Thursday, December 1, 2011

On Frank Luntz and Word Choice

Interesting new article over at Yahoo News on the GOP's messaging response to Occupy Wall Street. As is customary, media guru Frank Luntz has been brought in to massage the conservative message in order to blunt the impact that OWS is having on the national conversation. Luntz is something of an interesting character, especially to those of us housed in communication studies: rhetoricians tend to have a love/hate relationship with him, and this is particularly true of rhetoricians with a progressive bent. For many, Luntz represents the worst kind of vision of communication: dupe the masses with the right kind of word and frame, and to follow up on Carl Weather's infamous proclamation with a difference, "you've got yourself a stew" of conservative messaging. Luntz's semi-regular appearances on Fox News, especially during campaign season, feature audiences responding to debates in real time with clickers that allow them to voice their happiness or displeasure with the goings on. For all the groans that Luntz is nothing more than a charlatan, however, there is often a sense of envy for his abilities. Whether its his invocations against "climate change" rather than "global warming" or his move to rename the estate tax the "death tax," progressives often wonder where "our Frank Luntz" is in these discussions. (George Lakoff, not an elephant, comes to mind as a potential counterpoint here.) To put it shorter: the response to Luntz is "Hey, I can't believe he's doing that! I wish WE could do that!"

Well now, Luntz is advising the GOP how to handle the Occupy movement. That Luntz is thinking about this messaging is important, and it indexes the extent to which Occupy has actually influenced the national conversation. Luntz indeed declares his terror that Occupy might actually begin to change the national conversation and opinion about capitalism. Some of his proposals:

-Don't say "capitalism"
-Say "takes" not "taxes"
-Replace "middle class" with "hardworking taxpayers"
-Replace "jobs" with "careers"
-Call "government spending" waste
-"Cooperate" but don't "compromise"
-Elicit empathy by identifying with the "obviousness" of inequality
-"Job creators" not "entrepreneurs"
-Don't ask folks to "sacrifice"
-Blame Washington for everything

What's remarkable about these suggestions is that, in comparison with Luntz's previous moves like reframing the estate tax as a death tax, these suggestions are actually somewhat banal. I think they index the extent to which the conservative position's discursive pivots have been eroded by Obama's relatively centric political discourse. To some degree Luntz's moves also reveal something of a poverty in conservative political discourse as well. Lest you think I'm just some sort of Lefty "concern troll" speaking flippantly think about it this way: A MAJOR CONSERVATIVE OPERATIVE JUST TOLD PEOPLE THAT CAPITALISM IS NOT A STRATEGIC WORD IN AMERICA. IN THE YEAR TWO THOUSAND AND ELEVEN. QUITE A WHILE AFTER THE COLLAPSE OF THE SOVIET UNION.

That's quite a thing there. See, the brilliance of Luntz's previous moves, like replacing the phrase "global warming" with "climate change" was his ability to move away from or into words and phrases with a sort of polarizing power: "warming" signals heat, "estate tax" doesn't generate the same emotional resonance as "death tax" etc. In this case, however, Luntz is unable to move either away from or towards more polarized terms. I mean, "job creator" instead of "entrepreneur"? Are we just back to bashing the French? And I'm pretty sure "Blame Washington" was already on the conservative messaging menu.

Anyway, the point of this post isn't to clown on Frank Luntz (who is quite smart), but instead to make one point: the rather tepid options available for reframing the national conversation in the wake of Occupy indicate that the movement really has put the idea of inequality back on the table. Obama's jobs speech also helped: he didn't shy away from marking differences either, talking about class in a rather meaningful way. This may be because the economy "seems" different to people than say global warming: its effects are experienced regularly every day. Once you can no longer deny the existence of a problem with a tactic like an epistemic filibuster, you are left to debate the causes. The acknowledgement of inequality forces Luntz and others to double down on the figure that makes so much conservative politics possible: the hardworking, right thinking, and infallible citizen whose good work and effort affirm at every turn the political commitment to limited government. So long as economic problems persist, alternate interpretations of events can be subjected to more scrutiny through choices made by rhetors whether in sloganeering or in political speech.

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