I wrote an extended piece on POLITICO today drawing on my earlier reaction to Frank Luntz’s recent Huffington Post op-ed.
You can read the full article here.
In preparing my article I also spoke to George Lakoff, an esteemed colleague in the world of political language. His own take on Frank’s formulations went in something of a different direction than my own. Where I see Frank’s platitudes as empty rhetoric (“You decide”; “You derserve”‘; “Let’s get to work”; “No excuses”) which function to both erase actual reasoning and to serve as a dangerous linguistic smokescreen, George also sees framing. Here is some of what he wrote me:
Accountability is a contested concept: it has opposite meaning for liberals and conservatives. Luntz gives the conservative meaning: underlings are accountable to strict overseers. “No excuses” is a threat from the boss. To liberals, political leaders and corporate managers are accountable to the public. “No excuses, Governor Walker. You created a deficit by giving corporate tax breaks. Now you want teachers, nurses and firemen to pay for your gifts to your corporate supporters. And even worse, you use that as a excuse to take away the right of collective bargaining, which balances the take-it-or-leave-it power that bosses like you want over their employees. No excuses, Governor.”
When used by a someone in authority, these phrases project absolute power, and call it “integrity.” But it can be used in other situations: the Wisconsin Senators now in Illinois have uncompromising integrity. They are taking a moral stand and won’t back down.
Aha! But what George is doing here is moving beyond Luntz; he is making an argument.
“Let’s get to work,” uttered by a Republican Governor, introduces a frame placing the blame for what is wrong on others for not doing enough work on his projects. It hides the governor’s own failures.
These are more than empty phrases. When uttered in context, they say of the speaker, “I’m both self-righteous and pig-headed.”
As George says, Luntz’s platitudes can, indeed be mouthed by folks from both sides of the aisle — and with different meaning to their allied audiences. Ultimately, the danger of empty rhetoric is not a party-line matter. Chris Christie rode to victory bellowing “Let’s get to work.” Maybe, as George suggests, this implied an argument about others not doing enough. But a Democratic governor could do the same thing; there is nothing inherently partisan about the phrase. And in either case, there is no explanation of what work, exactly, we need to get to work on, or why we need to do so.
That’s a real problem.