Why Frank Luntz is afraid of the Occupy movement – What Osborne and Miliband can learn

Steve Richards writes about a George Osborne piece, from behind the paywall in the Times ‘It reads like a private internal memo to David Cameron: “The US election and how we win next time.” (1)

Essentially the election themes according to Steve Richards will be:

1)  ‘[Osborne] notes that Obama’s most effective message was that the US was “beginning the long, hard road to recovery” by “laying the foundations for a modern, more balanced economy”. He concludes that voters agreed with the message “we’re on the right track”.

2)  ‘Miliband and Balls caused this mess! Don’t let them near power ever again!

3)  ‘Obama supported an economic stimulus, but … only made headway when he refocused on the “need to get our fiscal house in order

4)  ‘the Conservatives’ wider message will be that they are on the side of “people who work hard and who want to get on

5)  ‘Finally, Osborne notes that the Republicans were on the wrong side of several social issues and points to his own support for gay marriage as electorally significant.’

I am pretty sure that these ‘themes’ were already widely known prior to Osborne’s article …  However, Steve Richards concludes ‘.. in one area [the Labour Party] knows Osborne is on to something. He implies President Bush won the election for Obama, the leader in power when the economy crashed in 2008. Romney could not escape the recent past….  It defies reason and is shaped wholly by emotion, mainly rage. By 2010 the UK economy was growing again, yet mention Gordon Brown and some voters start frothing with anger.’

Read the excellent William Keegan for a dismantling of the substance of Osborne’s analysis. (2)  My focus is on Steve Richard’s phrase ‘It defies reason and is shaped wholly by emotion, mainly rage’ because this fits nicely with the conclusions of ‘The Political Brain:  The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation’ written by Drew Weston.

Drawing from the fields of psychology and cognitive neuroscience, Weston, a clinical psychologist and political strategist from Emory University, speculates as to how we make decisions and choices when we vote … ‘the nature of political campaigns are where “rational minds collide with irrational thinking”….  ‘Irrational thinking’ will certainly have had to play a major role if the Tories succeed in getting re-elected in 2015. (3)

Weston illustrates the extent to which candidates’ speeches and political ads are emotionally laden with words and images designed to provoke strong feelings…. which activate networks in the brain and become the avenues down which true or false political messages travel.  He suggests that these messages connect to the unconscious emotions of the voter in a nano-second and involuntarily trigger us to react passionately.  This translates to voting without the use of the dispassionate brain.   In other words, we do not think when voting.  Weston demonstrates his contention by re-writing actual speeches using alternative wording designed to illicit a very different set of responses.

In the US, Frank Luntz the Republican strategist and organizer of Newsnight’s focus groups pre-general election, has taken the message to heart, as the following piece illustrates:

How Republicans are being taught to talk about Occupy Wall Street.  By Chris Moody | The Ticket – Thu, Dec 1, 2011

ORLANDO, Fla. — The Republican Governors Association met this week in Florida to give GOP state executives a chance to rejuvenate, strategize and team-build. But during a plenary session on Wednesday, one question kept coming up: How can Republicans do a better job of talking about Occupy Wall Street? 
“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a Republican strategist and one of the nation’s foremost experts on crafting the perfect political message. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.”
 Luntz offered tips on how Republicans could discuss the grievances of the Occupiers, and help the governors better handle all these new questions from constituents about “income inequality” and “paying your fair share.”

… Don’t say ‘capitalism.’
“I’m trying to get that word removed and we’re replacing it with either ‘economic freedom’ or ‘free market,’ ” Luntz said. “The public . . . still prefers capitalism to socialism, but they think capitalism is immoral. And if we’re seen as defenders of quote, Wall Street, end quote, we’ve got a problem.”

Don’t say that the government ‘taxes the rich.’ Instead, tell them that the government ‘takes from the rich.’ 
“If you talk about raising taxes on the rich,” the public responds favorably, Luntz cautioned. But “if you talk about government taking the money from hardworking Americans, the public says no. Taxing, the public will say yes.”

Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the ‘middle class.’ Call them ‘hardworking taxpayers.’
“They cannot win if the fight is on hardworking taxpayers. We can say we defend the ‘middle class’ and the public will say, I’m not sure about that. But defending ‘hardworking taxpayers’ and Republicans have the advantage.”

Don’t talk about ‘jobs.’ Talk about ‘careers.’
“Everyone in this room talks about ‘jobs,’” Luntz said. “Watch this.”
He then asked everyone to raise their hand if they want a “job.” Few hands went up. Then he asked who wants a “career.” Almost every hand was raised.
“So why are we talking about jobs?”

Don’t say ‘government spending.’ Call it ‘waste.’
“It’s not about ‘government spending.’ It’s about ‘waste.’ That’s what makes people angry.”

Don’t ever say you’re willing to ‘compromise.’
“If you talk about ‘compromise,’ they’ll say you’re selling out. Your side doesn’t want you to ‘compromise.’ What you use in that to replace it with is ‘cooperation.’ It means the same thing. But cooperation means you stick to your principles but still get the job done. Compromise says that you’re selling out those principles.”

The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: ‘I get it.’
“First off, here are three words for you all: ‘I get it.’ . . . ‘I get that you’re angry. I get that you’ve seen inequality. I get that you want to fix the system.”Then, he instructed, offer Republican solutions to the problem.

Out: ‘Entrepreneur.’ In: ‘Job creator.’
Use the phrases “small business owners” and “job creators” instead of “entrepreneurs” and “innovators.”

Don’t ever ask anyone to ‘sacrifice.’
“There isn’t an American today in November of 2011 who doesn’t think they’ve already sacrificed. If you tell them you want them to ‘sacrifice,’ they’re going to be be pretty angry at you. You talk about how ‘we’re all in this together.’ We either succeed together or we fail together.”

Always blame Washington.
Tell them, “You shouldn’t be occupying Wall Street, you should be occupying Washington. You should occupy the White House because it’s the policies over the past few years that have created this problem.”

BONUS:Don’t say ‘bonus!’
Luntz advised that if they give their employees an income boost during the holiday season, they should never refer to it as a “bonus.”
“If you give out a bonus at a time of financial hardship, you’re going to make people angry. It’s ‘pay for performance.’”(4)


I’ve included virtually the whole piece because it illustrates just how and where George Osborne has learnt so many of his endlessly, regurgitated phrases… from the Republicans.  In other words, Osborne has already learnt from a ‘Frank Luntz’.

However, my guess is that the Occupy Wall Street campaigners have not given a second thought about how to ‘spin their words and phrases’ so as to activate their listeners’ neural pathways.  They just say it as they see it … and the result is that Frank Luntz is, in his own words:

“I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death” *

 *(Note that Luntz cannot resist reframing ‘Occupy Wall Street’ as being an ‘anti-Wall Street effort’…  thus avoiding advertising the name ‘Occupy Wall Street’; minimizing the movement into an ‘effort’ ie. an attempt not a success;  and trying to link the campaign with a negative ‘anti’ and to being life-threatening)

We are constantly told by the mainstream media (MSM) that elections are won by convincing the ‘centre-ground’ to vote for a particular party .. and yet here is Frank Luntz ‘frightened to death’ by Occupy Wall Street, who couldn’t be further from what the MSM perceive as the ‘centre’ of political views.

I should make clear, that in my opinion, the so-called ‘centre ground’ of the MSM and Westminster, is considerably to the right of the majority of the electorate… hence ‘voter apathy’ and ‘none of the above’.  Frank Luntz correctly intuits that the aims and aspirations of the Occupy movements, the Indignados et al, are self-evidently what the 99% would vote for, given the information and the opportunity.

Jonathon Rutherford agrees:

Politics is not a battle for the centre ground. It is a battle for people’s imaginations. Labour needs a cultural revolution of its own in order to establish the kind of deep and long hegemony which will bring the neo-liberal era to an end. (5)


Ed Miliband seems to have taken note… but instead of Blue Labour’s ephemera of ‘One Nation’ we need to have some real direction, inspiration and vision.  Overwhelmingly, people would not want the disabled, long-term ill or the unemployed, to have their benefits cut if they knew the reality of what Tory cuts mean for individuals.  They have been fed cynical lies by this government and the Tory press. Why aren’t the LP fighting and exposing these lies?  Why is it left to Sarah Teather to say that she ‘saw clear evidence while in government that the policy would not save money and that it would inflict immense social damage’? (6)

Why isn’t the LP saying that they too want to cut the Benefit bill?   By cutting the housing benefit given to rich landlords and working tax credits which subsidise low-paying employers…  through bringing in rent controls and raising substantially the minimum wage?  Why aren’t the LP calling for a crack-down on Tax Havens and tax avoidance schemes?

But most of all, why is there a ‘deeply cautious reluctance of the Labour Party to follow through on its convictions’ on the economy.  Michael Meacher MP writes:

The message could hardly be clearer.   Whilst on the surface Labour did well, the real meaning of Thursday’s elections is that the public are utterly depressed, despairing at prolonged austerity, and unwilling to bother to vote when they can see no hope from any quarter of an escape from their deepening troubles.   The mood across the whole electoral spectrum cries out for some inspiration which can lift their spirit towards some positive and achievable national goal to which they can aspire.   None of the political parties at present provides any such vision, which is a tragedy because there is indeed such a scenario….

That alternative scenario is to acknowledge that the fundamental current problem is deficiency of aggregate demand and that with the private sector frozen in deep recession the stimulus required can only come from a major public sector works programme.   It can be funded either from a tranche of QE monies or from taxing the super-rich or from miniscule borrowing at 0.5% base rate enough to generate a million jobs within 2 years.   And so far from frightening the markets, it would deeply relieve them that at long last there was real light at the end of the tunnel. (7)

As Weston makes clear, ‘language’ matters because our understanding is so intimately bound up with our emotional responses… Conrad Landin writes:

The next election could well be won on the basis of who has the better narrative. If Labour does not properly challenge the myth that it spent too much money last time round, perpetuated by the media and the Tories, we will lose. But we can’t forget that there are far more subtle right-wing narratives creeping through, in the very words in which we attempt to construct our alternatives. If we simply argue back that the last Labour government was “fiscally responsible”, we don’t stand much better a chance. (8)

 But as Occupy show, its not just the language which creates that important emotional response … so too, do the ideas and the policies!


(1)  http://www.independent.co.uk/voices/comment/george-osborne-knows-president-obama-won-by-blaming-a-predecessor-that-is-why-the-chancellor-will-make-gordon-brown-central-to-the-next-election-8316681.html 

(2)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/business/2012/nov/18/george-osborne-core-policy-blame-labour

(3)  https://think-left.org/2012/10/14/plutonomy-invasion-of-the-political-body-snatchers/

(4)  http://thedemocraticdaily.com/2011/12/05/selling-nixon-clockwork-luntz/

(5)  http://www.renewal.org.uk/articles/drew-westen-the-political-brain/

(6)  http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/nov/17/benefit-cap-immoral-sarah-teather

(7)  http://www.michaelmeacher.info/weblog/2012/11/glum-message-from-electors-some-inspiration-vision-needed/

(8)  http://www.leftfutures.org/2012/11/hard-working-families-and-why-we-should-be-worried-by-newspeak/


2 thoughts on “Why Frank Luntz is afraid of the Occupy movement – What Osborne and Miliband can learn

  1. Pingback: George Osborne’s psychological warfare | Think Left

  2. Pingback: Can we please drop the nonsense of ‘tax payer’s money’? | Think Left

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