Last week I read the transcript of a New York Times podcast with longtime Republican pollster Frank Luntz. It gave me hope, not because Luntz was changing his politics, but because he was worried for the future of our country because of the divisiveness and bitterness between political factions which he, in part, has helped to fashion. That’s the good news. The bad news is that he doesn’t see a way out of it.
Luntz has been very good at what he does which is not just conducting polls on who’s voting for who, but because he, like other pollsters, looks for ways to frame arguments that will sway voters. An example that he gave in the interview is the current opposition to the idea of “vaccine passports.”
It offends the right, he says, because it is seen as more government interference and it offends the left because they see it as elitist and available only to the wealthy. It is rejected by both sides and rejected heavily. However, if you change the name to “vaccine verification,” it is supported four to one over “vaccine passport.”
Same thing, different language, positive result. Luntz is also the guy who helped create opposition to the inheritance tax by calling it the “death tax”. He knows his stuff.
What he doesn’t know is how to change the current anger in America because, first, people have to listen to one another, and nobody wants to listen, let alone understand. Some blame or credit social media for letting people voice their own opinions. Luntz has a different take:
“People say that all social media did is give people a mouthpiece to voice what they’ve been thinking for decades. I don’t think they were thinking it. I think we put it into their heads. And we put it into them that it is perfectly fine to be rude and abusive to people, and it’s not.”
And that’s the key, that the anger, the division, and, yes, even the hatred, has been put into the minds of Americans by people with powerful voices on the right or left, thugs and bullies to my way of thinking. They give no quarter, there is no room to negotiate, there is no common ground. Even Luntz, who has helped fashion Republican victories for thirty years, is now vilified by the right for his thoughtfulness.
But there is common ground. Every day we talk to other Americans who differ wildly from us politically, but we don’t talk about politics, we talk about interests that we have in common, things that we know we won’t fight about. Even in politics there is some common ground, says Luntz, for instance in increasing taxes on the corporations and the wealthy, but opinions do differ on what the money raised should be used for.
Neither the right nor the left seems to have much sympathy for the wealthy who rule America from the sidelines.
There are two ways to bring people together, hope and fear, and of the two, fear is by far the easiest. You don’t have to dig very deep to find something that enough people worry about that can be exploited for personal or political advantage. Some people go into politics to make America a better place and some go into it to promote themselves.
That is what Americans have to figure out—who is inciting fear to simply advance their own prestige and who isn’t. No one, but no one, will ever cop to the fact that all they are trying to do is to make a name for themselves, everyone is doing it for the “greater good.”
But people who are doing it for the greater good do not insult people who disagree with them, they do not demonize their opponents, and they do not lie about their opponents. In short, they are polite, but insistent.
Nancy Reagan’s campaign “Just say no to drugs” didn’t have a lot of effect on drug use and I don’t expect my changing “drugs” to “thugs” will have much effect on politics. But I do think it is kind of catchy, if I do say so myself. It also meets Mark Twain’s observation that while history doesn’t repeat itself, it does sometimes rhyme.
Listen to the podcast or read the transcript, it’s worth it.
Jim Elliott served sixteen years in the Montana Legislature as a state representative and state senator. He lives on his ranch in Trout Creek.