Last week, The Atlantic published a rather disturbing interview with Frank Luntz, the Republican political consultant who is probably the closest anyone has come to becoming a rockstar focus grouper (a more incongruous status is hard to imagine, I know).
On the human level, it’s disturbing because – from the interviewer’s account, at least – Luntz seems to be undergoing a serious personal crisis. Fretful and wracked by indecision, he evidently isn’t in the best shape:
“I’ve had a headache for six days now, and it doesn’t go away,” he tells me as we take our seats at a table downstairs. “I don’t sleep for more than two or three hours at a time. I’m probably less healthy now than I have ever been in my life.
That’s sad to see from someone who has produced many flourishes of political communications genius over the years.
But the most disturbing part is on the political level. Luntz’s personal crisis coincides with one of political belief – whether the former caused the latter or vice versa is impossible to tell. He hasn’t abandoned his views on which policies work best, he has lost his faith in the people’s ability and willingness to agree with him:
“They want to impose their opinions rather than express them,” is the way he describes what he saw. “And they’re picking up their leads from here in Washington.” Haven’t political disagreements always been contentious, I ask? “Not like this,” he says. “Not like this.”
Luntz knew that he, a maker of political messages and attacks and advertisements, had helped create this negativity, and it haunted him. But it was Obama he principally blamed. The people in his focus groups, he perceived, had absorbed the president’s message of class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution. It was a message Luntz believed to be profoundly wrong, but one so powerful he had no slogans, no arguments with which to beat it back. In reelecting Obama, the people had spoken. And the people, he believed, were wrong.
For a man who built his reputation on understanding the people and communicating them to Washington DC, it’s a stark about-turn – it’s also a pernicious, if seductive, viewpoint to adopt.
What is the essence of Luntz’s new despair? He may not say it in so many words but in essence it is that the people are dumb. The logical conclusion of arguing that people have been tricked is that they are stupid enough to con.
It’s a common enough argument on the left. High taxers believe they can spend your money more wisely than you can. Nanny statists think people can’t be trusted to make the right decisions about their own lives.
If people don’t do as they ought, it’s because they simply aren’t wise enough – and they therefore need their betters to make their decisions for them.
A lack of faith in the people is a founding tenet of socialism, and is to be expected.
On the right, though, it’s an aberration we must avoid, and which must be fiercely rejected when it surfaces. Since the welcome death of aristocracy in its classical sense – elitist rule by the supposed “best” – it has been rare.
But it is always there as a temptation to the politically involved, whispering and tempting like the One Ring to Rule Them All.
If you spend a lifetime campaigning for something, if you dedicate all your energies to beliefs which you hold to be fundamental to the success of your nation, then frustration is bound to set in if your nation turns out not to be interested.
In that situation, anyone must follow one of three paths. Accept that your views are wrong, accept that your methods of persuasion have been flawed or blame the people for failing to realise how right you are.
The first is the way we eliminate erroneous thinking. The second is the way we hone successful campaigning. The third is a road to nowhere.
And yet for some it is irresistibly tempting. If you aren’t willing to abandon your ideology – like a World War Two Japanese soldier hiding on a Pacific Island in the 1970s, or Len McCluskey, for example – and you can’t brook any criticism of your own skills, then a silver bullet is the way to avoid all inconvenience and personal pain.
Obviously, therefore, it is the fault of those dunderheaded fools, the electorate. As Bertolt Brecht memorably put it in “Die Lösung”:
“Would it not be easier
In that case for the government
To dissolve the people
And elect another?”
Brecht was mocking the East German regime of the 1950s, but we see the same tendency in a few others on the right today – the portion of libertarians who believe liberty is incompatible with democracy, the odd sects of eurosceptics who believe that we would leave the EU tomorrow if only Ted Heath’s secret life as an agent of a secret Nazi Reich could be revealed, and now in Frank Luntz, who apparently thinks business must rescue the people from their stupidity.
Such a mistake may be understandable – even pitiful, if you consider the desperation which drives some to make it – but it is still unacceptable. Democracy will always be the only acceptable way to make political decisions: the alternative is dictatorship, and inevitably brings brutality and oppression in its wake.
Any cause is harmed when one of its adherents decides to abandon the belief that the people can be persuaded to support it. Doing so simply loads arrogance onto an implicit statement of the weakness of the idea or the incompetence of the campaign.
To take the examples above, I’m a libertarian, a eurosceptic and, like Luntz, a free marketeer, but I am each of those things specifically because I trust the electorate and the strength of the arguments. To say they should be forced on people is to abandon the ideas themselves.
The rise of Direct Democracy within the Conservative Party and the British centre right more generally is a welcome antidote to this threat. Democratic systems are one way to bolster us against it, particularly as removing them would be so unpopular it would deter all but the most ardent elitist. But we must also bolster our own spirits against that inviting whisper, and realise at each stumble that the right argument can be made – if only we can find it.
I hope Frank Luntz realises his mistake.