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Frank Luntz can't deal with it anymore. (photo by Larry D. Moore)
If you have ever spent any time watching coverage of presidential elections, you likely know the name Frank Luntz. His reputation is that of the media master of public opinion, the focus group tester extraordinaire. He is the conservative spinmeister who knows the words that work. Hell, he even wrote a book to that effect. He knows how to find the perfect words and phrases to sell a political position, whether it's Newt Gingrich's Contract with America or to repeal the tax on very large inheritances simply by calling it a death tax instead.

Luntz's skills are legendary. But if Molly Ball's in-depth piece in The Atlantic is to be believed, the man himself is at his wit's end.

See, Luntz has spent his professional career trying to figure out what the electorate wants to hear, primarily in the name of helping to sell conservative causes. But these days, he feels, the American electorate is beyond redemption: the public is combative, divided against itself by class, race, gender and ethnicity, and seeks to dominate rather than listen and exchange ideas. And who is to blame for this seemingly newfound pugnacity? You'd never guess. Or maybe you would:

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. It was a message Luntz believed to be profoundly wrong, but one so powerful he had no slogans, no arguments with which to beat it back. In reelecting Obama, the people had spoken. And the people, he believed, were wrong. Having spent his career telling politicians what the people wanted to hear, Luntz now believed the people had been corrupted and were beyond saving. Obama had ruined the electorate, set them at each other's throats, and there was no way to turn back.
Please read below the fold for more on Frank Luntz.

Luntz helped create the negativity he now despises, yes. But what truly eats at him, according to Ball, is the feeling that the electorate has been so poisoned that even he, the master of masters, the wordsmith of wordsmiths, the spinner of spinners, is incapable of putting the genie back in the bottle and coming up with the proper turn of phrase that will pacify the electorate and turn it back on the path to conservatism.

Now, let's ignore for the time being the proactive contributions that Luntz has made toward polarizing the American electorate: the man did work for Pat Buchanan, after all. Notwithstanding any hypocrisy on his part, the source of Luntz's frustration is understandable: the electorate is in a drastically different mindset now than it has been at any time during his professional career. It is roiled, and voters seem angry, divided and restless for change. Yet someone with Luntz's experience in interpreting the will of the American people, and how precisely to sell political ideas to it, should know better than to blindly believe everything was going just fine and dandy for the conservative narrative until the smooth-talking sorcerer Barack Obama charmed the electorate into combativeness with his Svengali-style mystical powers.

What Luntz simply seems unable to comprehend is that the presidential campaigns of Barack Obama did not sow discord into an otherwise peaceable and contented electorate. Instead, then-Senator Obama took advantage of the increasing frustrations with how the fundamentals of the American economy were working for regular people and capitalized on the financial sector's irresponsible behavior to drive the point home. As David Atkins writes:

It doesn't occur to Luntz for a second that the economy is genuinely terrible, that inequality is genuinely out of control, that the banks genuinely screwed everyone, that people genuinely haven't had wage increases in 40 years even as cost of living spirals upward. It doesn't occur to him that these are real problems that no language can explain away, and that people are genuinely angry and need help. Most voters may not be able to put the pieces together into a coherent whole, but they know that they're suffering, that the system isn't working anymore, and that fat cat elites (who they are varies depending on your political leanings, but the anger is heartfelt all the same) are profiting from all of it. No one sold them a bunch of cute phrases to convince them of that. It's too damn obvious on its face. Those with no conscience whatsoever are still using racist and sexist code to sell the idea that the advantage-takers are welfare queens and nefarious liberal enablers, but that also only goes so far as the voters inclined to believe that age out of the electorate.
In other words, the very policies that Luntz has spent his life selling have made the electorate completely unresponsive to his sales technique because things have gotten so bad the electorate seems ready for something different. Meanwhile, Luntz believes that Occupy Wall Street got started not because people were given too little, but because they were given too much.

Luntz, however, is not the only conservative who is feeling the possibility of a tipping point: there appears to be a general malaise in conservative circles that the public may be increasingly ready for a more radical shift in how the American economy works. Last week Jesse Myerson wrote a post for Rolling Stone detailing five economic reforms the millennial generation should be pushing for, including ideas such as public infrastructure banks and a guaranteed basic income. These ideas, while still outside the mainstream of what could theoretically pass in today's political climate, have received consideration in the political wonkosphere. Yet despite their seeming lack of newness, this op-ed by Myerson became the target of a massive freakout on the right, even though some of the ideas presented could even theoretically be considered conservative. As Brian Beutler says:

I don’t think the ongoing freakout over the Rolling Stone article is simply a reflection of cultural anxieties. It also reflects an effort to limit the scope of that debate, so that progressive ideas fall outside of the sphere of acceptability. A basic cash income wouldn’t destroy America, and actually enjoys the support of conservative heavyweights, now and in the past. But it isn’t exactly compatible with significant tax cuts for wealthy people. And it preserves the federal government’s role as the purveyor of public welfare. One way to marginalize ideas like that is to call them communism.

A lot of conservatives just don’t know any better. But for the rest, this is as much about keeping the endless debate over social welfare anchored around shrinking government and privatizing services as it is an ignorant cultural reaction to a writer from New York who made a #joke about #communism on the Internet.

Luntz and Beutler agree on one thing: we've moved past the time, if it ever existed, when there was give-and-take between supposedly liberal ideas and supposedly conservative ideas. We're now in a period where the electorate is primed and ready for something completely different, and conservatives will use every nasty term in the book to try to preserve the current untenable system just a little while longer.
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