Those Americans who watch MSNBC news shows, or John Stewart’s Daily Show, have seen spliced together video clips of Republican political leaders commenting on the major policy issue of the day. It is not the content of their message that is striking, but that they all give the exact same message, using identical wording.
“Moral forces must take up the slogan: ‘Economic democracy — not economic license’.”
When this happens, it’s likely the message they were parroting was crafted by pollster and political consultant, Frank Luntz. According to Wikipedia, “Luntz’s specialty is ‘testing language and finding words that will help his clients sell their product or turn public opinion on an issue or a candidate.’”
Luntz tests word and phrase choices using focus groups and interviews. His purpose is to figure out how to get audiences to react based on emotion. Luntz claims, “80 percent of our life is emotion, and only 20 percent is intellect. I am much more interested in how you feel than how you think.”
Here are some of Luntz’ more famous term creations:
- ‘energy exploration’ for oil drilling
- ‘death tax’ for estate tax
- ‘government takeover’ for healthcare reform
Late last year, during a plenary session at the Republican Governors Association’s annual meeting, a question of common concern came up: How should Republicans talk about the Occupy Wall Street movement?
Luntz (a featured speaker at the meeting) validated this concern: “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death. They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
Luntz then gave recommendations on how Republicans should respond to Occupiers’ grievances. Some of his recommendations were:
- Don’t say ‘government spending’; call it ‘waste’.
- Don’t say ‘entrepreneur’; say ‘job creator’.
- Don’t say ‘bonus’; say ‘pay for performance’. Always blame Washington, never Wall Street.
- Say to Occupiers, “I get it” — “I get that you’re angry”; “I get that you want to fix the system.”
- Never say you’re willing to ‘compromise’; say you will ‘cooperate’.
But here was the big one:
- Don’t say ‘capitalism’; say ‘economic freedom’.
Luntz elaborated: “I’m trying to get that word [ie, capitalism] removed and we’re replacing it with ‘economic freedom’. The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. If we’re seen as defenders of Wall Street, we’ve got a problem.”
On the day I wrote this article, I did a Google search for the words “Mitt Romney economic freedom”. The top hit was for an article from that day’s Boston Herald, in which it’s reported that, “Romney hammered home his message of economic freedom and blasted President Barack Obama for what he called intrusive government.”
‘Economic freedom’ may not be a very familiar concept in progressive circles, but it’s one with deep ideological roots in conservative discourse. Here are some Wikipedia sourced snippets on ‘economic freedom’:
“The free market viewpoint defines economic liberty as the freedom to produce, trade and consume any goods and services acquired without the use of force, fraud or theft. This is embodied in the rule of law, property rights and freedom of contract, and characterized by external and internal openness of the markets, the protection of property rights and freedom of economic initiative.”
“Economist Milton Friedman sees property rights as ‘the most basic of human rights and an essential foundation for other human rights.’”
“In Capitalism and Freedom (1962), Friedman developed the argument that economic freedom, while itself an extremely important component of total freedom, is also a necessary condition for political freedom.”
‘Economic freedom’ has become the mythic heart of neo-liberalism, of neo-conservatism. And it projects an image that Luntz believes can grab the emotional buy-in of the American electorate.
Less than a week after Frank Luntz gave his Occupy advise to Republican governors, George Lakoff, in an Alternet article, gave a dire warning about Luntz’s strategy. (Lakoff is a well-known Professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and author of Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.)
In his article, Lakoff again raised a theme he’s long hammered on as to why Democrats are constantly in the losing position of legitimizing Republican framing of public discourse on policy issues. It’s worth going through Lakoff’s logic, as his insights are illuminating.
“Luntz is not just addressing his remarks to Republicans. He is also looking to take Democrats for suckers. How? By choosing his frames carefully, and getting Democrats to do the opposite of what he tells Republicans. There is a basic truth about framing. If you accept the other guy’s frame, you lose.
“Take “capitalism.” It arises these days in socialist discourse, and is seen as the opposite of socialism. To attack “capitalism” in this frame is to accept “socialism.” Conservatives are trying to cast Progressives, who mostly have businesses or work for businesses or are looking for good business jobs, as socialists. If you take the Luntz bait, you will be sucked into sounding like a socialist. Whatever one thinks of socialism, most Americans falsely identify it with communism, and will reject it out of hand.
“Luntz would love to have Democrats talking about “entrepreneurs,” which evokes a Republican view of the market as a tool for self-interest. His proposal to discuss “job creators” instead hides the fact that the business community has not been hiring despite record profits. He certainly does not want discussion of outsourcing and minimizing pay for work, which leads corporations to eliminate or downgrade jobs and hence keep wages low when profits are high.
“He is right to suggest “talking about how ‘we’re all in this together.’ We either succeed together or we fail together.” But that is the opposite of conservative morality. It is the progressive view of a moral democracy that all of Luntz’s conservative framings contradict. It is an attempt at co-opting the progressive moral system, because the Occupy movement is showing that it is an idea of Democracy that makes sense to most Americans.
“Unfortunately, Luntz is still ahead of most progressives responding to him. Progressives need to learn how framing works. Bashing Luntz, bashing Fox News, bashing the right-wing pundits and leaders using their frames and arguing against their positions just keeps their frames in play.
“Progressives have magnificent stories of their own to tell. They need to be telling them
nonstop. Let’s lure the right into using OUR frames in public discourse.”
Geoge Lakoff applies his linguistic acumen to empower us with an invaluable insight — to use the terminology of another metaphoric worldview is to unconsciously support it. For liberals to talk about ‘tax relief’, for example, implies that taxes are an affliction that citizens would want relief from.
Time and again, Democrats get sucked into discussions that are emotionally framed by Republicans, and thereby legitimize discussions that are inherently absurd to even entertain (eg, ‘death panels’). It is a pathetic spectacle; but the Democrats are prone to it, in part because they do not have a solid alternative vision to the rule of the global corporate cowboys.
Even were they to become savvy to the Luntz strategy, their ability to offer an emotionally empowered, liberating vision is limited. They are too compromised. Most cannot envision beyond the moneyed hand that feeds them.
A new political path must be forged, a new sentiment around which to lead the American nation forward.
Moral leaders must take control of the emotional imagery and project a truly empowering economic vision for our nation.
They must offer a sentiment that penetrates deep into the longings of our fellow citizens, a sentiment that will truly free people from their free-falling economic situations.
‘Economic freedom’ may provide imagery that stirs an emotional resonance. But, in substance, it’s code for ‘economic license’; in substance, it gives license to the 1 percent and disempowers the 99 percent.
‘Economic democracy’, in contrast, both touches emotions and offers substance. It calls for the equitable economic empowerment of the 100 percent.
Moral forces must take up the slogan: ‘Economic democracy — not economic license’. This slogan will stir the hearts of the people, connecting with their rising aspirations for an economic system that is by, for, and of the people.
Ravi Logan is the Executive Director of the PROUT Institute: www.proutinstitute.org