The Ties That Blind
When the Canadian activist magazine AdBusters issued a call on its listserv to start the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations in New York and other cities, a couple of like-minded protesters created a companion blog on Tumblr called “We are the 99 percent.” The purpose of both the protests and the blog was to point out that the bottom 99 percent have been subsidizing the very rich and their wealth-multiplying experiments for decades. But the blog did something the protests didn’t: It allowed folks who couldn’t camp out in Lower Manhattan and risk arrest to participate. Contributors upload pictures of themselves holding handwritten notes that tell their stories of disenfranchisement, insolvency, and unfair workplace practices. Each note varies, but overall, the blog depicts an economy in decline and the people pushed down to the bottom as a result.
Not to be outdone, conservatives launched their own Tumblr with the same aesthetic. “We are the 53 percent” co-creator Erick Erickson, a CNN commentator and the editor of the conservative blog RedState.com, set the tone with the first post: “I work three jobs. I have a house I can’t sell. My family insurance costs are outrageous. But I don’t blame Wall Street. Suck it up you whiners.”
Critics have pointed out how specious his “three jobs” claim is; Erickson works as a political pundit and is paid to do the same thing in different venues. But what’s most striking about the blog is how many contributors resemble those in the 99 percent. “I am making $5/hr less in my current job then [sic] in my previous one,” one man who looked to be in his thirties posted on the conservative site on October 11. “My wife and I live in a house that we are upside down on. We have 2 used cars and couldn’t afford a new one if we wanted to.” The same day, a middle-aged woman on the 99 percent site posted a similar tale. “My husband lost his job 2 years ago and can’t find full-time work—he takes temp jobs at low pay to help make ends meet. He still owes $ on student loans. I work 40 plus hours a week for barely over minimum wage.”
These two stories only diverge at the end. The man concludes: “I don’t blame anyone who is successful for my situation. I don’t want the government to fix things.” The woman, on the other hand, simply continues to document her woes.
This is why conservatives call the 99-percenters whiny. “Pick yourself up by your own bootstraps. That’s what I do,” their counter-posts imply. It’s a tempting story because Americans have been telling it about themselves since our country’s founding: We shook off old Europe to build a new country, armed with nothing but ideas and a willingness to work. Never mind that it’s false. Never mind that our unshakeable belief in the merit of hard work disguises that we haven’t been reaping its rewards for some time.
But overcoming such a deep-rooted American narrative isn’t easily done, and even the title of Erickson’s blog feeds into the perception that the protesters want something for nothing. The “53 percent” comes from a Tax Policy Center study showing that nearly half of Americans paid no net federal income tax in 2009—because of a decline in their incomes before and during the Great Recession, and a combination of long-term and stimulative tax credits that reduced their tax loads. (Of course, they still paid local and state taxes and federal payroll taxes.) The complicated nature of tax policy means that some of the 47 percent who get more back than they pay probably don’t realize they’re not paying federal income tax. That likely includes most of Erickson’s bloggers, who have more in common with the 99—percenters than just the style of their Tumblr postings.
“I feel like a failure!” one woman lamented on the 99 percent blog. Admitting that you’re financially underwater and don’t know how to get out is as unattractive an autobiography as the Horatio Alger story is alluring. Perhaps that’s why conservatives have been so successful at exploiting the narrative to benefit their friends. If you keep insisting that the 1-percenters made it entirely on their own merit, no one will notice how much you’ve twisted the system to benefit them at the expense of the less-well-off.
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