Politics, Language, and Luntz

On 17 August 2009 in the afternoon, EDT, Conor Clarke posted the following entry at Andrew Sullivan’s “The Daily Dish.”  In this lengthy excerpt, I espy a follow-up to my co-author’s posting of 16 August 2009.  Here is how Frabk Luntz’s “logic” works:

“… resident National Review goofball Andy McCarthy rushes chivalrously to Palin’s defense, criticizing the editorial in a post titled ‘Palin Was Right on the ‘Death Panels.’ He writes:


“I don’t see any wisdom in taking a shot at Gov. Palin at this moment when, finding themselves unable to defend the plan against her indictment, Democrats have backed down and withdrawn their “end-of-life counseling” boards. Palin did a tremendous service here. Opinion elites didn’t like what the editors imply is the “hysteria” of her “death panels” charge. Many of those same elites didn’t like Ronald Reagan’s jarring “evil empire” rhetoric. But “death panels” caught on with the public just like “evil empire” did because, for all their “heat rather than light” tut-tutting, critics could never quite discredit it.


“Setting aside the non-sequitur ‘evil empire’ analogy, I want to try to take this seriously. In a sense, McCarthy is actually raising deep and profound philosophical questions about the nature of truth and the meaning of public discourse in an open society. And in another, more important sense, McCarthy is just lying flagrantly about the bill, embarrassing himself and his magazine, and doing an injustice to the American people. But let us delve more deeply into this matter.


“The claim that ‘critics could never quite discredit’ Palin’s comment about how Obama’s health care plan would create death panels to euthanize the elderly and the disabled is, actually, true. Since many people still believe that Obama will have us all sitting before his tyrannical death panels, the claim has not been discredited. It is, furthermore, difficult to know how one would disprove the claim dispositively, just as it would be difficult to disprove the claim that a teapot orbits Saturn or that a thousand angels dance on the head of a pin. It is hard to prove negatives.


“On the other hand, there is no actual evidence that Obama will create anything resembling the euthanizing ‘death panels’ of Palin’s original note. There is absolutely nothing about it in the house version of the bill (which would have let Medicare cover the totally uncontroversial and totally voluntary end-of-life counseling). The administration has repeatedly declared that it has no interest or intention to propose anything resembling the Palin death panels. There is, to my knowledge, no evidence that any Democratic lawmaker ever did. So it’s a bit odd to say that Sarah Palin did ‘a tremendous service’ by advancing a story for which there isn’t even the sickliest reed of evidence.


“Why? Because reasoned public discourse depends on a shared set of factual assumptions. We aren’t going to have a very good discussion if you deny the existence of reality or claim that the sun revolves around the earth. Or if you posit the existence of death panels. But it’s good of Andy McCarthy and Sarah Palin to remind us just how stupid such discussion can get. “


Mr. Clarke has offered an example of the Logic of Luntz.  Frank Luntz published Words That Work, as my co-author noted, to convey to readers how easily one may mislead people through marketing, spin, and propaganda.  Mr. McCarthy makes bold in The National Review to praise “words that work.”  Those words work because they are so far from truth that many citizens repeat false alarms.

Once falsehoods become widely believed and tenaciously held, those who spread the misleading language may then proclaim their innocence, shock, and chagrin.  Having derived benefits for their side, they then deny responsibility or complicity.  This works especially well for partisans and ideologues who disseminate populism but despise democracy.  They abet righteous indignation against newcomers or longstanding “out groups,” disown the mob once it forms [think Fred MacMurray in “The Caine Mutiny”], and remind all who will listen that the mob necessitates elitism and top-down rule.  They horde their cake, enjoy their cake, and hurl their cake into the faces of those who believe in democratic self-governance through mass participation.


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