The New American Lexicon
A memo by Frank Luntz
Leaked to dailykos.com
on February 23, 2005
"It’s not what you say;
it’s what people hear that matters."
— Frank Luntz
Behold the man behind the curtain! Cherubic cheeks, belted paunch, boyish chestnut bangs combed to the right. He speaks from his cloistered station and a hundred conservatives boom with his voice. He is Frank Luntz, self-described pollster and consultant, though he is in reality the oracle of the Republican Party. Without their plump wizard, the right would never have dreamed up their Contract with America; the horror of "partial-birth abortion" would still be unnamed; the immorality of the "marriage penalty" might still blight that sacrament; the estate tax would never have offended the nation under its rightful slur the "death tax"; "climate change" would still be global warming. Luntz draws his inspiration from the American people. A roomful of everyday types sit with dials at their desks and listen to a speech, and as they click with approval or disapproval, Luntz monitors the reactions in his little room. But this is no ordinary focus group, according to Luntz, "it’s like an X-ray that gets inside your head." Once inside the head, Luntz hunts around, eventually emerges with his quarry, and before the sun sets, every Republican politician in the land is obediently mouthing "tax relief," "personal accounts," "lawsuit abuse reform," etc.
Every year, Luntz collates his work into a handbook and distributes it to the party. On February 23, Luntz’s latest speech code, "The New American Lexicon" was leaked to the world through dailykos.com and giddily received by a universe of Democrats. One hundred and sixty pages long, the book covers general strategy, instructs on how to sell seven pet conservative issues, and culminates with "The 14 Phrases Never to Use" (and the exhortation, "From today forward, YOU are the language police"). Each section contains complete sound bites for Republicans to repeat; these come under the heading "Words That Work," though when Luntz gets really excited, it becomes "The Perfect Sound Bite" or even "The Perfect Paragraph."
No disciple of subtlety, Luntz begins by congratulating himself and the GOP by enumerating the incredible circumstances of Bush’s reelection. How’d he do it? "Credibility." Bush "said what he meant and meant what he said." For Luntz, the importance of "straight talk" cannot be overestimated. However, by "straight talk," he does not mean that issues ought to be addressed candidly. His idea of credibility is really a kind of emotional credibility, and his straight talk is really a form of ideological alchemy that transforms any issue into a lofty and resonant principle. Challenge a Republican on the economy, and if he’s been a good student, he’ll respond with an encomium to opportunity, he’ll extol accountability, and then finish off by praising American innovation. Ask him about trade, and he’ll harp on fairness. Challenge him on the budget, and you’ll hear the words responsibility and discipline more than any others. The first lesson Luntz teaches is that it’s the tone that matters, and nothing hits the right tone quite like high-minded concepts. "Principles are hard things to disagree with… how can you disagree with FAIRNESS, SIMPLICITY, and RELIABILITY?" His polling has shown him that democracy and justice are the most prized by Americans; accordingly, he counsels that "they must be harnessed for their own power." Democrats poll better than Republicans on some principles (like fairness), and so "it’s time for the GOP to tackle and own the principle of fairness." Political discourse to Luntz is a war waged over principles, a war won with persistence, repetition and uniformity of message. The effect of this is frequently comical, as in the President’s inaugural address (which featured the word "freedom" 26 times), but if you find that funny, you probably won’t vote Republican anyway. Apparently, the American people just can’t get enough.
Luntz doesn’t limit his appeals to the higher elements in human nature, however. Fear, rage, pride, etc. are also to be exploited whenever prudent. On the economy, "much of the public anger can be immediately pacified if they are reminded that we would not be in this situation today if 9/11 had not happened." When it comes to trade, be sure to tell Americans that they are the best workers in the world, because "nothing is more pleasing to the American ear than to be told that we are the first and the best." In order to pass legislation imposing limits on lawsuit damages, Republicans must argue that our medical system is on the verge of collapse; citizens must be convinced that "their family" is at risk, and remember: "No medical situation is more frightening than not being able to access treatment in an emergency." Boo!
This demagoguery how-to wouldn’t be complete without a tutorial on obfuscation, and Luntz delivers. Everyone’s familiar with the Clear Skies Initiative and Bush’s bid to "strengthen Social Security," but soon you’ll realize that drilling for oil is really "responsible energy exploration." Other directives: never say globalization — always say "free market economy"; never say outsourcing; and of course, "BANISH PRIVATIZATION FROM YOUR LEXICON."
Nothing is easier than to brand Luntz and his pupils liars, but doing so falls right into his trap. They are very careful not to lie in the strictest sense — they do not make statements that are demonstrably untrue. They blur, they stretch, they equivocate; they do not lie. Call them liars, and expect to be met with extreme indignation, followed soon after by a punishing rain of principles. Although their use of language is frequently described as Orwellian, it is (usually) not Orwellian in the 1984 sense. It is Orwellian in the broader sense; it distorts rather than communicates. Orwell said: "A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language." When a party’s vocabulary is composed of nothing more than cant, they soon lose the capacity to think in any other terms.
I do not doubt that Luntz sleeps soundly at night — with visions of justice, fairness, and democracy dancing in his dreams. Those who wonder at the imperviousness of the conservative mind to reality would do well to understand this. A conspiracy of private evil is easy to imagine; an administration wholly devoid of principles seems infinitely more credible than one addled by principle. But draw nearer, and you’ll see that they make poor villains — and perfect fools. Their public speech, a pathetic agglomeration of half-ideas, the idiotic parroting of Great Oratory, matches their private strategizing, and their private thoughts seem nothing more than a confused vapor. The stories they tell us are the stories they tell themselves — and so happy are they with this state of affairs that they make sure to enforce it. The question is how long the media and public will join in the narrative, even as it becomes increasingly clumsy and transparent. The right will go on trumpeting their golden rhetoric, "but it’s what people hear that matters."