You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

Luntz, Meet Foucault

I'm hardly naive about the willingness of politicians to twist the English language to suit their ends, so that tax hikes become "revenue enhancement" and cutting Medicare turns into "preserve, protect, and improve." But the thoroughly relativistic approach to truth employed by Frank Luntz never fails to take my breath away.

Luntz's latest memo advising Republicans on how to fight financial reform, obtained by Sam Stein, is a classic of the genre. The unstated argument of the memo is that, being determined to oppose legislation that most Americans support, Republicans should simply pretend they are arguing against something completely different. Luntz makes it clear that the public demands reform. "You must be on the side on change," he writes. "Always." (There is no pretense anywhere in Luntz's paper that Republicans do, or even should, have a reform plan of their own.)

He likewise insists Republicans never call the reform bill "reform": "It's not 'reform.' This is not a reform bill. It is the 'Stop the Big Bank Bailout bill." Of course, Luntz does not try to explain why the reform bill is not reform. Indeed, his paper is entitled, "The Language of Financial Reform." It calls to mind the French absurdist Rene Magritte's painting of a pipe, labeled, "This is not a pipe."

That painting, incidentally, was apparently a favorite of the postmodernist philosopher Michel Foucault, who would probably appreciate Luntz's postmodern approach to truth. Luntz's implicit advice is, if you're caught defending an unpopular position, simply pretend it's the opposite. Here is a sample of the argument Luntz urges:

Congress is preparing to enact legislation to pass a law with $4 trillion more for more bailouts. [Luntz seems to believe in the power of redundancy.] Should people who write the financial reform laws be the same ones who helped cause the crisis? Should taxpayers be punished and the big banks and credit card companies be rewarded? The time has come to take a stand. Oppose the big bank bailout bill.

The political dynamic is that the Republicans are supporting the big banks and credit card companies, who want to keep in place the laws that allowed them to get too big to fail. Opposing change, and siding with these institutions is wildly unpopular. So the approach urged by Luntz is to simple pretend that a regulatory reform bill staunchly opposed by the financial industry is instead a new bailout fund favored by the financial industry. I wonder why Democrats never thought of this approach. Instead of opposing the Bush tax cuts, why not crusade against the "Bush tax hike"? Rather than oppose Samuel Alito's Supreme Court nomination, why not just insist you oppose the nomination of Charles Manson? Everybody hates Charles Manson.