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Frank Luntz

Political consultant Frank Luntz attends the premier and panel discussion of 'Poliwood during the 2009 Tribeca Film Festival on May 1, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images)

It’s More Than a War of Words

If Democrats can’t inspire progressives to vote this year, Barack Obama will be a one-term president.

BY Joel Bleifuss

Conservatives rely on focus-group-tested talking points because they know that only a deceived and distracted populace—an infantilized 99%—will ever tolerate their regressive agenda.

You may recall, during the Bush reign, pollster and focus-group maven Frank Luntz invented “climate change,” the linguistically neutered–and for the oil industry the politically preferable–term for “global warming.”

Luntz is a smoke vendor. In Marxist jargon he is in the business of generating “false consciousness.” His mission: Obscure the fault lines in American society, and distract attention from the structures of wealth and power.

Conservatives rely on focus-group-tested talking points because they know that only a deceived and distracted populace–an infantilized 99%–will ever tolerate their regressive agenda.

The Right fears that if facts begin to matter, the obfuscations of focus-group-driven pollsters will be exposed for what they are: lies–or “misstatements of fact,” as President Ronald Reagan’s handlers called his prevarications during the Iran-Contra Scandal.

Addressing the Republican Governors Association meeting in Florida in November, Luntz said, “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.”

So what do you do when you meet a supporter of the Occupy movement? You co-opt them. “First off,” says Luntz, “here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ ” Second, “You talk about how ‘we’re all in this together. We either succeed together or we fail together.’ “

Luntz is “right,” says Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, writing on the Huffington Post: “We’re all in this 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 has an idea of democracy that makes sense to most Americans.” According to Lakoff, Luntz’s goal is “to take Obama’s strongest moral appeal away from him.”

But these days, when it comes to “moral appeal” the Democratic Party is already in trouble.

Democracy Corps, a Democratic polling outfit in D.C., coined the term “Rising American Electorate” to describe a group that comprises 53 percent of the nation’s eligible voting population – Hispanics, African-Americans, unmarried women and young people age 18 to 29. These growing voting blocs supported Democrats by large margins in 2008, but they stayed home in 2010, which helps explain how the GOP captured the House that year.

Democracy Corps reports that its polling has found “these progressive voters are very frustrated with the lack of change. … [T]hey need to hear that the … programs and protections they need and value … are not just politicians’ bargaining chips. …[T]hey need progressive leaders to get passionate again. This is what brought non-voters to the polls in November 2008.”

The 2010 midterms did represent a failure of progressive political organization and engagement, a failure we must not repeat. That unfortunate election cycle ceded important ground to the Tea Party and the Right.

But anxious Democratic politicians can’t simply scold progressives into turning out on Election Day. If Democrats fail to inspire voters – if they fail to stake out positions that energize and mobilize their skeptical base – Obama will be a one-term president, the Democratic Party will ride his coattails into political exile and the Austerians will win.

Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.

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