Spinning '47%': Watch Erick Erickson Evade Facts and Mislead Readers

The blogger and pundit might be an effective propagandist in the short run, but he's keeping the right from grappling with reality.

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Gage Skidmore / Flickr

In a recent post, I explained how Erick Erickson led the rhetorical charge last year to divide America between the 53 percent of households that pay income taxes and the 47 percent that don't -- and that Ramesh Ponnuru of National Review decisively explained why that frame is nonsense. Within the RedState echo-chamber*, it may seem like the 47 percent of people who pay no income taxes are leftist layabouts who vote for Democrats to keep the government money coming. But as Ponnuru, Reihan Salam, and a number of other right-leaning commentators have explained in recent days, "the 47 percent" (a) is a flawed proxy for "percent of people who pay taxes"; (b) includes a lot of Republican voters; (c) includes a lot of seniors, some disabled people, and many students who aren't anyone's definition of moochers; and (d) is composed partly of working families with kids who pay no income taxes by virtue of qualifying for tax relief the GOP championed. Put succinctly, the frame Erickson eagerly advanced and that Mitt Romney adopted is verifiably bullshit. And it misleads everyone who takes it at face value.

Yet here is Erickson on Tuesday reacting to the "47 percent" controversy:

I stand second to none in being critical of Mitt Romney's campaign. Hell, on MSNBC yesterday, Bay Buchanan lit into me as having never been with them and finding things to criticize. So pay attention here. Michael Warren is engaged in some beltway thinking that I think has plagued the Romney camp and which has always been a chief concern.

For once, we see Mitt Romney undercover and off the record and he sounds like a real person not pulled by the gravitational forces of the DC GOP Elite who have capitulated to $16 trillion in national debt. And suddenly, those beltway Republicans are beating up Romney for saying something off the cuff, maybe not as polished as he should have, but that is agreed with by a majority of Americans.

Let's dig into this evasive spin, for it has two layers. On the surface, Erickson defends Romney without actually claiming that what he said at that donor gathering is true. Rather, he makes two statements about Romney's words: They weren't as polished as they should've been, and a majority of Americans agree with them. If you don't click on the link he embeds, you're led to believe that a majority of the United States thinks the 47 percent of the population that pays no income tax has a victim complex, votes Democratic, and can never be convinced to take responsibility for their lives.

That is, after all, what Romney said.

But if we go to the link Erickson provides, we're led to this Gallup poll result:

A majority of Americans (54%) continue to believe the government is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and businesses, although that is down from the record high of 61% earlier this summer. About four in 10 Americans (39%) say the government should do more to solve the nation's problems.

That in no way resembles what Romney said at the fundraiser. I suppose if we want to judge Erickson as a propagandist**, it's theoretically possible that his latest post will redound to the short term electoral benefit of the GOP. Perhaps by obfuscating, he can make Romney's indefensible remarks seem defensible to a few more people than would otherwise think so. But when leading voices in your ideological movement have such disregard for intellectual honesty, the longer term result is a coalition increasingly disconnected from reality. And that is unsustainable. 

*Said Rich Lowry, editor of National Review, "The overall impression of Romney at this event is of someone who overheard some conservative cocktail chatter and maybe read a conservative blog or two, and is thoughtlessly repeating back what he heard and read." I know just which conservative blog it sounds like he was thoughtlessly reading!

**Lest you think I am being too hard on the man, I encourage you to delve into his history. One place to begin is this CNN clip, where he is confronted with various statements that he himself admits are indefensible. The darkly hilarious part is that the appearance was his debut as an official contributor to the network.

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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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