Cheering Up Frank Luntz, and Ourselves
Assume for a moment, that the conclusions that have driven pollster Frank Luntz into deep depression and angst are true:
“I spend more time with voters than anybody else,” Luntz says. “I do more focus groups than anybody else. I do more dial sessions than anybody else. I don’t know [squat] about anything, with the exception of what the American people think.”
It was what Luntz heard from the American people that scared him. They were contentious and argumentative. They didn’t listen to each other as they once had. They weren’t interested in hearing other points of view. They were divided one against the other, black vs. white, men vs. women, young vs. old, rich vs. poor. “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.
Before we go any further, let’s look a little closer at the phenomenon Luntz describes, and how the trend probably predates the president and is driven by a lot more than just who’s sitting in the Oval Office. Let’s start with those “class divisions, haves and have-nots, of redistribution.”
Imagine if the most bland and milquetoast president had been in office since January 20, 2009. Instead of electing uber-celebrity Munificent Sun-King Barack Obama, we elected President Boring Center-Left Conventional Wisdom — the genetic hybrid of David Gergen, David Brooks, Tom Friedman, and Cokie Roberts.
America would still have endured Wall Street crash of late 2008 and the Great Recession. This recession (still ongoing, in the minds and experiences of millions of Americans) was driven by many factors but largely from the bursting of the housing bubble and the mortgage securities and asset-backed derivatives that came out of that. We can argue that better policies would have generated a more significant recovery from 2009 to 2012, but indisputably, America’s economy fell far and fast, and climbing back up to say, 2007 levels of employment and average household retirement savings was destined to be a long, slow, tough slog. All those folks employed in the housing bubble — the home builders, the construction guys, the suppliers, the realtors, the house-flippers, all that real-estate advertising revenue, etc. — had to find some other work. And with the exception of the energy sector, there hasn’t been much of a boom in the U.S. economy in the past five years.
At the same time, we spent most of 2001 to 2009 absorbing millions of illegal immigrants, a wave of unskilled labor flooding the market for the few unskilled-labor jobs out there. The multi-decade decline of American manufacturing hasn’t abated much, schools and universities continued to pump out new American workers who are only partially prepared for the reality of the modern job market, and new technology continues to wreak havoc in established industries (ask Newsweek). Competition from cheaper labor overseas continues unabated. The era of spending your career at one company is gone. The era of traditional defined-benefit pension plans is gone. The era of a college degree automatically providing a ticket to a white-collar job and middle-class lifestyle is gone.
Economic anxiety is baked in the cake in American life right now. It’s not that surprising that a lot of our fellow countrymen are receptive to a message seeking scapegoats. In other words, even under President Cokie Gergen Friedman Brooks, Luntz would be seeing a similar cranky, resentful, demanding mood in the electorate. This president may be particularly skilled at opportunistically exploiting that anxiety to further his agenda — in fact, it may be the only thing he’s really good at — but it’s not like he invented it, nor like he’s the only one to ever practice it (remember Rick Perry and Newt Gingrich calling Mitt Romney a “vulture capitalist”?), nor like he’ll be the last to try it.
If Luntz is right that a large chunk of the American electorate has turned angry, entitled, resentful and spiteful — and I’ll bet a lot of us have suspected this in the past year or five — then it is indeed ominous for the next few elections, and suggests American life will get worse before it gets better.
But there’s also an upside to this, at least for us. Because it means large numbers of our fellow countrymen are embracing a philosophy and attitude that is destined to fail them and leave them miserable. Anybody who sits and waits for the government to improve his life is going to get stuck in endless circles of disappointment, anger, self-destructive rage, and despair.
We would be foolish if we told ourselves that being conservative means we’ve got life all figured out. We all have our flaws, our foibles, our sins, and our moments of not practicing what we preach. But if you’re conservative, you’ll probably manage to avoid certain mistakes and pitfalls on this journey called life.
If you’re conservative, you’ve probably learned that there’s no substitute for hard work. Even great talent can only get you so far, particularly if you don’t apply yourself. Yes, luck is a factor, but we also acknowledge that old saying, “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”
If you’re conservative, you probably at least try to embrace individual responsibility — meaning you realize the quality of your life is primarily up to you — and there’s no point in blaming mommy or daddy, no point in blaming the boss, no point in blaming society at large, no point in complaining that life isn’t fair. It isn’t. We can’t control a lot of things. The only thing we can control is how we react to things.
If you’re conservative, you hopefully don’t spend much time worrying about or grumbling about somebody else who’s doing well for themselves. You want to figure out how to join them! Or at least “do well” enough for yourself and your family, and maybe have a little something left over to help out somebody who really needs it.
If you’re conservative, you may or may not believe in a higher power, but you probably believe in right and wrong and you’re wary of people who talk about the world as a murky blur of grey and endorse a moral relativism. You know doing the wrong thing catches up with you sooner or later. You know the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and life’s bad guys are always insisting that the ends justify the means.
If you’re conservative, you believe there’s evil in the world, and we’re not likely to successfully sweet-talk with it, negotiate with it, ignore it, or reason with it. Confronting it, on terms most beneficial to us, or containing it seem to be the best option.
If you’re conservative, you may or may not have the level of impulse control you wish — I sure as heck don’t at mealtimes — but you at least seem to recognize the consequences. Completely embracing “If it feels good, do it” will leave you in a dark alley, hung over and going through withdrawal, and perhaps with a venereal disease.
Individual responsibility, hard work, gratitude and appreciation, a conscience, fortitude — these things will never go out of style, no matter how cranky the electorate gets. What Luntz is witnessing is a lot of people embracing ideas that are going to fail them. At another point in that interview:
The entitlement he now hears from the focus groups he convenes amounts, in his view, to a permanent poisoning of the electorate — one that cannot be undone. “We have now created a sense of dependency and a sense of entitlement that is so great that you had, on the day that he was elected, women thinking that Obama was going to pay their mortgage payment, and that’s why they voted for him,” he says. “And that, to me, is the end of what made this country so great.”
I wonder if Luntz is referring to the oft-quoted Peggy Joseph, declaring in 2008, “I don’t have to worry about putting gas in my car, I don’t have to worry about my mortgage! If I help him, he’s going to help me.”
Except Barack Obama never paid for Peggy Joseph’s gas or mortgage. At least on that front, she’s probably found Obama’s presidency to be deeply disappointing, presuming she never found a way to serve on the board of Solyndra.
Both liberals and conservatives were appalled by the administration’s management and handling of the Obamacare rollout, but only the liberals were surprised. (Well, maybe we were surprised at just how epic the failure was.) We don’t expect government to do a lot of things right. We don’t count on it to immanentize the eschaton — to build God’s Kingdom, or utopia, on earth. But year in and year out, the Left always convinces itself anew that government can do it — even after it completely botches a website and fails to tell the president before the unveiling.
One final note:
Luntz lives alone. Never married, he tells me he is straight (and that no reporter has ever asked him about his sexual orientation before), just unable to sustain a romantic relationship because of all the time he spends on the road. “My parents were married for 47 years. I’m never in the same place more than 47 minutes,” he says. When I point out he’s chosen that lifestyle, he says, “You sound like my relatives.”
Marriage is a useful indicator of voting patterns. More Republicans are married than Democrats — and the benefits of marriage are enormous.
Maybe we need to set up Luntz with some nice woman, and maybe his outlook on life will brighten.