The Lexicon of Political Clout

Frank I. Luntz's clients have included Fortune 100 CEOs, leaders of countries and politicians such as Rudolph Giuliani and Michael Bloomberg.

I’ve been a pollster and wordsmith for senators and CEOs for more than a decade, and I have a particular interest in language. What words do people understand? What’s the clear, common-sense way to say what you mean? And how can politicians best educate and express their ideas?

That’s why I wrote a “A New American Lexicon” for my business and political clients. But it soon made its way to the Internet, where it raised a storm among Democrats in Washington and in the blogosphere, who accused me of the worst kind of spin. They say I’m manipulating the debate in an attempt to obscure the true effect of the policies I advocate. Yet this lexicon genuinely seeks to establish a common language for a pro-business, pro-freedom agenda.

Admittedly, in these times, most political language has taken a partisan tone. But my suggestions are meant to help reach that critical, nonaligned swing voter, just as product advertising is designed to appeal to nonaligned consumers.

Yes, there are instances in which language can be used to cloud judgment and obfuscate the facts, but its beauty is that it can also be used to enlighten. I seek to use words to brighten a debate that has been darkened by those who nuance over what the meaning of “is” is, and whether you have smoked marijuana if you didn’t inhale.

Let me be specific. “The death tax,” “energy exploration,” “opportunity scholarships” and “personalizing” Social Security -- I didn’t coin those phrases, but they are now in the public lexicon and I can rightfully be “blamed” for popularizing them. They are not, as some say, Orwellian. I seek clarity in our nation’s great debates, and all too often the words we have used until now hinder real discourse.


For example, why not use the term “death tax” for the taxes paid on an estate? What is the event that triggers it? I pay a sales tax when I am involved with a sale, and I pay income tax when I earn income. And when I die, if I’m successful and forget to hire smart accountants, I may pay a tax. What else would you call that other than a death tax -- a “permanent sleep tax”?

Laurie David, a leading Hollywood environmentalist, publicly labeled me “evil” because Republicans had adopted some of my language to talk about her issues. Yet I would assert that “responsible exploration for energy,” which includes the search for incredibly clean natural gas, is a far different activity than plunking down a well haphazardly and just “drilling for oil.”

To me, calling for a “cleaner, safer, healthier environment” and supporting helicopter rides over the Grand Canyon and, yes, snowmobiling in Yellowstone Park is not a contradiction. I don’t believe our nation’s natural beauty should be locked up. The environment and commerce can and should coexist. That’s why I am a “conservationist” rather than an “environmentalist.” The difference? Conservationists are mainstream and environmentalists are extreme.

Similarly, I’m for calling the money paid to help parents choose their kids’ school a “scholarship” because “voucher” trivializes the powerful opportunity the transaction confers on poor families. I’d argue that it’s more accurate to call “school choice” “parental choice in education.” Considering how such a program equalizes education for rich and poor, the most accurate phrase would be “equal opportunity in education.” Is that Orwellian? Is that calling war “peace” or freedom “slavery”?

That brings me to Social Security. Critics of the president’s plan say it is “privatizing” the American retirement system. This is simply not accurate. Even under the most innovative reform proposals, the vast majority of your Social Security contribution (12.4% of your income up to the first $90,000, just in case you had forgotten) would remain completely unchanged and untouched, so Washington can continue to spend your retirement savings on other programs and you can continue to collect that great 1.6% return on your Social Security “investment.”

I have encouraged supporters of Social Security reform to counter such inaccuracies by talking about how the president’s plan “personalizes” Social Security. When you personalize something, whether monogrammed towels or Social Security, you enhance ownership by allowing the owner to leave his or her mark on it. In this case, personalizing Social Security means partial ownership of our retirement. Instead of Washington making all the decisions, we will personally determine how a portion of our retirement savings should be invested.

In the end, this ongoing battle over language is more about comprehension than articulation. It’s not what we say that matters. It’s what people hear. I seek simple words that are easily heard and understood.

There are always two sides to every issue, and both sides believe in their soul that they are right. I help communicate the principles of the side I believe in, using the most straightforward language there is. My goal is to make honest political rhetoric that achieves worthy goals, to level the linguistic playing field and to inform Americans of the true nature of our policy debates.