It Isn't the Message, Stupid

A new kind of guru is convincing Democrats that they don't need new ideas after all—a snazzy new sales pitch will revive their fortunes

Soon after the November elections leading Democrats agreed that the party was ailing and in dire need of a new direction, a new focus, new ideas to lead it forward. "It's critical we realize why the electorate voted the way it did," Representative Bob Menendez, of New Jersey, the chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said of the party's devastating loss in the presidential election and its setbacks in both houses of Congress. In February, House Democratic lawmakers held a retreat in Virginia to hash out what to do next.

Something miraculous happened. They recovered—or at least they're behaving that way. Setting aside all the frank talk about the need to re-examine fundamentals, they identified an altogether different sort of affliction. The Democrats returned from Virginia not with an exit strategy for Iraq or a national-security blueprint or an economic policy but with a book—Don't Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, by George Lakoff, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley. Lakoff's seductive thesis is that how you frame an idea largely determines the response to it. George Miller, a California congressman and an enthusiastic disciple, gave a copy to each member of the caucus, and the notion that "messaging" lies at the heart of the Democrats' woes has had growing currency in the party ever since.

In essence, messaging (as described by Marc Cooper in last month's Atlantic) is simply the process of selecting words that impart to voters whatever sentiment the author is pushing. One famous example is the Republican effort to recast the "estate tax"—with its implied application to landed aristocrats only—as the much more menacing (and less discriminating!) "death tax." Lakoff offers no new policy ideas. Instead he suggests that the Democrats reposition the ones they already have, and spruce up some unpopular terminology while they're at it. He advocates referring to "trial lawyers" as "public-protection attorneys," replacing "taxes" with "membership fees," and generally couching the entire Democratic message in palatable—even deceptive—language in order to simplify large ideas and disguise them behind innocent but powerful-sounding phrases.

Cognitive linguistics may not rate with Iraq, terrorism, and health care in surveys of voters' concerns (it doesn't rate at all, actually), but it has achieved that status among a surprising number of Democratic leaders. Lakoff has twice addressed the caucus on how to frame its policies, and his book is a surprise best seller in Washington; it has become as much a partisan totem as the lapel-pin flags worn by Republicans. Lakoff and a handful of other self-appointed gurus have raised tactical phrasing to something approaching a religion.

With "messaging efforts" under way throughout the party, more Democrats appear to be coming around to the belief that—election results be damned—what they stand for may not be the problem after all. One of the minor ridiculous figures in Washington these days is an Internet entrepreneur named Richard Yanowitch, who is pointing down another path to enlightenment. He has put together a jargony memo and a working group dedicated to "branding" the Democrats—the thought apparently being that, as if it were a flagging brand of soda, the party can be revived with snazzier packaging and a new sales pitch. And while Lakoff enjoys the sponsorship of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, Yanowitch has set up shop under the auspices of her Senate counterpart, Harry Reid.

Yanowitch has established what has been described to me as a "secret messaging group." Though he rebuffed requests for an interview, a member of this Masonic cabal leaked to me a roster of potential saviors of the Democratic Party even unlikelier than Lakoff. Along with the usual pollsters and strategists it includes the internationally best-selling mystery writer Harlan Coben, creator of the Myron Bolitar series, about the adventures of "a hotheaded, tenderhearted sports agent" (as describes it). Another member is R. J. Cutler, the reality-TV impresario behind last summer's Showtime series American Candidate (modeled after American Idol), which put the lie to H.L.Mencken's maxim that you can never go broke underestimating the intelligence of the American people. As the show was conceived, viewers would select a "candidate" to run for president in the serious, if alarming, hope that the winner would actually enter the race. (The show flopped. Given Cutler's political affiliation, it failed on another level, too: viewers chose a thirty-eight-year-old Republican.) The idea seems to be that people like Coben and Cutler, having moved the masses with their art, possess mysterious alchemical skills that can just as easily be applied to politics.

Strangely, the Democrats' fixation with messaging has grown so intense as to revive, in their eyes at least, the standing of an avowed foe, the Republican pollster and message-meister Frank Luntz. The wunderkind strategist who helped develop the terminology for Newt Gingrich's "Contract With America," Luntz has since drifted far from the inner circles of Republican power. Most GOP insiders question both his skills and his professional priorities, which seem to put his own celebrity above his party. But superstitious Democrats, cheered on by Lakoff, now credit Luntz's framing and wordsmithery—calling for "tax relief" rather than "tax cuts," for instance—with much of the Republicans' success over the past decade.

Not long ago, when a memo Luntz had written on how Republicans should talk about Social Security leaked to the media, there seemed to be only a single suspect (Luntz, of course), and a single—if singularly unlikely—audience for its wisdom. Most Republicans ignored the memo, but the Democrats went into paroxysms of envy. In a private meeting of officials the new party chairman, Howard Dean, vowed that he would "make George Lakoff the Democrats' Frank Luntz." That's the kind of idea that passes for visionary when you're committed to the pretense that your party isn't short of ideas.

It's not too early to examine the results of all this linguistic plotting and scheming. One of the opening salvos from the brand-aware Democratic Party was the "New Partnership for America's Future." (Heard of it? No?) The plan, outlined in a handy brochure, is a predictable rejoinder to the Contract With America—attention-getting only in its lateness. It consists of six "core values to promote a strong and secure middle class": "Prosperity. Opportunity. Community." To my untrained ear, many of these core values are indistinguishable from the earlier, outmoded ones recklessly put forth in the days before the linguists' role was properly understood. That is to say, they're the sort of thing you normally see plastered beneath some purposeful-looking minority student on a subway poster pitching continuing-education night classes.

Rather than defining the Democrats as a group powerfully apart from the Republicans and their alleged linguistic sorcerers, the terminology in this brochure sounds—well, it sounds like Frank Luntz might have a very good case for copyright infringement. His memo offers, with scarcely Einsteinian originality, this thought: "The best way to communicate values is to use words and phrases that no Coke-drinking, apple-pie-eating American could disagree with. Family. Freedom. Opportunity. Responsibility. Community."

Of course, buzzwords are not going to rescue a failing party. That so many Democrats have achieved the Olympian state of denial necessary to believe otherwise suggests that the tempting abstractions of language and messaging have diverted them from a truth that ought to be perfectly clear: rather than being misunderstood, they were understood all too well.