It’s all about framing
There’s a famous story about the Contract with America. If you’re like me, you’re old enough to remember the list of issues the Republicans pledged to pass within 100 days of electing a GOP majority in Congress in 1994. The idea behind the list was the brainchild of pollster Frank Luntz.
Luntz is well known for emphasizing the choice of language in describing issues. For example, he is credited with convincing the Bush administration to talk about “climate change” rather than “global warming,” and “energy exploration” rather than “oil drilling.” You can see the point. The goal is to use less scary language when discussing things you don’t want people to have a negative reaction to. This is called “issue framing.”
At any rate, the Contract with America helped the Republicans take control of the House of Representatives in 1994 — the first time they controlled it since Watergate — and made Newt Gingrich Speaker.
One policy idea that was actually not included in the Contract with America but many people think was, was the repeal of the estate tax. I’ll call it what it really is — an estate tax — because its better-known name is what this story is all about.
Shortly after taking control of the House, Gingrich and his acolytes began referring to the estate tax by a different name: the death tax. It’s unclear who came up with this name, but Frank Luntz is happy to claim credit.
Again, you can see how an unpopular policy — repealing the estate tax — sounds better when you talk about repealing the death tax. Estate tax, rightfully, brings up images of millionaires and billionaires getting another tax giveaway that allows them to leave their estates to their spoiled offspring. Repealing the estate tax would be a terrible step in the direction of increasing our already appalling wealth inequality.
On the other hand, death tax makes you think of the Beatles with their song “Tax Man.” Government taxes everything. You can’t even die without paying taxes. Luntz researched the term and found that there was a ten point swing in support for repealing the tax when the different term was used.
So here we are, you hardly hear estate tax anymore because the Republicans are so disciplined at messaging, and they want this repeal so badly. Exhibit number 1 of this is Donald Trump himself.
The point of this story is that Democrats are currently struggling with a similar term. In our case, it’s “reparations.” You talk about reparations and you lose the support of most people. Indeed, polling has found that only about a quarter of Americans overall support reparations. Electorally, this is a loser.
This is a problem for the Democrats considering the fact that Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Julian Castro, three of our leading candidates for President, in an effort to out-liberal each other in the primaries have embraced the policy. No doubt, this issue will come up again in the general election.
But no Democrats are talking about writing African-Americans a check. Instead, they are talking about policies to address the results of institutional racism that have disproportionately impacted African-Americans.
For example, Harris is talking about a tax policy to reduce inequality for black people and whites alike. Warren is talking about addressing the remnants of federal housing policy that negatively impacted African-Americans, another policy that could be presented in a race-blind way. Both Cory Booker and Kirsten Gillibrand have also proposed policies that would address wealth inequality that they are arguing would disproportionately benefit African-Americans.
The point is that due to the institutionalization of racism in America, African-Americans do start at a disadvantage. As a result, any policy that addresses this disadvantage can be painted as a policy to assist economically disadvantaged people generally. For example, if we change talk of reparations, with 25% support, to talk of increasing access for African-Americans to quality education, support shifts by nearly FIFTY points, up to 71%. And Luntz was thrilled about a shift in support of ten points.
The truth is that while the attitudes Americans have about race has been shifting, there is still a sizable minority of people who get turned off by talk of give-aways to African-Americans. That group is shrinking, but it could be enough to hand the Presidency and Congress back to the GOP in 2020.
On the other hand, this same group is made up largely of people who would benefit from policies aimed at reducing income inequality. Indeed, when framing the issue this way, many of the same proposals become hugely popular.
I know that many liberals like the idea of reparations, and that it is becoming a litmus test among certain primary voters. But here, we need to keep our eyes on the prize. We can still advocate the policies we want, we just need to choose the way we express these ideas carefully.
After all, we don’t want the Democratic candidate for President to emerge from the primaries fatally wounded. Instead, we want a strong candidate who is well positioned to defeat Trump. Taking any other position is simply irresponsible given the consequences if we fail.
And after all, do we really care what word it is if we get the policies we want? Frank Luntz and the Republicans have figured this out. Maybe we should too.
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