Frank Luntz reframes Occupy
Dec 5, 2011 – Frank Luntz is the US rightwing’s language guru. He publishes message-framing manuals for conservatives. (BBC’s Newsnight uses him as a pollster, but that’s another story). It was Luntz who, during the US health care debate, advised using terms such as “government-run” instead of “public option” – his focus groups had responded less favourably to the terms that (falsely) implied government funding.
A recent news report claims that Luntz has been advising Republicans on how to talk about the Occupy movement:
“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist … “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
(Yahoo! News 1/12/11)
The report lists Luntz’s 10 tips. These include telling the Occupy movement “I get it”, and avoiding the words “sacrifice” and “compromise”. But the ones which caught my attention were:-
- ‘Don’t say “capitalism” … I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either “economic freedom” or “free market”.’
- ‘Don’t say that the government “taxes the rich”. Instead, tell them that the government “takes from the rich”.’
- ‘Don’t say “government spending”. Call it “waste”.’
- ‘Always blame Washington. Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”.‘
You won’t be surprised to hear that little of this is new. It’s a series of frames (about government and markets) which together form what George Lakoff calls the Economic Liberty Myth. It’s already established in people’s minds from years of repetition via mass media, promoted by “market” thinktanks, city pundits, etc. In a nutshell, it’s about “freedom” – particularly “freedom of competition”, which supposedly leads to optimum “efficiency”, “opportunity”, etc. The “market” is cast as the freedom-loving hero, with the government as villain. (I go into more detail here, under the subheading “The Market Discipline frame”).
Occupy gives it a new twist
It’s the new developments that Frank Luntz is so afraid of. Namely:
- The focus on financial sector bailouts.
- The focus on the “99% vs 1%”; the immoral division of wealth.
The problem for Luntz is that even by “conventional” (ie sympathetic to “market”/city, private-wealth) standards of media coverage, the rightwing Economic Liberty Myth looks simply false in the context of the financial collapse/bailouts. (Why? Again, I provide a more detailed explanation of the framing issues here).
That’s why Luntz is saying: “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington”. And it’s why “market” lobby groups in the UK (such as the TaxPayers’ Alliance) are going to great lengths to frame the financial collapse in terms of government failures – as well as simply shifting the focus (and public anger) back to “government waste” (including the usual tabloid favourites – “benefit cheats“, etc).
The Economic Liberty Myth won’t be able to withstand a sustained, widespread popular focus on the financial collapse/bailouts and the immoral division of wealth – Luntz is right to be frightened.