Instances Of Sophistical Thinking

On July 2, 2004 Public Broadcasting conducted an interview with the well-known pollster and political consultant Frank Luntz, a man described as "one of 50 of America's most promising leaders aged 40 and under." Such an interview would not normally be noteworthy to us, but it does contain a few redeeming values: first, it is a shining example of how sophistical thoughts can go uncontested even during a program unmarred by interruptions and commercials; second, it underscores the importance of the study of logic and reasoning, which, far from being an arid mental exercise, enhances one's sensitivity to faulty arguments; and third, it gives the reader some insight into the cynicism of a modern political operative, whose job is to brief politicians about the concerns, worries, and sentiments of the voting population -- not so their problems may ever be redressed, but that the politicians will know how to structure their stump speeches and TV ads to increase their chances for victory.

Italics has been added for emphasis. Click here to read the entire interview (you'll need to scroll down a few panels).

David Brancaccio (Interviewer):...if you're good at setting the context and at deploying the information in a set order, can you convince a voter what to think?

Frank Luntz: That's a good question. But the way that I look at it is not to convince the voter what to think, it's to convince the voter that what they think is correct. Some of this is not a matter of re-educating them. Some of this is a matter of just explaining that their gut instincts are correct.

That they should not be fooled by either what they see or what they hear. That what they feel is what is correct. And that's a lot of it, by the way. It's not just language. It's style, it's presentation.

[Reply: Are the eyes and ears less reliable than gut instinct in deciding what is true? I doubt a single scientist would agree.]

DB: Do you see what needs to be done as a manipulation? In other words, messing with people's heads?

FL: No, I've heard that before. And it's not messing with their heads because it's these thoughts, these ideas, these assumptions already exist. I would not...I do not believe in calling something that is white, I won't call it black. I do not believe in calling something that's up, calling it down. This is not Orwellian. This is listening to what you care about. This is understanding who you are, what you believe, all your life experiences and then explaining things in that way. Look, if we were to do this interview and you asked me questions in English and I responded in Greek, none of your viewers with the exception of three or four people in L.A. are gonna understand me.

That's all that I do is I help people understand politics or products or services. It's an explanation. It's an education, not a manipulation.

[Reply: Notice that politics is mumbled in the same breath as "products and services." Politics to Luntz is merely a pitchman's game: what counts isn't ideas or convictions or causes, but merely the manipulation of emotions and images to achieve a selfish end. Politicians are objects to be sold; voters are naive dupes who can be hoodwinked in any old way. He also distinguishes between education and manipulation. Here we may ask, "Is it possible to educate voters when one is compromised by a vested interest -- in this case, the winning of an election? Isn't the job of a poll-taker and consultant considerably different from that of scholar and schoolteacher?]

DB: But it's not just translation out of the Greek, out of the fancy language into the plain English which I'm all for, plain English. You know there's a memo circulating that is attributed to you that talks about the need, among other things, for politicians to always mention the terrible events of September 11th.

FL: And what's wrong with that?

DB: Nothing at all, but...

[Reply: Everything is wrong with that, and the journalist does a grave disservice to the subject and to his audience by concurring too readily.]

FL: What's wrong...

DB:...before mentioning Iraq.

FL: But what is wrong with mentioning why these things took place? What is wrong with mentioning the fact that there are enemies to America? What is wrong with talking about the fact that it is better to fight this war in Afghanistan and Iraq than fighting it in Washington and New York?

[Reply: Since the primary reason for mentioning 9/11/01 is to win brownie points for one's own candidate, and to prey upon people's emotions for so crude an end as winning an election, everything is wrong with it. Notice the surge of emotionalism in the line, "it is better to fight this war in Afghanistan and Iraq than fighting it in Washington and New York." Of course, nothing in the way of evidence is ever put forward to support the inference that Americans would ever have to fight a war on the streets of Washington and New York.]

FL:...I find that frustrating if not outrageous that you can't talk about the root cause. That you can't talk about the fact that there are people out there that hate America so much.

[Reply: Are there any reasons at all, lamentable if understandable, that others around the world might detest the United States -- not its people necessarily, but its government? To answer this question it would be necessary to explore recent history, to have at least a modest understanding of American foreign policy over the last fifty years, to demonstrate some capacity to stand back dispassionately and look at the situation -- a capacity that Luntz evidently lacks. Someone living in Iran between the years 1953 and 1979, when the United States oversaw a coup against a democractically elected leader and then supported the Shah -- a vicious dictator by everyone's reckoning -- might have a good reason for not liking the United States.]

DB: When you poll Americans...they will tell you it's decreasing but certainly in the run up to the war and after the war started, that 9/11 was caused by Iraq. And that percentage of people who believe that has been decreasing: it's now down to about 40 percent...

FL: No, no, no.

DB:...and tries to conflate the two is doing a disservice perhaps to the facts.

FL: Okay. But you say caused by. That's actually not the wording of the research. It's did Iraq play any role or is there a connection between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda?...They don't say cause. And this is where I focus on words. Is there a relationship? Are these bad people? Was Saddam Hussein a bad person? Is Osama bin Laden a bad person? The answer is absolutely yes.

[Reply: If the American people were asked whether Hussein's "being a bad person" were justification for war against Iraq, it is likely that most would say no. The bad-person argument was never advanced anyway as the rationale for war.]

FL: And we are better off if Osama bin Laden did not exist and I hope we catch him. And we are certainly better off that Saddam Hussein is not in power. So, I pay attention to the words, the exact phrases. And to the American people, they don't know up or down when it comes to this.

[Reply: Notice the cynical condescension here.]

FL: But they do know that these are bad people. They know that they have killed Americans. They know that they are a threat to our national security and they want them gone. What's wrong with that?

[Reply: No American had any reason at all for believing Hussein was a "threat to our national security": i.e., that he was going to invade us, or detonate a bomb on our soil, or conspire in a military way against us. According to U.N. weapons inspectors and other experts, he was a defanged dictator; his army was a fraction of what it was in 1990, and he was isolated even in the Arab world.]

DB: What the Bush Administration is up against among many things now is this 9/11 Commission which is pouring cold water on that link between our policy in Iraq and who did 9/11.

FL: Yeah, but they're also saying that there are people in Iraq that hate us and would like to do anything they could against us. And the people who caused 9/11 hate us and would like to do anything against us. It doesn't matter whether they are related. It doesn't matter whether they are best friends.

[Reply: So neither the facts nor the messy details really matter. It's only important that people have a vague feeling about the nefarious intentions of America's enemies.]

It doesn't matter whether they hung out at a Starbucks and drank coffee together and planned against us. The fact is if there are people who are prepared to use the most God-awful means to hurt this country and the citizens in this country, it's far better for us to stop them from doing it than try to catch them after they do it. And I don't even think you disagree on that.

[Reply: Notice again the emotionalism, the breezy inferences and assumptions, the inclusion of the word "if" in the second sentence.]

DB: So, there is a point, though...

FL: By the way, I just used that time I did use a technique on you.

DB: Yeah, tell me about it.

FL: I asked a rhetorical question that you had no answer to. Which was, you know, isn't it better that we stopped them before they hurt us? Of course the answer is yes. Ninety-nine percent of your viewers will say the answer is yes.

DB: Which is why I didn't answer.

FL: Right.

DB: It's a nice rhetorical device. But I wasn't gonna go there...

FL: But that's "The Responsive Chord." I was taught that by Tony Schwartz, one of the top Democratic media consultants, the guy who created Lyndon Johnson's famous advertising campaign from '64. He's the guy who taught me that sometimes you ask a rhetorical question of which there is no answer.

So, you can criticize me for doing that, for teaching these techniques to politicians and to CEOs. But you can't criticize me for the language that they use as long as the language is accurate.

[Reply: Luntz is what the Greek philosophers of antiquity would've recognized as a sophist: a man interested in persuasion, in cute but not necessarily clever syntactic tricks, in gimmicks and techniques, rather than in the truth.]

A long exchange ensues...

DB: How do you connect with...[undecided voters]? I how do you resonate with this odd bunch of people frankly who don't represent the greater...

FL: And they don't.


FL: First off they tend to be more female than male. They tend to be younger. If they're under age 25 they're not even voting. If they're over age 40 they've made up their minds. They tend to have just gotten married or had their first child because that's what causes them...when you get married you start to look at politics differently. When you have your first child that causes a major shift.

They tend to be working women who are both trying to raise a family and hold down a job. They're not college graduates. They're not focused on politics, it doesn't matter to them. And they vote in Presidential elections but not in any others. And you have to empathi [sic]...the very first thing you have to do, it's not about issues, it's about empathy. They have to know that you care, that you understand them. That you understand the frustrations.

And I'll tell you something about these women...I haven't done this publicly before. The number one issue to them is not education, it's not healthcare, it's not budgets, it's not even the war.

DB: What could it be?

FL: The lack of free time. The number one thing that matters to them is that they don't have the time that they want for their job, for their kids, for their spouse, for themselves, for their friends. The issue of time matters to them more than anything else in life.

DB: So let's say you hear that in a focus group.

FL: Yep.

DB: And you start to notice...

FL: And I did hear it. Yeah.

DB: So what do you do as a politician to show that you understand just that issue?

FL: You speak to them that way. You actually ask the question, "So, I want to talk to the ladies in the room. I want you to..." The "women in the room" is how I would put it. "I want you to tell me what really matters to you. Don't just give me issues. What's your greatest challenge? Because I think I know what it is. And I just...let's ask the men first what you think it is."

So you ask three or four men, they all give the wrong answer because men have no idea what women are really concerned about. And then you say, "Well, I'm gonna throw this out, I want you to tell me if I'm right or not. Ladies here, I'd say that your lack of free time is one of the greatest challenges." And they'll all sit there and they'll raise their hands and they'll all nod yes.

At that moment you have bonded with those women. At that moment when they hear that you understand the challenges that face them they're ready to listen to your solution.

DB: So then I get up and I say, "My fellow Americans..."

FL: No.

DB: "If elected..."

FL: You start that way and you're already done. You're finished. My fellow Americans...

DB: "I would put leisure in every pot."

FL: Or, "I am not a crook." Any of that. That just comes across as being political.

DB: So what do you do? What do you do?

FL: Well, I mean look you're dressed this way too. I mean this is PBS and you're not wearing a tie. So you're cutting against the grain. This is a more intellectual place. People come to this channel, they expect politicians to be dressed that way. You've already dressed down, you've already taken the first step, which is you don't look like a politician. And then you don't want to sound like a politician.

You basically want the women to say, "You know what, he gets it. He gets the hassles and he's gonna try to do something about it." And they'll say, "I don't know if you can, I don't know if you'll succeed. But at least you're listening to me, at least you empathize with me so I'm gonna give you a chance." And right now no one has created an agenda, what I would call the free time agenda. So it's up for grabs. Just like these swing voters are.

[Reply: When I read Luntz's explanation above, I'm reminded of the cad who takes his date to dinner, feigns concern for her feelings and frustrations, and has all the while a single desire and thought on his mind. Only in Luntz's case it isn't sex: it's trying to figure out how politicians may best exploit the fears, uneasiness, and doubts of people through commercials and speeches so that they may win or hold onto political office. I'm left not knowing whom or what to despise the most: the people who mindlessly consent to Luntz's surveys; Luntz himself for being so shameless a sophist; or a political system that can so wantonly breed these abuses.]