Communications consultant Frank Luntz

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Communications consultant discusses the pushback towards President Obama and how anger has played itself out over the last few months.


Tavis: Frank Luntz is a veteran communications consultant, pollster and best-selling author who now serves as the CEO of The Word Doctors. His latest book is called What Americans Really Want…Really: The Truth about Our Hopes, Dreams and Fears. Frank, nice to have you on the program.
Frank Luntz: Thanks. A pleasure, man.
Tavis: Let me start by asking, for me the obvious question, at least, which is do Americans know what they really want? Because I could spend a half an hour debating you that I’m not even sure that we know what we want, given a litany of things, but I digress on that point. Do we know what we want?
Luntz: We know what we want. The problem is that we’re hypocrites, to be blunt.
Tavis: Oh, okay.
Luntz: Which is that we want things that are competing against each other. We want government services, but we don’t want to pay the taxes. We want the right to choose everything from healthcare to automobiles, but we want someone else to help us make those choices. We are a conundrum of a population that has so many internal conflicts and I think that’s one of the reasons why we’re so frustrated right now. We want so many things and we can’t get it all.
Tavis: These internal conflicts are based upon what?
Luntz: A lot of it’s based on government. There really is – really is – hostility toward Washington right now. There really is hostility toward Wall Street and people who – I’m sure some of them watch this show – who make millions of dollars at the same time that they’re laying off thousands of workers, and there’s hostility toward Hollywood and toward culture. We just feel like we’re losing control.
The reason why I wrote this is that I wanted to set the record straight about where we actually stand in 2009, what we actually believe, so that others can’t interpret it. There’s not some angry mob out there. They are angry and sometimes their anger boils over, but 72% of Americans are – and I quote – “mad as hell and I’m not gonna take it anymore.” We’ve never had that degree of anger in this country.
Tavis: How can 72% of Americans be mad when they just overwhelmingly elected a guy who they were very happy about?
Luntz: Because he was running on a platform of change and he ran a very good campaign and he’s very articulate. When he speaks, we listen up to a point. He’s been speaking an awful lot recently and each time he speaks it’s almost like penicillin. It has a smaller and smaller impact.
And what he is proposing we now know about. And while we want change, and we still do, and we want reform, we don’t necessarily want Washington to be as big as he is proposing. A healthcare plan. We all agree that healthcare needs to be reformed; it needs to be fixed. But we don’t all agree on having Washington take a greater role.
We all agree that people need to save their jobs, but we don’t necessarily agree that we should be spending billions of dollars on some of America’s biggest corporations. And the hardworking, average, middle-class voter now sees all this and says, “My God, what does this mean for my kids?” One more statistic. Only 33% of Americans believe that their children will have a better quality of life than them when they get to be their age.
Tavis: A moment ago when you ran your litany and you kept referring to “we”, as I listen to the points that you were making and obviously it varies and depends on the point that you were making, but I’m not so sure that I understand who that “we” is because some of us “we” are upset about things that the other of us “we” ain’t upset about. There’s no universal “we” here except we, the people, but that’s about where that “we” stops, as far as I’m concerned.
Luntz: But what happens is the so-called silent majority is no longer silent and it certainly is a majority. We surveyed 6,400 people for this book, 6,400. The average survey is 1,000. In the last 15 years, I’ve interviewed more than a million people through telephone and email. I have a good idea of what the public thinks. On many of these issues, it cuts across age, gender, income, education, geography, ethnicity.
There is a fear for the future that exists within every community. People are afraid that their children will not have it as well as them. They’re afraid that their country won’t be as good as it is tomorrow, and it’s making all Americans angry. The purpose of What Americans Really Want…Really is to point those things out so we can solve it, so we can stop complaining about the conditions that we’re in and figure out ways to address it.
Tavis: What do you think, though – I hear your point about anger and, again, we could debate what we mean by anger – but the question is what do you make of how that anger – to use your word – has played itself out over the last few months? These Town Hall meetings, people showing up guns, etc., etc. What do you make of how that anger, as you put it, is playing itself out?
Luntz: A couple of things that will surprise people. Number one, it’s not partisan. Some of the – a significant percentage of the people who are coming are independents who don’t like Republicans and are, in fact, even angry at Republicans because they expected more from the GOP, point one. Point two is that it’s happening all across the country, every state, every region. It’s not just the northeast or the south or the Pacific states; everywhere.
Number three is that some people get carried away, but that’s because they don’t see an outlet. They don’t see any avenue to bring about change. We’ve seen it in so many different communities over the last 40 years. When people can’t make a difference, they resort to either language or tactics that is anti-civil and anti-social.
The purpose of trying to capture what we really think is to keep it on a civil plane so that we can at least talk to each other. You and I have had some great political conversations and we probably disagree more than we agree, but there’s always shaking of hands when we leave, there’s always an essence –
Tavis: – we’ll see. You haven’t left yet.
Luntz: Essence of respect. Okay, then I’m gonna hold this just in case.
Tavis: And I’m gonna hold this just in case.
Luntz: And probably you’re a better shot than I am.
Tavis: I’m not a pacifist, I can tell you that, although I believe in nonviolence. That might sound oxymoronic, but it’s not really. Anyway, on a serious note, though, when –
Luntz: – but we dialog back and forth.
Tavis: Right.
Luntz: The problem that I’m having – and you’ve got all these politicians now, these members of Congress and senators that are canceling Town Hall meetings because they say they don’t want to get yelled at. Well, then how does a constituent hold their elected official accountable if not for the Town Hall meeting? How do we hold Wall Street accountable if not for these open shareholder meetings?
I think this is such a good sign for democracy that, for the first time, people are actually participating in more than just an election. For the first time, they’re coming out and saying, “I like this and I don’t like this.” I think it’s great for American society. I just wish more people were listening and they weren’t so insulting of these people who come.
Tavis: I agree with your latter point. Here’s what I would challenge you on the former part. I lived through, as you lived through as well, the Ronald Reagan years. As you said earlier, we could agree to disagree, but certainly in the community that I come from, the African American community, we were decimated by those eight years of Ronald Reagan. The same could be said of the country at large, decimated by these eight years of George Bush. Just making an argument here.
The point is that we have lived through periods of upheaval where people had tumult, where they were angry. Tell me a period where you honestly believe in your lifetime and my lifetime – we’re not that far apart in age – tell me a period in our lifetime politically where you think that the anti-social and the anti-civic behavior has become as ugly as it is against this particular president?
Was it that bad against Bush? That bad against Reagan? I mean, I don’t recall Black folk showing up with guns strapped to their waist when Reagan was president or when Bush – I’m not gonna let you get away with this suggestion that we’ve seen this before.
Luntz: But we have seen this before.
Tavis: Tell me where.
Luntz: And the consequences of this were horrible. One of my great political heroes of all time was Bobby Kennedy and I believe he was a victim of this. One of my great political heroes of all time was Martin Luther King, Jr. and he was a victim of this. We have seen this kind of violence. We’ve seen this kind of destruction far greater than what we have right now.
Just go back to 1968. I don’t even know if you were alive then, but all you have to do is ask your parents what it was like when cities burned to the ground. Cleveland never came back. Newark never came back. New Jersey’s still – with all due respect to people from Jersey – you can still find buildings that are destroyed. The Bronx in New York, places right here in Los Angeles within, what, a mile or two of this studio were destroyed by anger, by violence, by viciousness.
So don’t tell me that this is the worst because, back then, people were being killed for their political beliefs. At least, we have some sense of civility. I’m afraid we’re gonna lose it. Please, I don’t want 1968 again. I think that was the worst year of all in American history.
Tavis: Nobody you listed – obviously, the obvious answer is John Kennedy was shot and I’m not diminishing that. My question specifically was about this kind of pushback at a sitting president, people showing up at rallies –
Luntz: – It’s not Obama. Hold on. It’s not Obama.
Tavis: He’s the president.
Luntz: And, by the way, I would point out to you, because it was your focus group what Obama said about the research that we do, it leads the back of the book. It is not about Barack Obama. It’s about Washington and Barack Obama has come to represent Washington.
Jimmy Carter was wrong. Jimmy Carter has been wrong about a lot of things. He’s been a good ex-president, but he just does not understand the American people. We are not angry at Barack Obama. We are angry at Congress. We are angry at the institution of the White House. We’re angry at Washington, D.C.
Tavis: Hold up. I’m not here – I’m not on the Obama payroll, as everybody knows, but you cannot sit here and tell me that we are not – back to this “we” – no, we, all of us, aren’t angry with Barack Obama, but you can’t tell me there is not a significant slice of the American public, given their rhetoric, given their language, given their name-calling, you’re contradicting yourself.
Given the instability of their language directed specifically at him, he is being called names. He is being threatened. 400% the Secret Service security budget is up to protect this guy, threats are up significantly. They’re mad at him.
Luntz: They’re mad at Congress. They’re mad at legislation. They’re mad at spending.
Tavis: But it’s not either/or. It’s both/and, Frank. It’s not either/or.
Luntz: Because that’s his job. If you dismiss it, then you’re just like the other elite in America that dismiss the fact that people think that they’re losing their freedom. They think that they’re losing the right to choose. They think that they’re losing control. These are real fears.
I wrote this book because I did not want people in Washington, D.C. and New York to describe the so-called flyover states with such disdain as they do. I wrote this because average Americans are frustrated and they are upset because they think that they played by the rules, they paid their mortgage, they worked for 20 or 30 years and they’re losing their jobs now and they can’t pay for their houses.
Tavis: I think you’re missing my point. My point is that it’s not either/or; it’s both/and. I disagree with you wholeheartedly. Jimmy Carter was not wrong. Jimmy Carter was right that racism in this problem is still real.
Luntz: So we can’t have a conversation. We can’t disagree without –
Tavis: – no, Jimmy Carter didn’t say that. Stop bastardizing what Jimmy Carter said.
Luntz: I saw what Jimmy Carter said. I saw the exact words.
Tavis: He didn’t say we couldn’t have a conversation. He just said this is an element of this. It’s true. Racism is real in this country.
Luntz: But he’s blaming that element. He’s blaming racism when – it’s these people who are opposed to what Barack Obama is doing is because of his policy, not because of his skin color. And as Barack Obama himself said, as I’m sure you watched on television, he was Black before the election, he’s Black now. Nothing has changed.
They were willing to vote for him before because they did not know what his policies were because he wasn’t clear, and he’s changed some of his policies. You know that too. He’s changed his policy on Afghanistan. He’s changed his policy on healthcare. People have the right to change.
Tavis: I’m not arguing.
Luntz: Absolutely.
Tavis: I’m not arguing that Obama has not shifted. I’ve been talking about accountability, as you know more than anybody. You reference that in the text.
Luntz: The number one value that the American people want is accountability. The number two value that they want is respect. And what they feel by these politicians who are voting on things that they don’t get a chance to have an impact on is they’re not being respected by the people that they –
Tavis: – I just think we can’t put our head in the sand and act like we now live in a post-racial America just because he’s in the White House. It’s, again, not either/or. It’s both/and. Racism is real and people have a right legitimately to be upset if they think he’s moved from where he was during the campaign. It’s both/and.
Luntz: They know it and there will always be examples of people who have racist tendencies. There will always be anti-Semitism. There will always gender-based politics because we are different people. The question is what is the genesis, what is the core, of this issue?
I think that the elites of America have to understand that those who don’t believe in losing control, who desperately want something better for their children, they have the right to be heard, and they’re not an angry mob.
Tavis: We will shake hands.
Luntz: You got it, man.
Tavis: (Laughter) And we still disagree, but I still love you. The new book from Frank Luntz is called What Americans Really Want…Really: The Truth about Our Hopes, Dreams and Fears. Frank, good to have you on as always.

Luntz: It’s a pleasure.

Last modified: April 26, 2011 at 12:28 pm