Frank Luntz: Can you trust this man?

Hint: No

It would be easier to dislike, distrust and dismiss Republican pollster Frank Luntz if not for the evident quality of his work. But the most recent leaked example of that work shows again both his capacity for intellectual excellence and his willingness to rank tactical advantage above forthrightness.

Luntz achieved fame in the environmental community when someone leaked a 2002 report that he prepared for the Republican party. Although he has since backed away from the odious positions in that document, he was not shy at the time about instructing his political masters on how most effectively to continue denying the truth of climate change.

In the current example, Luntz is updating his “Global Language Dictionary” for the Isreal Project. There is nothing climate related in the content, but there are many lessons for any student of linguistic manipulation.

Harper’s magazine picked out a selection of the most obvious abuses (subscription required)

  • Never talk about giving the Palestinians something. It reminds people that youre in the stronger position.
  • Avoid head-on attacks on your opponents. Use a soft tone. Show regret that the Palestinians have been led so poorly.
  • Draw direct parallels between Israel and America. Imagine if more than 250 times terrorists had crossed into our land and killed our children while they were riding bikes or eating pizza. What would America do?
  • Dont talk about religion. Americans who see the Bible as their sourcebook on foreign affairs are already Israels Amen Choir. However, some of those who are most likely to believe that Israel is a religious state are the most hostile toward Israel. Even the mention of the word Jew is going to elicit a negative reaction.
  • While Jews make up a bigger percentage of the campus population, the Palestinian students are better informed, more knowledgeable and, most important, better able to communicate their beliefs. Worse yet, the pro-Israeli tone is often loud and emotional, while the Palestinian reaction is calm and rational. If you are faced with an overly aggressive foe, use a rhetorical approach.
  • Economic diplomacy is a more embracing and popular term than sanctions. It has appeal across the political spectrum: the tough economic approach appeals to Republicans, and the diplomacy component satisfies Democrats.
  • Advocate a policy of prevention. Stay away from anything preemption-oriented. That brings up too many bad associations with recent American foreign policy.
  • Luntz would undoubtedly defend himself by saying that all these points are well-taken. It really DOES remind people of your power position when you talk frankly about whether you are prepared to “give” concessions. It really does remind people how damaging “sanctions” or “preemption” can be when you call them by their names. Honesty comes with inevitable risks.

    Risks, apparently, that Luntz is unwilling to take - and which he advises his masters to avoid.

    It’s a shame, because a huge amount of his advice could be really positive - actually helpful in bridging one of the most critical divides in world politics. He also offers up some advice that his pro-Israeli funders might find hard to hear. (“Don’t pretend that Israel is without mistakes or fault. It’s not true and no one believes it.”) It’s just too bad that he poisons the barrel with the disingenuous bits.

    The current corruption of the climate change conversation rests dangerously in this kind of manipulation. The unfolding disaster that is the current U.S. discourse about health care reform is similarly - and intentionally - misinformed. If people of good will and good conscience are to prevail in these kinds of debates, they will have to spend more time studying the tricks that Luntz and his ilk are refining to pre-empt honest and forthright public conversations. It might be our only chance at rescuing democracy.