Nearly two hours after he’d started speaking to a group of correspondents from some of Britain’s largest newspapers, veteran Republican pollster Frank Luntz was fielding yet another question about his predictions for November’s midterm elections when one of the assembled scribes looked down at his watch.
As Luntz explained how and why in his estimation, Democrats will hold on to the Senate but lose control of the House of Representatives to the GOP, the reporter (representing a conservative-leaning tabloid) began to excuse himself.
Luntz, who’d summoned the group to his palatial Washington, DC flat for an hour-long presentation, had gone well past the time he’d set aside for the discussion. But he still had something he needed to say.
“Don’t go,” he said.
In response, the more than slightly harried correspondent followed the example of a generation of Republican politicians who’d found their way to high office by following the 60-year-old consultant’s advice. He returned to his seat and listened.
Upon seeing that the restless reporter would remain in his living room for a bit longer, the man who ended decades as a top GOP message guru by leaving the party last January quickly raised his iPhone to inform a client — presumably one of the many corporate or political titans who pay him a princely sum for advice — that he was delaying a scheduled phone call to continue speaking to a group of journalists who under normal circumstances would have trouble collectively assembling enough funds to pay a fraction of his hourly rate.
As he prepared to show a three-minute clip of a focus group he’d conducted just before the 2020 presidential election, he explained that he felt a debt of gratitude toward the UK, where he’d lived for several years in the 1980s while earning a DPhil from Trinity College, Oxford, for providing him with a refuge last year while he recovered from a stroke and weathered nightly attacks from Fox News host Tucker Carlson over his views on immigration and his friendship with House GOP leader Kevin McCarthy (who was then renting one of the many bedrooms in his triplex).
“I was in real trouble when I got to Britain, in real emotional trouble,” he explained. “I still haven't fully recovered from a stroke. And what goes on in this country? I couldn't talk about it”.
But during his more recent sojourn there, he said he had a chance to reflect on the trends that have shaped US politics over the last several years and compare them to those on the other side of the “special relationship”.
He told his guests the clip they were about to see demonstrated the difference between the two countries right now in a way that did not reflect well on his homeland.
“I want to show you what a s***show America is,” he said.
What followed had more in common with an old episode of The Jerry Springer Show than the focus groups for which Luntz has become known over the years.
Instead of a calm, thoughtful moderated discussion, the participants screamed at each other.
One elderly man ranted about how “God chooses the colour of our skin,” while another droned on about how “economic opportunity for Blacks just has increased dramatically” because “they” were “all over Hollywood” and in “every other commercial”.
The clip ended before things degenerated even further, at which point Luntz explained why he’d wanted to put that shocking material on display.
“This is what I hear. I don't hear this in the UK … I don’t want to hear this,” he said.
Luntz said he had brought that horrific video clip with him to meetings with “a number of shadow Labour” leaders, as well as with prominent Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
“This is my warning to you,” he explained. “This is s***, this is a disaster, and it will come if you let it happen”.
Many Democrats trace the “disaster” Luntz spoke of back to 1994, when Republicans used language and talking points he had crafted for them to convince US voters to give them control of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades.
Four years before that, the then-leader of the House GOP, Newt Gingrich had enlisted Luntz to develop talking points for his political action committee, Gopac.
A memorandum he allegedly wrote for Gopac called Language: A Key Mechanism of Control lays out “contrasting words” for Republicans to use when talking about Democrats.
Anyone who has spent much time watching Fox News (which first went on-air two years after the GOP seized the House) would find them familiar.
Some examples? “Shallow,” “radical,” “incompetent,” “pathetic,” “sick,” “bizarre,” and “traitors.”
For years, Luntz was associated — at least tacitly — with the memo, which was long seen as a key tool in the successful GOP playbook. But in a 2019 interview with Mother Jones, he denied having anything to do with the document, calling it “as cynical and evil as anything that’s been written in American politics and “the most destructive political memo written in modern politics” because “all it did” was “teach hate and division”.
The result, he said, was that America’s democracy had “seized up”.
And though he admitted that the UK’s system “still functions,” Luntz fears it could fall into the same toxic trap that has consumed America.
He said a major risk factor for a democratic breakdown is the partisan character of most British newspapers.
Ofcom regulations require opposing views to be fairly represented in broadcast media, but in print media, newspaper proprietors and editors have always had a free hand to be openly supportive of political parties in both their news and opinion pages. This tendency towards factionalist rhetoric rose to unseen levels during recent general elections and the debate over the Brexit referendum.
By contrast, US newspapers have traditionally kept their news pages held to a “just the facts, ma’am” ideal of objectivity, even as partisan content on television has contributed to increasing polarisation.
Though newspaper editors have long delighted in levelling attacks at the slightest hint of scandal, and the advent of the new right-wing GB News channel amid Tory attacks on the BBC portend the possibility of a less balanced approach to broadcasting, Luntz suggested there is time to dial back the rising vitriol before something fundamental breaks in Britain.
“Be thankful that you don't have our poison,” he said.
Turning to a correspondent from the Daily Mail, Luntz cautioned him that his paper should not “go over the top” because it will invariably bring an American-style “cancel culture” to the UK.
“This is how you get circulation, but the cancel culture isn't as big there as it is in America, and you don't want it. And the danger is if you go over the top, you are actually making it worse in your opposition to it,” he explained.
“You want to make people aware so they don't make the mistakes that we did in America. But you also don't want to make things worse,” Luntz continued.
“This is a big issue for your paper … I don't want to see it become a vehicle by which one party uses it against the other. It’s not good for the system, and I'm very, very afraid of the American system being hopelessly damaged.”
While he acknowledged that both the US and UK have seen their respective politics roiled by antiestablishment movements and figures — think Brexit, then Trump —in recent years, Luntz said the US has been further poisoned by a kind of tribal hatred that has not consumed UK politics but has left US campaigns devoid of substance and largely superficial.
And although he may have once shied away from criticising his former party for its contribution to such a decline, he said those times are long past because the stroke he suffered two years ago “changed [his] outlook”.
“If I didn't die, I'm not afraid anymore. So you will hear me criticise people I never would have criticised two years ago,” he said.
He lamented how the US political system had experienced a “loss of civility and decency” and was now filled with people unwilling to listen to other points of view.
But more ominously, he said the tone of campaigns in the US has become “very vengeful”.
“In addition to being ugly, you want to own your opponent, a that's not helpful in the democratic process.”
Turning once again to the Daily Mail correspondent, Luntz acknowledged that the conservative tabloid gets “great, great ratings,” but he was not as generous in his description of its methods.
“We [politicians and operatives] find a really ugly photograph, and a really horrible story, and we get you to run it. And you do things like ‘well, the alleged victim’ or ‘the possible perpetrator,’ and … whether it's true or not, they argue over it.
“I would probably do the same thing, but you are so important to the American political system, not just yours. But I’m afraid that it’s part of the toxicity of politics,” he said.
“I am screaming at the American media, don't do that — don't go in the direction of the British press … I've told my British friends not to copy what we've done in America. But I've told my American media colleagues, don't behave the way they do in Britain,” he said.
The man who’d helped Newt Gingrich’s rise to power said he would take the blame for what he did to bring such vitriol into American politics two decades ago, but credited himself with realising how much damage it had done.
“I figured it out. And I'm asking you guys to figure it out now, too, before it's too late.”