When it comes to the crafters of conservative domination of our culture, there’s a crowded cast of characters who come to mind. You may recognize the power and influence of a brazen blowhard like Rush Limbaugh, or the maudlin, alarmist posturing of Glenn Beck. But there are some who have significant power and influence but don’t stand out in our popular imagination. Frank Luntz would be someone of this sort.
Luntz is the successful Republican pollster who has often engineered the language of political discourse and handed the conservative movement some devastatingly useful tools. The recent past yields bountiful examples of hot button issues cloaked in new language crafted by Luntz to help the right move opinion in their direction. Luntz transformed the estate tax into the “death tax,” demonstrating his keen ability to rebrand and channel emotion. Other Luntz innovations include “climate change” (less alarming than global warming), and “energy exploration” (sounds far more aspirational than merely oil drilling). Luntz has contributed greatly to the success of those he’s consulted for, using an obviously brilliant grasp of the importance of language.
The fact that Luntz recently advised a group of Republican governors to cease defending capitalism should certainly seize our attention. Disregard for a moment the recent polling that shows the public’s perception of the term. Seeing the issue through Luntz’s perspective is useful and perhaps a preview of what could be another sadly successful strategy. Luntz was quite articulate about his conclusions: “Conservatives should not be defending capitalism. They should be defending economic freedom. And there is a difference. The word capitalism was created by Karl Marx to demonize those people who make a profit. We’ve always talked about the free enterprise system or economic freedom. Suddenly, they’re trying to defend something that has only 18 percent support.”
If we find the fight against corporate greed and income inequality reduced to a war on “economic freedom” we will have, once again, Frank Luntz to thank for framing the discussion. Luntz’s genius at choosing the right phrase to short-circuit debate should be quite evident.
But there is some measure of hope. Luntz has often crafted messages ahead of the curve, before the effects of policy have been felt by the general public. Defending the estate tax was pretty light duty compared to framing a defense of Republican fiscal policy that seems largely responsible for the economic disaster keenly felt by the vast majority.
The other mitigating factor is the lack of cohesion on the issue within the right itself. At the moment Mitt Romney is playing the role of the unapologetic face of the 1 percent. He has claimed the corporations are indeed people, that the discussion of income inequality can be reduced to mere envy, and that he likes being able to fire people. One imagines that his posturing may shift considerably should he indeed win the Republican nomination, but he seems eager to ignore Luntz’s advice and shoulder a robust defense of capitalism.
It may be asking too much to peel the grip of Republicans from capitalism, even in terms of language. Recent events have seen Newt Gingrich’s Super PAC distributing ads and a documentary attacking Romney’s past as an agent of “vulture capitalism”. The Republican Party loudly rejected his strategy, demonstrating that from the establishment to the fringe, Republicans seem firmly attached to their role as defenders of capitalism. Luntz’s efforts are a potent indication that progressives may be onto something: targeting capitalism may prove an effective diagnosis of what makes our present circumstances painful and uncertain and the future frightening, one that can connect with working people. Luntz told the governors, “Capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”
Another encouraging sign is that Luntz admits being “frightened to death” of Occupy Wall Street. And perhaps there’s a good reason. The movement, despite many problems, moved public perception and dialogue. And well within Luntz’s sphere of expertise, it did so with language. By branding the the movement as representing the “99 percent” it achieved a rare victory for progressives in the arena of shifting the debate.
One strategy is to build on the obvious: even those on the right now recognize that capitalism is vulnerable, that framing any argument as a conflict between corporate greed and working people will be a problem for them. We may be in a new place, where even expert language manipulation can’t obscure the truth.