In January of this year, American political consultant Dr. Frank Luntz released a 17-page talking points memo titled “The Language of Financial Reform,” in which he urges opponents of bank reform to reframe the effort as a mishmash of bailouts, loopholes and bureaucracy. In short order, Luntz-listening legislators lined up to shout “BLACK” at the kettle, before returning to their work crafting endless loopholes to bail out campaign contributors in their home states. I read the memo upon its release and promptly tossed it in my compost bin (I’m always short on browns).
Flash forward to last Tuesday evening. After viewing “Alice in Wonderland,” (the most accurate review of which came from my 7-year old son Justice who said, “It might have been good if they had left the parts out that weren’t in the book”), I stopped at a pub to wash from my mouth the saccharine taste of Disney. After a fewmany cans of Olympia — I’m partial to Northwest brews, even those made in Irwindale, California — I walked home.
***And here’s where my tale gets strange, almost unbelievable***
Crossing my yard, I stepped squarely on … my copy of Luntz’ memo. You can imagine my confusion. A weeks old copy of Luntz’ memo had somehow returned to me from the depths of my compost bin. Had a raccoon, desperate for light reading, fished it out and only now returned it?
I took it as a sign, or perhaps the manipulations of the ghost of Grover Cleveland. I set about re-reading the material. This time, aided by my 3D beer goggles, I was able to read the true meaning of Luntz’ words. Like Roddy Piper in “They Live” or Nicolas Cage in “National Treasure” I had stumbled upon not so much a conspiracy but a secret hidden in plain sight. “The Language of Financial Reform” has nothing to do with finances, which is why, in that context, it sounds like so much gibberish. But, with a little reframing of the reframing framework, the message becomes all too clear:
Frank Luntz wants Americans to fight for aggressive climate change legislation.
What follows is my point-by-point (18 in all) translation of Luntz’ primary talking points. Words in bold are direct from Luntz and are followed by my explanatory text. In case you’ve a case of Oly stashed and want to skip my translation and see for yourself, Luntz’ original memo can be downloaded here.
To kick things off, Luntz launches into his pro-environment manifesto with these powerful, powerful words -
When addressing the crisis, never forget its impact on your audience. Above all else, never EVER minimize the pain.
The converging economic, environmental and energy crises are going to bring real and measurable pain to everyone. This pain will affect young, old, rich and poor alike. We mustn’t pretend that there will be no pain or sacrifices as we transition to a world unlike the one we’ve left behind. To promote the idea of an impending ‘return to normal’ is irresponsible on the individual level, reprehensible at the government level.
Point 1: Americans are divided on the cause of the crisis. The consequence of the crisis may be undeniable, but its cause is debatable.
Whether the cause of the climate change that is being felt right now in every nation, body of water and mountain peak is anthropogenic, anthroposophic or the result of too many lighting bolts being cast down by an increasingly disenchanted Zeus, now is not the time to get mired in the blame game. Rather, as the consequences are undeniable (starvation, warfare, disease – pick a level of hell and insert it here), Americans need to unite around the unassailable facts and work to immediately build resilience at the local and national levels.
Point 2: You must acknowledge the need for reform that ensures this NEVER happens again. The status quo is not an option.
Eisenhower famously warned us that the military-industrial complex was going to kick our asses. And it did, raising a huge cloud of carbon dust in the process. Add to that the unbridled greed of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton-Bush years, when Americans somehow managed to allow the middle-class to be emptied entirely of their wealth (the more conspiratorial types believe that iPods were invented to mask the sucking sound of all that cash being siphoned to tax-free off-shore havens by the world’s wealthiest), and it’s clear why we’re now in a bind when it comes to committing any resources to avoiding a medley of climate-related disasters. Luntz is asking that, in the future, we pay attention when those in the position to know, who don’t have a political future to risk, start making seemingly wild proclamations.
As for the “status quo not being an option,” there’s some debate about Luntz’ intention, but I believe he’s referring to the two-party system. Proving my point, a quick web search reveals that Luntz is currently funding a documentary on the late, great, third party icon Eugene Debs.
Point 3: Now, more than ever, the American people question the government’s ability to effectively address the issue.
Indeed! Disguised in Luntz’ relatively mild words is a deep-seated rage aimed squarely at the current and previous administrations for ignoring the most critical issues faced by the American Citizenry. Luntz calls out the government for utterly ignoring the needs of its people, for putting the well-being of a small number of corporate powers ahead of that of our children and grandchildren. This is Luntz practically calling upon patriots to pick up arms and revolt. Dangerous territory, Dr. Luntz, but I, for one, relate to your frustration.
Point 4: Public outrage about the bailout of banks and Wall Street is a simmering time bomb set to go off on Election Day.
We have plenty of fuel. The trick is to harness it before it blows up in our face. With the public outrage (however hypocritical) over Wall Street greed cresting, now is the time to perform a deft aikido move and direct that anger where it will do the most good — namely toward legislative efforts that strip many corporate subsidies and reinvest these monies into conservation efforts, low-carbon energy sources, and relocalizing the national food supply.
Point 5: The public is angriest about lobbyist loopholes.
These corporations are really darned good at influencing legislation. It can be said that one paid lobbyist holds more sway than one million voters. Who wouldn’t be angry with that? Nuclear, coal, oil, health, big ag – the list is of transgressors is long – their unseemly profits no longer rape unborn future generations alone, but now threaten the current livelihood of nearly every American. While Luntz stops short of calling for vigilante justice, were I a lobbyist under the employ of corporate America, I’d at least put an extra deadbolt on my door.
Point 6: You must be an agent of change.
Remember, this is the guy who came up with the famously effective Bush ‘with us or against us’ line. Now that Luntz has joined the environmental movement, he’s offering us a more polished version, yet one that can be interpreted in different ways. In its most hopeful form, Point 6 urges every Citizen to get involved, to participate in democracy, to conserve, to learn, to educate, to agitate for immediate, widespread change. Some construe this point as referring primarily to Point 3 above; meaning this is a direct call for a new American revolution. While nothing says “I’m an agent of change” like a loaded rifle, I fear that if this is Luntz’ reinterpretation of the Green Revolution, it is laudable in spirit but gravely misguided.
Point 7: Demand accountability – government accountability.
Do I really need to translate this one? Even sober, I’m betting you get the gist. The only subtext you just might miss is Luntz’ reminder to the American Citizenry that the most effective way to hold the government accountable is at the ballot box. In Point #7, Luntz rails against our tendency to allow ourselves to be taken for granted by the two parties. No matter how far our chosen party strays from its path (remember when Republicans stood for small government? When Democrats were pro environment?), we hand our votes over free of charge. Here, Luntz lays equal responsibility on the voting public by reminding us that we are the government.
Point 8: More bloated government bureaucracy is not the solution.
More bloated government bureaucracy is not the solution. This is a rare instance where Luntz’ point holds fits within the bank bailout “cover text” and the intended hidden messaging. Rather than add more layers to the government, Luntz argues, use the federal agencies that are already in a prime position to deliver a stunning combination of economic and environmental advances. Everything we need to make aggressive inroads against the environmental and energy crises that threaten our future is already in place. We lack only elected representatives with the character to serve the good of the American people.
Point 9: Devil is in the details.
Perhaps the most impactful of Luntz’ talking points. With Talking Point #9, he signals loud and clear that he is not only pro-environment and utterly committed to combating the effects of climate change, but that he’s doing so as a Christian. As a master wordsmith, Luntz doesn’t drop a reference to fallen Archangel Lucifer by accident. This is a ‘shout out’ to his Christian brethren and a warning. He warns us all that damnation on this Earth is upon us if we get bogged down by minutiae and miss the forest for the trees. Luntz urges us to reclaim our position as good stewards of this Earth on quickly and with much vigor.
Point 10: Caution: Unintended consequences ahead.
Having staked his claim as a Christian environmentalist, Luntz moves to immediately distance himself from Jewish theologians like Buber who espouse that people are, to some degree, inherently evil. Luntz rallies instead around the position that humans are born of divinity and would never, ever purposefully wreak havoc upon God’s creation. The thousands of dead waterways and exploded mountains, the billions of acres of decimated forests and lost topsoil are the unintended consequences of a people still learning to balance their needs with those of the Earth. Luntz begs us to swiftly learn from our mistakes but also to understand that there will be future trip wires, no matter how softly we tread.
Point 11: Enforcement of current law trumps creation of new laws.
Ever the rabble-rouser, Luntz points out that the EPA is already empowered to tackle greenhouse gases. The Department of the Interior has the legal authority to protect, well, the interior. California’s AB 32 legislation provides, among other things, market mechanisms to reduce CO2. Most major municipalities have Environmental agencies. Luntz is asking us to use the tools already in hand before wasting time shopping for new ones.
Point 12: The bailout provisions get the most visceral reaction.
A repeat/reemphasis of Points #4 and #5. Because Luntz loves to craft long, enumerated lists, he tends to repeat points repeatedly, perhaps out of fear that over-taxed readers will lose key takeaways. If there’s a fault to Luntz’ messaging it is this: He tends to run long.
Point 13: “Bureaucrats” are worse than “bureaucracies.”
We can’t hate the system, as we are the system. We just hate the smarmy suits who belch radioactive coal dust into the HVAC ducts.
Point 14: Americans want to end the legalese and confusion in contracts.
Here Luntz is talking about entering into contracts with the rest of the world; the kind of progressive and equitable contracts that will commit us, as the global leaders in CO2 emissions (we have to include in our numbers all the outsourced manufacturing), to rapid reductions. Americans want their government to get on board with the rest of the civilized world. They want their administration to stop equating growth with well-being and sign off on international treaties like the Copenhagen Accord.
Point 15: Just the facts, ma’am.
Stop lying to us. This is a slap at the Obama administration for its transparent excuses coming out of the COP15 summit in Copenhagen. The lies and half-truths, the sorry attempts to pin blame on China and developing nations — Luntz says ‘enough is enough’. He’s also referring to Secretary of the Interior Stephen Chu’s repeated insistence that ‘clean’ coal technologies are anything more than a subsidy-bilking scam and Obama’s insistence that nuclear power is scalable. Keep in mind that, as an incredibly progressive environmentalist, Luntz knows better than to be a partisan player. He’s well aware that both parties are equally guilty of betraying the planet’s future. Just because he’s calling out Obama in Point 15 doesn’t infer that he’s taking sides.
Point 16: Personalize the impact.
Talk about the children. Then talk about the grandchildren. Then show photos of the children and the grandchildren. Then show simulations of what those future generations will look like when they are cut down by food, water and energy shortages. Oh, and bullets. Those kids carrying Kalishnokovs in Khartoum? They’re victims of the same types of resource shortages that our families will face within our lifetimes if we don’t act soon.
Point 17: It’s not “reform.”
Luntz doesn’t believe that the solutions to the energy and environmental crises should be viewed as reform. Instead, he urges Americans to view the building of resilient, relocalized communities as natural progress, as the inevitable transition from an alienating place of hyper consumption to a community-centered existence defined by ecological boundaries.
Point 18: Small business ownership is about the American Dream.
Saving the best for last, Luntz makes his case to relocalize America. Reading between the lines, one finds that Luntz is promoting the development of a broad suite of community preparedness tools. Here, Luntz talks about the dire need to relocalize economies, energy and food production and distribution, transportation, education, materials productions, construction — and just about everything else. Luntz asserts that these relocalization efforts will be the heart of a proliferation of small businesses across the country and these in turn, will be the life’s blood of a new economy. Luntz strongly believes in Rob Hopkins’ Transition Town network, as well as other community resilience building efforts like those of the faith-based Common Security Clubs. Point #18 just may be the clarion call that kick starts the Relocalization Revolution…and we’ll all have Frank Luntz to thank for it.
And there you have it. Dr. Frank Luntz’ “Manifesto for a Sturdy, Stable and Robust New America”.
It’s really quite difficult to argue the logic of a man who is self-described as “one of the most honored communications professionals in America” and who Bill Moyers called "A magician with a gift for the politics of words and what words best connect with the hearts and minds of the public.” Once I drank of Dr. Luntz’ tonic, I quickly grew to understand that I’d been missing hidden clues in his work for years. I now look forward to working my way through the rest of his catalog. Luntz is America’s own Cheshire Cat, seemingly in one place but really in another. As for the mystery of the resurfaced memo, I’m thinking it weren’t no raccoon, but a caterpillar.
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