“I’m not a policy person. I’m a language person”
So says Frank Luntz in Sunday’s Times Magazine, interviewed about his role in crafting Republican opposition to Obama’s yet-to-be-revealed health plan. This has to be a parody of the new consultants who specialize in manipulating unconscious opinion with words.
Responding to the point that no plan has been proposed yet, he explained “We want to avoid a Washington takeover.” This must be a demonstration of his skill with all-purpose scary words, designed to drive innocent voters back into the arms of conservative defenders of “freedom,” “liberty,” and “family values.”
There is a long tradition of such word mongers who effectively molded public opinion against “liberal” and “progressive” policies. George Lakoff joined the fray on the other side during the presidential campaigns in 2004, with his more sophisticated parsing of the metaphors that shape voter opinion. He pointed out that democrats tend to respond to the concept of the nurturant and protective family, appealing to the tender hearted as well as the down and out, while republicans favor the strict family model designed to prepare its members to survive in a hostile world. That helped to make sense of the improbable republican coalition of the religious right, those favoring a strong defense, the right to guns, deregulation, and the dismantling of social safety nets.
In the last election, Drew Weston helped make democratic politicians and their advisors even more aware of the unconscious factors driving voter opinion, this time using brain imaging techniques to track voter responses. Awareness of the unconscious aspects of electoral politics is becoming more and more complex and pricey.
And now comes Frank Luntz. According to the Times, his new 28 page memo, “The Language of Health Care,” has been distributed to republicans in congress. But who is behind this initiative? Who does he work for? Clearly, he is not a policy person, but what are the policies he favors? Sounds like words without meaning.
He has a self-deprecating manner, but even his humor lacks a certain precision and grace. Asked if he was married, he replied: “No. I may have perfected the language that gets people to vote certain ways, and buy certain products, but I haven’t perfected the language to get some woman to buy me.”
It is true that wordsmithing influences unconscious perception, but it requires a bit more talent than these examples suggests to have an impact.