poor people have no influence whatsoever over federal policy. On the contrary, as this sweeping report from Demos shows, U.S. policy is overwhelmingly aligned with the preferences of the wealthy, on issues ranging from the minimum wage, to generating jobs for the unemployed, to providing shelter for those who need it.

Campaign contributions surely have something to do with this. But the fact is that voting itself is highly correlated with wealth. People making more than $150,000 are almost 37 percentage points more likely to vote than those making less than $10,000.

You'd think that someone campaigning for election would realize this, given that Beaubrez at the time was addressing a room full of rich people — and not, say, a homeless shelter.

The irony is that Republicans are largely responsible for the "47 percent" situation. A major reason that federal taxes on lower-income people are so low is that cutting them used to be the GOP's accepted way of fighting poverty. It's a policy that Ronald Reagan, for example, was very proud of.

But these days, it's just another excuse for Republicans to kick the poor.

Ryan Cooper is a national correspondent at His work has appeared in the Washington Monthly, The New Republic, and the Washington Post.


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