Business Insider/Skye Gould
Turn on Fox News on any given night, and you’ll hear pundits
blasting illegal aliens, radical Islamic terrorism, and corporate
Change the channel to MSNBC, and you’ll hear talk of undocumented
immigrants, jihadism, and consumer protections.
The two networks are talking about the same issues, but they’re
using strikingly different terms.
At the heart of this is a struggle between conservatives and
liberals over how to label just about every issue in politics.
Behind the scenes, experts from both parties are busy devising
and testing new ways to frame hot-button issues designed to pull
voters further into their camps.
The divide has shown no signs of narrowing, and it has left
observers wondering how to find common ground when even our
language is polarized.
“Every tribe has its own words, basically, and it becomes more
and more difficult to have conversations across tribal fault
lines if we can’t even agree on the terminology,” Dietram
Scheufele, a communications professor at the University of
Wisconsin, told Business Insider.
The ‘inflection point’
Given today’s political climate, it may seem as if the language
of politics has been polarized forever, but the phenomenon is
relatively new. Until the 1990s, conservatives and liberals spoke
remarkably similarly, a
study by a trio of researchers from Stanford, Brown, and
Microsoft found in 2016.
In the study, participants were shown speeches by members of
Congress from 1873 to 2016 and asked to guess whether the speech
was given by a Republican or a Democrat. When the speech was
given in years before the 1990s, participants correctly guessed
the party only slightly more than half the time. But that figure
spiked dramatically in 1994, and by 2010 participants’ guesses
were correct 73% of the time.
The year 1994, the study’s inflection point, was a major
moment in politics. After a rocky start to Bill Clinton’s
presidency, Republicans were looking to capitalize in the midterm
elections. Newt Gingrich, then the House minority whip, began the
1994 campaign by releasing the “Contract With America,” a list of
10 bills congressional Republicans pledged to pass if they
regained the House majority.
The document was loaded with buzzwords influenced by President
Ronald Reagan’s 1985 State of the Union address. It talked about
“tax relief,” “job creation,” and “personal responsibility.” It
proposed “taking back our streets” by toughening the death
penalty and building more prisons, and it suggested imposing term
limits on “career politicians” so they could be replaced with
Business Insider/Skye Gould
The campaign worked — Republicans routed Democrats for a 54-seat
swing in the House of Representatives, giving the GOP its first
majority in the House since the 1950s. Political messaging had
One of the main architects of the “Contract With America” was a
Republican pollster named Frank Luntz, who has been at the
forefront of political messaging for 30 years. Luntz is credited
inside and outside Washington, DC, with teaching a generation of
Republican politicians that “it might not matter what we say so
much as how we say it,” Scheufele said.
Throughout the ’90s, Luntz developed theories on political
messaging and engineered countless phrases that subtly promote
conservative ideals. Those ideas have since been absorbed into
classes at the Leadership Institute, a conservative nonprofit
that it says teaches “political technology” to prospective
politicians and activists. His rhetorical tips and phrases are
regularly distributed among Republican circles. (Luntz
declined multiple interview requests.)
Luntz’s greatest contributions to Republican messaging can be
found in “The New American Lexicon,” a playbook published
annually by Luntz since the early 1990s. A leaked copy of the
2006 edition provides fascinating insight into Luntz’s rhetorical
strategy. In a
section titled “14 Words Never To Use,” Luntz instructs to
never say “government” when one could say “Washington” instead.
“Most Americans appreciate their local government that picks up
their trash, cleans their streets, and provides police and
transportation services,” Luntz said. “Washington is the problem.
Remind voters again and again about Washington spending,
Washington waste, Washington taxation, Washington bureaucracy,
Washington rules and Washington regulations.”
Luntz suggested replacing “drilling for oil” with “exploring for
energy;” “undocumented workers” with “illegal aliens;” and
“estate tax” with “death tax.” The substitutions often work — an
Ipsos/NPR poll found that support for abolishing the estate
tax jumps to 76% from 65% when you call it the death tax.
“It was completely revolutionary,” Republican consultant Jim
Dornan told Business Insider. “He detected phrases and single
words that could change how people thought about the issues.”
The frame game
To understand why Luntz’s messaging has been so successful, it
helps to look at one of his best-known phrases: “tax relief.”
At first glance, it seems innocuous enough. The phrase appeared
in the titles of laws signed by President George W. Bush in the
early 2000s, and surrogates for President Donald Trump have made
extensive use of the phrase in TV appearances over the past year.
But phrases like “tax relief” are key to conservatives
controlling public debate, George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist at
the University of California at Berkeley who some consider the
Frank Luntz of the left, told Business Insider.
The phrase “tax relief” suggests that taxes are an affliction
that Americans need to be rescued from, Lakoff said. Casting
taxes in that light ensures that those proposing the taxes become
villains, while those fighting against them become heroes. And
when Democrats repeat the phrase, they play right into
“When you argue against the other side using their language, and
quoting them, then you’re helping them,” Lakoff said. “The ball
is in their court, you’re playing on their field, and you’re
Lakoff says that political messaging is all about framing, an
idea he is now working to educate liberals about, decades after
Luntz began to do so for conservatives. In the case of taxes, he
suggests politicians liken America to a clubhouse, and taxes to
how one pays his or her dues.
“It is an issue of patriotism,” Lakoff
said in 2003. “Are you paying your dues, or are you trying to
get something for free at the expense of your country?”
Earlier this year, Lakoff launched the Citizens’ Communication
Network, a social-media network that provides suggestions for
recognizing Republican frames and recontextualizing the debate
with progressive language.
“It’s more than just letting people know framing exists, but
letting them know about the possibility of using it for the
public good,” he said.
Many have criticized Luntz and Lakoff’s framing techniques as
responsible for entrenching Americans in their partisan
worldviews. Scheufele, the Wisconsin communications professor,
has argued that the tool has robbed Americans of “honest or
argument-based approaches” to fixing issues.
“It’s making solutions that otherwise wouldn’t be palatable,
palatable to us by attaching it to values that we already have,”
But Scheufele sees a way for conservatives and liberals to bridge
their linguistic differences: by using framing in ways that can
appeal to both sides’ values.
As an example, he suggets replacing “gun control” with “gun
safety.” Gun safety, he says, conjures images of gun locks and
children, rather than big government coming to take people’s
“Everybody believes we shouldn’t have toddlers dying from gun
accidents, but a good chunk of Americans believe that we also
shouldn’t change the Second Amendment,” Scheufele said. “Simply
changing the language changes the interpretation.”
Likewise, Scheufele found that it’s possible to persuade
conservatives to invest in green energy if you avoid talking
about climate change and focus instead on “energy independence”
and avoiding wars in the Middle East over oil.
“Democrats and Republicans can very much agree on that,” said
Scheufele, who added that climate change had “become a divisive
term for all intents and purposes.” (Ironically, it was Luntz who
popularized the term climate change as a Republican
alternative to “global warming.”)
Such a change is occurring in Texas, where, as Business Insider’s
reported, a growing number of conservatives are embracing
environmentalism while sidestepping the polarizing terminology.
Republican businessman Trammell Crow of Dallas, for instance,
frames the debate in terms of one of society’s most fundamental
“The best way to communicate with those minds-made-up climate
deniers is not to talk about climate change but air quality,”
Crow, who founded Earth Day Texas, told Business Insider.
“Temperature can take care of itself if you deal with air
quality. That’s a public-health issue; that’s not an argument.
Everybody believes in that.”
But successful examples like Crow’s may become increasingly
difficult to find as more research goes into developing better
partisan messaging on both sides of the aisle.
“It has not just raised real ethical concerns but contributed
tremendously to how we have defined political identity,”
Scheufele said. “Framing is designed in political campaigns to do
exactly that — to make the lines more pronounced instead of less