America’s best-known public-opinion guru hasn’t suddenly gone vegan. Luntz—the tubby, rumpled guy who runs the focus groups on Fox News after presidential debates, the political consultant and TV fixture whose word has been law in Republican circles since he helped write the 1994 Contract With America—has always been a hard man to please. But something is different now, he tells me. Something is wrong. Something in his psyche has broken, and he does not know if he can recover.
Luntz has built his career upon the idea that those at the top need to listen to those at the bottom–the ones who inhabit his famous focus groups. Unfortunately he’s finally hit the wall:
Luntz’s work has always been predicated on a sort of populism—the idea that politicians must figure out what voters want to hear, and speak to them in language that comports with it. He proudly claims that his famous catchphrases, like branding healthcare reform a “government takeover” in 2010, are not his coinages but the organic product of his focus groups. The dishevelled appearance, the sardonic wit, all add up to a sort of tilting against the establishment, an insistence that it listen to the Real People.
But what if the Real People are wrong? That is the possibility Luntz now grapples with. What if the things people want to hear from their leaders are ideas that would lead the country down a dangerous road?
The problem is that “real people” want to be taken care off as opposed to being aspirational and working to move up. That became clear to this blogger as early as 2008, in the context of Mike Huckabee’s campaign:
That problem, simply put, is that Americans in general are less and less willing to be self-reliant, and a desire to be self-reliant is a key ingredient in a conservative society. There are three reasons for this:
- The population is aging; it simply requires more social services, services that family and church are either unable or unwilling to give.
- The grown of urbanisation breaks down traditional communities–well, most of them–and makes the government the only binding agent people have.
- The financial profligacy and indebtedness of Americans makes them, to use the old homeless advocates’ favourite slogan, one paycheck away from the streets. With the credit crisis, this is literally coming true for many people.
Huckabee’s response to this–a more interventionist government, driven by his take on New Testament imperatives, isn’t to many people’s taste on the right, but is certainly resonates with the population in general. Americans want to be taken care of more, and that’s why Reagan conservative and libertarians alike are finding they have an uphill battle in the current political environment. The Republican party must come up with a way to address this effectively, or this country will be a one-party state (or effectively one.)
Unfortunately Huckabee, unlike the other Arkansas governor turned Occupant, isn’t an Ivy Leaguer, so that’s the end of that.
Luntz blames Obama for the mess. But that begs one of the great questions of history: do significant people emerge to lead the people in a new direction, or does the direction of people bring certain people forward to be significant? I suspect that it’s a combination of both.
I know I’m beating a dead horse, but appealing to “American principles” won’t cut it in this environment. If Barack Obama wasn’t such an inveterate divider and a better administrator, the Republicans wouldn’t even be in the game. But liberals are their own worst enemies. That, however, won’t change the underlying realities. Until the props collapse from under this society, there’s not much chance of a significant change from the direction we’re now headed.