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Hullabaloo


Tuesday, January 07, 2014

 
Sometimes reality intrudes in spite of the bullshit

by David Atkins

Digby already covered the insane hypocrisy of Frank Luntz whining about the loss of civility in politics. But there's something else going on, too, that deserves note. It's not just guilt; Luntz is genuinely reaching an upper limit to how much bullshit he can sell, echoing a point I've been trying to make for a long time about the fundamental shift in the politics of the 21st century. This is the key bit:

Luntz knew that he, a maker of political messages and attacks and advertisements, had helped create this negativity, and it haunted him. But it was Obama he principally blamed. The people in his focus groups, he perceived, had absorbed the president's message of class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution. It was a message Luntz believed to be profoundly wrong, but one so powerful he had no slogans, no arguments with which to beat it back. In reelecting Obama, the people had spoken. And the people, he believed, were wrong. Having spent his career telling politicians what the people wanted to hear, Luntz now believed the people had been corrupted and were beyond saving. Obama had ruined the electorate, set them at each other's throats, and there was no way to turn back.

Why not? I ask. Isn't finding the right words to persuade people what you do? "I'm not good enough," Luntz says. "And I hate that. I have come to the extent of my capabilities. And this is not false modesty. I think I'm pretty good. But not good enough." The old Frank Luntz was sure he could invent slogans to sell the righteous conservative path of personal responsibility and free markets to anyone. The new Frank Luntz fears that is no longer the case, and it's driving him crazy.
Luntz has spent his life manipulating consumers and the electorate with good messaging and good framing. That's not an insult, by the way. I'm in the same business. As long as humans are using language and competing with one another in business and politics, using language better than the competition will be a valid and important vocation. The morality of it lies in whether language is used to clarify or to deceive, and the purpose to which the language is put.

But language can only go so far. Wordsmithing helps you up to a point, but ultimately you can't put lipstick on a pig unless people have a reason to want to see the pig as something other than a pig. Deception on a grand scale is rarely possible for long, unless you're aiding the public in deceiving themselves.

That's what Luntz made a career of. People don't want to think of themselves as oppressed workers but temporarily embarrassed millionaires, to paraphrase Mark Twain John Steinbeck. Luntz's words help them do that. Many whites don't want to admit that they need government help just as much as poor minorities do, so Frank Luntz helps them build solidarity with rich whites instead. People like to see themselves as potential entrepreneurs rather than wage slaves. Luntz creates language to help keep people both financially oppressed but also emotionally satisfied, usually by thinking of themselves as better than some "other" group of people.

But at a certain point reality intrudes. After decades of failure by supply-side ideologues and their slightly less conservative neoliberal cousins, the veneer wears off. The electorate's desire for aspirational self-regard and in-group pride cedes ground to desperation, anger and resentment over the obvious injustice of it all.

It doesn't occur to Luntz for a second that the economy is genuinely terrible, that inequality is genuinely out of control, that the banks genuinely screwed everyone, that people genuinely haven't had wage increases in 40 years even as cost of living spirals upward. It doesn't occur to him that these are real problems that no language can explain away, and that people are genuinely angry and need help. Most voters may not be able to put the pieces together into a coherent whole, but they know that they're suffering, that the system isn't working anymore, and that fat cat elites (who they are varies depending on your political leanings, but the anger is heartfelt all the same) are profiting from all of it. No one sold them a bunch of cute phrases to convince them of that. It's too damn obvious on its face. Those with no conscience whatsoever are still using racist and sexist code to sell the idea that the advantage-takers are welfare queens and nefarious liberal enablers, but that also only goes so far as the voters inclined to believe that age out of the electorate.

But Luntz can't see that. Politics is all a manipulative game to him. Yes, public opinion can be shaped to a certain degree, but you can't change reality itself. So Luntz is descending deeper into the madness of pure ideology, upset over even the idea of a safety net, while portraying President Obama as some sort of Occupy Wall Street Svengali who out-manipulated him and beat him at his game.

Sadly, much as I would like to believe that brilliant progressive wordsmithing defeated him, it didn't. Reality finally did.


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