Why is Frank Luntz so darkly pessimistic about the future of American democracy?
“I’m afraid that this is the election cycle that kills our democracy,” the nationally known pollster and commentator said at Loyola University on Thursday night.
Luntz is so pessimistic because he is paid to listen to people, and what he hears is an America that has become completely unable to listen to one another.
It’s become fairly commonplace in American politics over the last three centuries or so to decry the state of civil discourse — whether it’s on social media now, talk radio a decade or two earlier, or any other formats in the history of media before that. But if anyone has a front row seat to the way people talk to one another in real life, it’s Luntz, whose primary job on CBS, Fox and other news programs is to assemble focus groups of “ordinary” Americans from a variety of viewpoints, lead a discussion among them, and draw conclusions from their conversation.
The conclusion Luntz is drawing now is that these days really are different. Luntz played a segment from CBS News about a focus group he led on the eve of the 2016 Presidential election, and the anger in the room was literally uncontrollable. The room took mere minutes to deteriorate into yelling on both sides, and as soon as race was mentioned, the room got so loud that the sound technician had to pull off his headphones in pain.
“Is this America?” Luntz asks the panel in the video clip, imploring them to stop yelling. “Look around. Are you America?”
What makes the anger all the more frightening, Luntz said, is that is not on behalf of ideas, but in rejection of them. Nearly all the voters in the panel said they planned to vote “against” the candidate they disliked, rather than “for” a candidate they trusted.
Clinton’s approval rating ended up lower than any other losing Presidential candidate, and Trump’s was even lower than hers, Luntz says.
“We’ve never had a situation where more people were angry with their candidates than this election,” Luntz said.
The candidate most likely to make a long-term difference in the path of the country was Bernie Sanders, Luntz said. Among young voters, only one third now see capitalism as a better social system than socialism or even communism, Luntz said. And similar numbers say that corporations represent everything wrong with the country.
“The level of anger, the level of instability in this country right now, is so out of control. It is so frightening,” Luntz said.
Luntz’s work assembling focus groups also informed the structure of his presentation Thursday night before the Loyola University Institute of Politics. Instead of simply giving a lecture, he frequently used his audience as a large focus group, asking how they voted, where they get their news, and inviting impromptu questions while he spoke.
One woman, for example, began by admitting she had blocked a number of people from her social media accounts after having uncomfortable online arguments with them. She said she simply couldn’t understand how so many people — women in particular — could dismiss Trump’s sexually aggressive language and actions as just “boy talk.”
Luntz briefly polled the audience to see if anyone had changed their vote away from Trump after the audio surfaced of his lewd comments on a bus before an “Access Hollywood” segment. The biggest surprise of the election, Luntz said, was that half of white women still voted for Trump after those comments.
They couldn’t have been voting “for” Trump, though, Luntz said, so they must have also been voting “against” Clinton. And to that, Luntz said, Clinton takes the blame for trying to run such a polished, teleprompter-perfect campaign that she failed to connect with voters.
“It was her fault,” Luntz says. “She had the potential to be amazing, but she didn’t have the ability to be authentic.”
One audience member said she has supported many losing candidates in the past, but this election just felt different, more like an actual disaster. Luntz said he worried that the heightened rhetoric around the election might have raised the emotional stakes for her, causing that reaction around the country.
Much of the frustration that is leading to these outbursts of anger come from rural areas, Luntz said. People in the inner cities have people and activist groups fighting for them, but those in rural areas have no one. Many voted for Obama in 2008 — he garnered 42.5 percent of the vote in even a ruby red state like West Virginia, compared to Clinton’s dismal 26 percent against Trump — and now are swinging to Trump out of frustration that their lives didn’t improve.
Just as many of the promises of Obamacare haven’t been borne out — while more people are insured, premiums for those were already insured are still rising, and many couldn’t keep their doctors — Trump is unlikely to be able to keep his either. There is no way he could rebuild the country’s infrastructure and cut taxes at the same, Luntz said — which will surely feed the cycle of frustration, resentment and anger even further.
“That’s the problem,” Luntz said. “We’re making promises that we can’t keep.”
One audience member asked whether this was a symptom, not of a dysfunctional democracy, but of one that is actually working properly, with the vote swinging away from candidates and parties who fail to live up to their rhetoric. Luntz, however, described the cycle as less that of a pendulum swinging back and forth, and more of a downward spiral.
“This is not how democracy is supposed to work, because the reaction to Trump will be something even more extreme,” Luntz said.
As for a solution, Luntz said everyone should try to work toward restoring standards of productive conversation. People who have blocked friends on social media over political disagreements should restore them. He said a healthy media that fosters informed discourse is vital to democracy, and chastised the media for hyperbolic language and tone covering Trump’s victory.
“We are so overheated right now in our analysis and what we say,” Luntz says. “I’ve really tried very hard in everything I’ve done to lower that decibel level.”
At least one top-ranking member of government was listening to Luntz, Gov. John Bel Edwards, who was in the audience. Luntz praised Edwards as an example of an elected official trying to make things better rather than to use his office as a stepping stone, and Edwards said he was more optimistic about the prospect of bipartisanship in Louisiana than in Washington.
“Like Frank, I’m concerned about our country, but I’m not as pessimistic,” Edwards said, noting that he worried that the tenor of the 2016 election could become a norm. “We’re going to have a generation of politicians who are going to try to run for office emulating what we saw last year, and that’s not good for our country.”
Now that the election is over, Luntz said he plans to step back from politics for a time to reflect on the tone he’s observed. He works with a group that mentors young men from some of Washington D.C.’s worst neighborhoods, and what inspires him is people helping one another directly in those kinds of direct, personal ways.
“You will do more good on the local level than any Washington politician will ever do,” Luntz said, gesturing to Edwards while closing his speech his Loyola focus group as a whole.
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