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Thursday, December 01, 2011

Is Luntz losing his touch, or are conservatives that desperate?

by David Atkins

It may be bad form to harp on the same item three posts in a row, but I can't resist taking a few jabs at Frank Luntz based on his latest talking points for Republicans concerned about Occupy Wall Street and rising inequality. It's important to talk about this because Luntz' latest talking points represent a significant danger not to Democrats and progressives so much as to conservatives themselves.

The genius of Luntz has always been his ability to use the emotional power of language to bullshit the public at a slant, while maintaining a connection to reality and avoiding direct, outright lying. The "death tax" is a perfect example of this: it's an emotionally gripping negative phrase that paints an incomplete but not entirely inaccurate picture of a tax on the estates of wealthy people after they die. "Estate tax" and "inheritance tax" are the most accurate descriptors, but do little to engage emotionally. "Paris Hilton tax" is a good progressive substitute, as it also has resonating emotional associations, while telling a progressive and positive story of the tax in just three words. It's not the most accurate description perhaps, but neither is death tax.

But the key to making framing work is that any language you substitute has to have 1) a connection to reality; and 2) move the language more strongly in the direction of the story you want to tell in a way that can't be co-opted by the other side. Most of Luntz' language on inequality here fails on one or both of these fronts. Let's peruse some examples:

1. Don't say 'capitalism.'

"I'm trying to get that word removed and we're replacing it with either 'economic freedom' or 'free market,' " Luntz said. "The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we're seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we've got a problem."

The retreat from capitalism is astonishing, if not altogether surprising. The Occupy movement can't really take credit for this, as the polling on capitalism versus socialism has been been weak for years now since the economic crash. Still, there's no question that with income inequality having been successfully vaulted to the forefront of the national discourse by the Occupiers, the perception of capitalism as a system has taken a hit. But to retreat from capitalism as an idea isn't just a big loss for the right wing alone: the problem is that "economic freedom" can mean a lot of things to a lot of different people. Single-payer healthcare and free public education means economic freedom. Forgiveness of student loan debt means economic freedom. George Lakoff wrote a great book Whose Freedom? on the way the Right and Left perceive that all-encompassing word. "Freedom" has always been a weak frame for the Right, because it's so easily muddled and put in more progressive terms. Shifting from "capitalism" to "freedom" and calling that a positive message development for the Right is like calling a "retreat" an "advance in the opposite direction." Moving on:

2. Don't say that the government 'taxes the rich.' Instead, tell them that the government 'takes from the rich.'

"If you talk about raising taxes on the rich," the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But "if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes."

3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the 'middle class.' Call them 'hardworking taxpayers.'

"They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the 'middle class' and the public will say, I'm not sure about that. But defending 'hardworking taxpayers' and Republicans have the advantage."

The problems with this approach for conservatives are numerous. First off, it's a retreat from the issue of taxes--an acknowledgment that a word they used to spin as entirely evil ("taxes") no longer carries such a negative punch. Instead, they are recommended to use more violent imagery of theft. The only problem with that is that everyone pays taxes: most people who aren't libertarian anarcho-capitalists get that taxes aren't exactly armed robbery. Besides, Robin Hood has always been and continues to be a pretty popular legend. I recently did a series of focus groups on progresssive framing with mostly political moderates, and many respondents in almost all the groups advocated forceful approaches to redistributing the wealth stolen by Wall Street. Many advocated more than just violence against their pocketbooks. So if Luntz is hoping that the rich will get sympathy by using the language of violence, he's mistaken on two counts.

The other failure here is the sleight-of-hand equation of the super-wealthy with "hardworking taxpayers." This won't work, either, in large part due to right-wing message machine itself. "Hardworking Americans" has long been code in Republican and conservative Democratic circles for (mostly blue collar) white America. When we hear the phrase "hard-working American", most of us are instantly primed to think of a Republican-voting white male construction crew foreman in a hard hat driving a Ford F-150. Those with more progressive leanings will see this phrase more inclusively. But no one sees a fat cat in a $3,000 Armani suit when you say that phrase. Using it to defend investment bankers comes off poorly and won't really work.

4. Don't talk about 'jobs.' Talk about 'careers.'

"Everyone in this room talks about 'jobs,'" Luntz said. "Watch this."

He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a "job." Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a "career." Almost every hand was raised.

"So why are we talking about jobs?"

This one really makes me laugh. It's perhaps Luntz' most creative approach, but it's also the one that best shows off his glass jaw. Again, two big problems here for Republicans. First, almost no one actually believes that politicians on either side of the aisle will help them find a stable career; insofar as they do, careers come from a personal and public investment in education, which is squarely in the Dem/progressive wheelhouse.

But more importantly, it has been the conservative and neoliberal approach for many years now to move workers away from stable decades-long jobs, and into movable jobs in which they switch careers and locations several times in their life. Remember that freedom is supposed to be part of the economic conservative appeal: that means in theory that no one owes you a business model (though in practice, of course, conservatives are quite guilty of crony capitalism as even Sarah Palin pointed out), that when technology or global arbitrage kill entire industries, people should pull themselves up by their bootstraps and find a different line of work, and that the free flow of capital is more important than protecting any particular career tracks. Stable careers, dependable jobs in the same field, defined pensions from those careers, all of these things that cater more to human dignity than to flow of capital are part of the progressive worldview, not the conservative one.

People aren't about to believe that government offers them a career. They certainly don't believe that conservative politicians want them to have a stable career. And even if they did believe that, it wouldn't exactly help the conservative cause in the long run, but would hurt it by diluting and contradicting the conservative economic message.

6. Don't ever say you're willing to 'compromise.'

"If you talk about 'compromise,' they'll say you're selling out. Your side doesn't want you to 'compromise.' What you use in that to replace it with is 'cooperation.' It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you're selling out those principles."

Once again, this is one-step-forward-for-two-steps-back advice from Luntz. Yes, what he is saying is true and is a great set of talking points...for liberal politicians. Polls show that liberals have a much higher respect for the notion of "compromise" than do conservatives, which is why Luntz is making this case.

But Luntz' problem here is that his alternative is "cooperation." Again, that's smack in the middle of the progressive wheelhouse. Conservatives may not like compromise, but everything about the word "cooperation" brings forward imagery and associations that help the Left, not the Right. The Right is predicated on individual self-reliance, which is part of why sticking to one's principles is most important to them. Think John Wayne. The Left is predicated on collective action and cooperation between rival groups to solve big problems against overwhelming odds. Think Avatar. "Cooperation" also assumes something less than Manichean political divides, which runs directly contrary to the Fox News mindset. Switching from "compromise" to "cooperation" for conservatives is jumping out of the frying pan into a doubly hot fire.

After some fairly boilerplate stuff (say "waste" instead of "government spending," since Luntz has advocated for years not to attack "government" as an entity but instead attack "Washington"; indicate an understanding of the voters' concerns; use "job creators" instead of "entrepreneurs," which is legitimately good advice for them and the most dangerous framing challenge facing the Left at the moment), Luntz again astonishes with #9:

9. Don't ever ask anyone to 'sacrifice.'

"There isn't an American today in November of 2011 who doesn't think they've already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to 'sacrifice,' they're going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how 'we're all in this together.' We either succeed together or we fail together.

For a conservative, this is utterly incompetent. One can understand what Luntz is trying to do here: paint everyone from Wall St. to the middle class as being in the same boat, and asking everyone to take a haircut in the form of entitlement cuts. But again two big problems here: first, the language of collective destiny is decidedly far Left. Second, it's been fairly obvious to almost everyone for quite some time now that we're not all succeeding together. A few people are succeeding fabulously, while almost everyone else is getting left in the dust. If we're really all in this together, then it should be incumbent on those who are doing very well in this economic to make provision for those who are not, and do something to rectify the imbalance. That's why this imagery is part of the Left's rhetorical construct in the first place.

This is just terrible, terrible advice for conservatives. I hope they take it.

And finally, the last bits:

10. Always blame Washington.

Tell them, "You shouldn't be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it's the policies over the past few years that have created this problem."


Don't say 'bonus!'

Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a "bonus."

"If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you're going to make people angry. It's 'pay for performance.'"

Yes, Luntz is again advocating "blaming Washington." He goes on at length about this in his book Words that Work: Washington is a cold, distant, corrupt and unfeeling place for most voters, and it's associated with intrusive big government, which paints the Left in a negative light. Fine insofar as that goes. But the problem for Luntz here is that every poll up to this point makes clear that most voters blame the Bush Administration and Wall Street for the economic crisis. Only in the fetid fever swamps of the Fox News demographic are Barney Frank and Chris Dodd to blame. Now, many progressives see catering to Wall Street's interests as a bipartisan affair. But telling angry voters to "Occupy the White House" instead of Wall Street is going to fall on deaf ears. Even if they are inclined to believe that the current occupant of the White House isn't doing much to solve the problem, the only people who believe the current occupant is the cause of the problems are people already firmed entrenched in the conservative camp.

And as far as "pay for performance" goes instead of "bonuses," that's so far from reality that most voters will simply laugh. There's scarcely a voter alive who doesn't know stories of executives being grossly overcompensated even as they run their companies into the ground. In theory this is good framing for Republicans; in practice it's so divorced from reality that it will just come off as tone-deaf.

One could argue here that Luntz is losing his magic touch here. But one could also say that conservatives are in enough of a message bind right now that this is all Luntz has to work with on the subjects of Wall St. and inequality. I tend to lean toward to the latter view.

This is a big glass jaw for the conservative movement, one they can only protect by attempting to steer the conversation to something, anything else. Dems and progressives need not to get distracted. They need to punch and punch hard.