If you've noticed conservative politicians sounding strangely pro-environment lately, it's not a coincidence. Rather, it's a campaign designed to reduce the political liability of right-wing candidates on environmental issues. Unfortunately, the campaign is strictly rhetorical -- it's not about changing policies but about changing language.
And that's where Frank Luntz comes in. Luntz, the boyish Svengali of conservative politics, made his name as a pollster who concentrated on identifying the words that would prove most resonant with the American public. Now, in his message book "Straight Talk," Luntz brings his dark arts to the task of helping Republicans package themselves as concerned about the environment without actually having to be concerned.
The basic Luntzian strategies are the following. First, use words and phrases that are proven crowd-pleasers, rather than those that express the truth. He recommends the term "climate change," for instance, because it is "less frightening" than "global warming." Second, assure the public that you really do care, by framing all your comments on environmental policy with a green-sounding principle, such as "The environment is precious to all of us." Third, portray government as the real problem, since it hinders a "sensible" approach to "managing" the environment, and hold up technological and corporate "solutions" to environmental problems. Fourth, stick to your guns: deregulation, devolution, deforestation.
A good example of the Luntz approach: "You must explain how it is possible to pursue a common sense or sensible environmental policy that 'preserves all the gains of the past two decades' without going to extremes, and allows for new science and technologies to carry us even further. Give citizens the idea that progress is being frustrated by over-reaching Government, and you will hit a very strong strain in the American psyche." (For a serio-comic send-up of the whole Luntz operation, go to luntzspeak.com.)
Now, the Uncommon Denominator does not pretend to be shocked that a political consultant would advocate particular kinds of language use and political marketing. What distinguishes the "Luntz memo," however, is the depth of cynicism it reveals, particularly on an issue of such vital importance to so many people.
Consider. In discussing global warming and the Kyoto Treaty, Luntz admits that "the scientific debate is closing against us, but not yet closed. There is still a window of opportunity to challenge the science." Then, lower on the page, he offers the following "Language That Works": "We must not rush to judgment before all the facts are in. We need to ask more questions. We deserve more answers. And until we learn more, we should not commit America to any international document that handcuffs us either now or into the future."
Such perverse disregard for an issue where millions of lives are involved is truly malignant. To dispute the science sincerely is one thing. But to acknowledge the science and then suggest ways of talking around it plumbs the depths of self-interested opportunism.
Luntz makes another telling admission: "When we talk about 'rolling back regulations' involving the environment, we are sending a signal Americans don't support. If we suggest that the choice is between environmental protection and deregulation, the environment will win consistently."
There's a reason for that, Frank. And let's hope the environment continues to win consistently!