Drop the Mic: How Republicans Talk About the Occupy Movement

Posted by Tim Fernholz

Don’t look now, but the political class is nervous about Occupy Wall Street. Frank Luntz, a Republican political operative and pal of GOP presidential front-runner Newt Gingrich, specializes in the Orwellian twisting of language: He famously renamed the estate tax—the levy paid on windfall income by those who inherit a $1 million or more—the "death tax," helping wrongly convince millions that the government is in the grave robbery business while not coincidentally making the world safe for the Paris Hiltons of the world. Now, he's turning his attention to OWS.

Luntz’s rolling lipstick-and-a-pig operation went to Florida last week to talk to a group of GOP governors, and Chris Moody reports Luntz is “frightened to death” of the Occupy Wall Street movement.  Luckily for the politicians who pay his hefty retainers, Luntz brought along 10 tips for speaking to constituents who sympathize with the largely sympathetic OWS crowd. We annotate Luntz’s linguistic selections below and suggest who would benefit from his proposed change.  

1. 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."

Luntz is sort of giving up the first quarter here: He can’t even defend capitalism? GOOD pal Mike Konczal points out that “economic freedom” isn’t exactly the same as the unfettered corporate power that Luntz and his ilk have in mind: For Occupy Wall Street, economic freedom is freedom from unfair debt and freedom of opportunity. For Luntz, it means freedom from taxes and environmental regulations. The problem isn’t that the public thinks capitalism is immoral, it’s that they’ve recognized that capitalism is amoral, and it takes public-spirited institutions to correct that.  I’m not sure this is going to convince anyone who thinks the current system is messed up.

Winner: Mercantilism: It’s working for China!

2. Don't say that the government 'taxes the rich.' Instead, tell them that the government 'takes from the rich.'

You know who else takes from the rich? Robin Hood.

Winner: Big Government

3. Republicans should forget about winning the battle over the 'middle class.' Call them 'hardworking taxpayers.'

The term “middle class” is a bit vague in its own right (nearly everyone thinks they’re in it) so switching to "hardworking taxpayers" might even be an improvement, reminding people of the virtues of labor and paying their taxes! Luntz is trying to implicitly spread divisive misinformation suggesting that many Americans don’t pay taxes, since almost half of Americans don’t make enough money to pay federal income taxes, but the reality is that the state taxes more than even the average. Maybe we should think about how to make the tax system reward hard workers more than it does investors, who come out on top these days.

Winner: Frank Luntz, and America’s hardworking taxpayers

4. Don't talk about 'jobs.' Talk about 'careers.'

Luntz points out that more people he talks to want ‘careers’ than want ‘jobs.’ That’s nice and all, but one in 10 eligible Americans still don’t have regular work, and besides the fact that they’d like to earn some money, we need to get them back to work to support broader prosperity. Sure, we’ve got a big economic restructuring ahead as the information age changes the nature of work, but wordplay isn’t going to make up for a lack of solutions.

Winner: People who already have jobs and/or careers

5. Don't say 'government spending.' Call it 'waste.' "It's not about 'government spending.' It's about 'waste.' That's what makes people angry."

Cat’s out of the bag here—Luntz wants you mad. Tea Party-mad. And if he has to call all government spending waste, so be it. I can get into the usual litany of examples here—Teachers! Policemen! The Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program! Our patriotic servicemen and women! Medicare!—but unfortunately Luntz has a point: While most Americans directly benefit from government programs, most of them don’t know that’s the case, or simply won't admit it.

Winner: Ignorance

6. Don't ever say you're willing to 'compromise.'

Really? Has anyone been confused about Republicans’ non-existent willingness to compromise? Nobody’s been comparing Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to his fellow Kentuckyian, Henry “The Great Compromiser” Clay. Republicans refusal to meet anywhere vaguely near the middle has lead to gridlock in Washington, the same gridlock everyone is so pissed about.

Sure, “I’ll never compromise” is a great thing to say in a presidential primary (along with “global warming isn’t real” and “let’s repeal all the new regulations on banks”), but that’ll be a tough message for regular folks. Luntz says pols should say “cooperate” instead—which apparently means the same thing without implying you’re weak-willed—but that sounds pretty wishy-washy to me. Almost like a compromise.

Winner: China, India, Brazil and any other emerging market hoping to eclipse a deadlocked United States

7. The three most important words you can say to an Occupier: 'I get it.'

I’m sure that will solve everything.

Winner: Pepper-spray manufacturers

8. Out: 'Entrepreneur.' In: 'Job creator.'

An entrepreneur is a person, maybe even a poor person, who starts a business; a job creator is a rich person who already owns a business (or at least a substantial investment portfolio) and makes jobs willy-nilly unless they are taxed and/or regulated, or have an unpleasant luncheon. Entrepreneur also sounds French, which makes people angry and bewildered.

Republican economic policy is designed to advantage the wealthy, which they argue will lead to job creation. Despite the fact that fewer than 1 percent of small businesses would be affected by ending the Bush administration’s tax preferences for the wealthy, they claim such a move would be terrible for these job creators. In fact, tax incentives are a small part of the job creation picture, and most jobs growth comes from growing young companies started by those dreaded entrepreneurs. However, figuring out how to create an economic environment that encourages new enterprise is more complicated than advocating for low taxes. 

Winner: Rich people

9. 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."

While this rhetorical tack is clearly designed to butter up everybody's sense of persecution, the problem is that OWS and many other folks understand the reality that certain people haven't sacrificed much at all in our great rebalancing. Failing to acknowledge that fact isn't going to bring anybody on board to your campaign. Just ask Barack Obama: He's been talking about "shared sacrifice" for a while now. Of course, it makes more sense coming from him, since his platform isn't based around cutting public spending (which, see above, nearly everyone benefits from) while lowering taxes on the wealthy.

Winner: Rich people

10. Always blame Washington.

Tried and true stuff from the Republicans, but does anyone think that Occupy Wall Street is going to be confused about who to blame? Sensible people realize that the problems in our society—economic and otherwise—come from an array of sources, and that "Washington" is a stand-in for a rather complex set of institutional interactions, but in the hyper-tight light of the political process, black and white rules the day. Politicians have been blaming Washington politicians for your problems for decades, all in the service of going there themselves. It works pretty frequently. 

Winner: Washington politicians