Thursday, December 09, 2004

Battling Rhetoricians

Although I plan more posts on my favorite rules of usage, here I'd like to take a step back and discuss the broader question of political rhetoric. Happily, the topic has attracted a fair amount of attention lately. It helps that both the Republican and Democratic parties now enjoy the services of professional wordsmiths.

One of my research assistants directed me to this fascinating interview with Frank Luntz, the fellow who convinced the GOP to adopt such catchphrases as "climate change" and "death tax." As proof of his effectiveness, consider this extensive parody of his rhetoric, sponsored by the National Environmental Trust. Such fear and contempt speaks to the power of Luntz and his epynomous public relations firm.

Democrats have a counter-rhetorician on their side: George Lakoff, a brilliant U.C. Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science. Lakoff has joined with seven other academics to create the Rockridge Institute, a left-wing thing tank. He explains his motives and methods in interviews here and here. Lakoff suggests that politicians sympathetic to gay marriage frame it as an issue of "the right to marry," for instance, and that environmentalists talk about "poison-free communities."

I salute those efforts both because I enjoy rhetorical battles and because, more substantively, they may help to generate more accurate terms for discussing public policy. I think "climate change" better describes its subject than "global warming" does for instance, though I object to "death tax" on grounds it somewhat misleadingly strays from the customary "subject taxed + 'tax'" naming convention. I similarly split on the Lakoff phrases cited above; I think it fair and accurate to discuss gay marriage in terms of the rights afforded or denied by civil authorities but ridiculous to speak of a community without any poison.

Where can classical liberals find similar rhetorical aid? Not, according to Luntz, at the Cato Institute. Luntz chastises it, in the interview referenced above, for blindly insisting on "social security privatization," a phrase he condemns as likely to scare away seniors. He instead suggests speaking of "personalizing" social security, but complains that "intellectual goo-goo heads" like those at Cato "wouldn't accept it, because to them it was selling an idea short."

I think Luntz treats the Cato Institute unfairly. Granted, his argument suffers in my estimation when he resorts to calling my former colleages juvenile names. But his argument suffers from more than (surprisingly!) bad rhetoric.

Firstly, although the Cato Institute has not apparently followed the Heritage Institute in adopting Luntz's usage, neither does Cato rely on "privatization" any longer. Instead, it speaks of reforming social security to create individual accounts that give workers ownership and control over their retirement funds.

Secondly, whatever the failings of "privatization," I cannot accept the vague "personalization" as an improvement. Sure, it sounds more cuddly. But I don't care for rhetoric that persuades by obfuscation. I favor rhetoric that persuades because it reveals the outstanding merits of the underlying argument. I think that Cato's current approach to discussing social security reform does a fair job of that.


Anonymous said...

I don't know. "Personalizing social security" does have a ring to it. I can see his point. People are terrified of privatization, especially the ones about to receive the benefits, and soundbytes matter.

-scott cunningham (athens, ga)

Tom W. Bell said...

Your mileage on "personalization" may vary, Scott, and I agree that "privatisation" may scare people off. I didn't detail my objection to the former term; here it is: "personalization" says *nothing* of substance about the direction of reforms. Social Security is *already* personalized, in that each person gets benefits tailored to his or her personal factors. The needed reforms will, to at least some extent, vest ownership of those benefits in recipients. That is much, much more than "personalization," and to say it is threatens to dilute the whole process. If the privatisers hang their hopes on that term, it will give statists an opening to tinker a wee bit and proclaim, "We have, as our colleages demanded, personalized Social Security (now you get to think up a cute nickname for your account!)" I care about rhetoric because it matters, and I fear that "personalization" threatens real reform.

Anonymous said...

Talk to me about the Healthy Forests Initiative of President Bush. Isn't calling it "Healthy Forests" obfuscating the fact that it entails keeping the forests healthy with widespread logging? -Frontline posing a question to Frank Luntz

Isn't it ironic that even Frontline fell for that "healthy forest business" in posing the question. Sort of like, "When did you stop beating your wife?" Shouldn't decisions like how to best preserve our national forests best be left to people who are experts in the field of forestry and biology? I object strenuously to people that are going to profit financially from logging makeing decisions that will affect every citizen negatively (in my opinion). Luntz is a millionare who lives on the outskirst of DC who likes to play video games and other juvenile stuff. From his size, he must know more about Healthy Choice tv dinners than he knows about healthy forests. He has an advanced degree in political hucksterism. Now that I'm through bitching, go chop down a 1,000 yr. old oak tree and put some pretty lights and ornaments on it for Christmas; throw the birds' nests in the trash. You'll be saving the "whole" frigin' forest in the process! Ho, Ho, Ho!