• Victor C. Bolles

Pandemic Messaging


Recently I saw an interview of Frank Luntz on CNBC’s Squawk Box. Frank Luntz is a pollster, and I am not very fond of most pollsters as most of them try to slant the results of their polls to support their previously held beliefs. Still, polls and surveys are one of the few ways we have to ascertain the opinions and moods of people, especially in the political arena. In business we generally don’t have to use polls to determine if a product or service is popular. If it is not popular it won’t sell, and the company will go out of business unless it changes its products so that more people will buy them. But in politics no one truly knows whether a candidate is popular until the day of the election and then it is too late to make any changes. So, politicians use polls to determine if their messages are resounding with voters or if they need to make changes. But as we have seen in election after election, these polls can be wrong – very wrong.


Luntz is less of a pollster than a conservative political consultant that advises clients on how to shape their message in order to attract voters. He uses polls and focus groups to determine how people react to words and phrases. Many people have probably seen on TV his tracking polls during presidential debates where members of focus groups react to what the candidates are saying. He is best known for having shifted the discussion on the environment from “global warming” to “climate change.”


In his Squawk Box interview he deplored the politicization of the COVID-19 pandemic and, in a study done with the de Beaumont Foundation, said, “we don’t have a partisan divide – it’s a chasm.” He went on to say, “Based on our findings, our leaders need to remove politics and partisanship from their messaging and give Americans a better reason to comply other than because it’s good for them. They must remind people that it’s also good for the people they love and will speed up the return to a strong economy and a normal life.”


Luntz’s poll for the de Beaumont Foundation discovered that 62% of Democrats believe the pandemic to be “extremely serious,” while only 33% of Republicans felt the same way, although 74% of all respondents felt that the situation was either extremely or very serious. Further, the poll indicated that most Democrats favored closing things down while most Republicans said that we need to learn to live with the virus. Not surprisingly, the study found that Americans trust scientists and public health officials more than any politician, Republican or Democrat.


However, most scientists and public health officials are not saying that we should learn to live with the virus or that we need to shut everything down. Those are just political responses to a public health crisis and not a medical response. Reasonable actions such as mask waring, social distancing and hand washing can be very helpful in most situations. Closing bars and other crowded venues may be necessary in areas where the disease is spiking. In my county here in Texas we have 33 new cases per day for every 100,000 population. Bars and gyms are open but with limited capacity. Masks are required in stores and crowded areas. Counties along the border with Mexico are averaging over four hundred new cases per one hundred thousand. Obviously, the situation in these different counties requires different responses. In my county, new cases are climbing while in el Paso County cases are declining (although still higher than my county) so the actions that need to be taken may be changing.


Not wearing a mask in a crowded venue is not an act of patriotism or a political statment, it is an act of stupidity and callousness. Such political bravado may have cost the life of former presidential candidate Herman Cain who attended a Trump rally without wearing a mask and tested positive for COVID-19 nine days later, dying within about a month from the disease.


Luntz’s study discovered that the choice of the words used to describe the disease and the public health actions to mitigate the disease can affect how people react to the guidelines. He found that forty-nine percent of Americans consider the word “pandemic” more “significant, serious and scary” than the words “COVID-19” or “coronavirus”. He recommended that we use words like pandemic more and coronavirus less, use the word protocols instead of orders, governments should advise people to stay-at-home rather than order a lockdown, and emphasize public health officials over government officials.


Not following proper protocols is a blatant disregard for the health and well-being of your fellow citizens (and your older relatives who are especially vulnerable). Here in Texas 77% of the people contracting the disease are between the ages of 20 and 59. However, almost sixty percent of the people that are dying from COVID are over seventy although these people only make up about 6% of the those getting the disease in Texas.


The pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have now developed vaccines that are 95% effective (far more effective than regular flu shots) and these vaccines are expected to be approved by health officials before the end of the year. Luntz advises that the safety and efficacy of these vaccines should be emphasized instead of bragging about how quickly they were developed in order to reduce vaccine hesitancy. There is light at the end of the pandemic tunnel but that does not mean that we can relax and stop taking the necessary precautions. It would be criminal to contract the disease unnecessarily because of carelessness due to pandemic fatigue and to die just before the vaccine was available.

 

As significant, serious and scary the pandemic is, the concept that disturbed me the most in Frank Luntz study was how easily manipulable people are and how life and death situations can be affected by changing a few words. I have written about this before in relation to the behavioral economics of Daniel Kahneman as described in his book, Thinking Fast and Slow and also in relation to the ideas of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their book, Nudge.


Noble laureate Thaler and Obama White House economist Sunstein support manipulating people. I wrote about them in my commentary the Nudger Laureate (10/9/2017), “Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a very scary book called Nudge. Nudge has a subtitle of "Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness". They think it is not only acceptable but also laudable to manipulate people into making better decisions. But who defines which decision is better? The manipulators, of course. Thaler and Sunstein think it is not just a good thing but a great thing that could be applied throughout our society.”


The truly scary thing about Luntz’s study (even scarier than Thaler and Sunstein’s book) was not only how manipulable people are, but how it is almost impossible to not manipulate people. Children learn at an early age how to try and manipulate the behavior of their parents (usually successfully). And we and everybody else are trying to manipulate the behavior of others in order to get something we want. We do it consciously but also unconsciously, often just by the words we use.


The recommendations that Luntz includes in his study and its accompanying “cheat sheet” describe words and phrasing that appears to have similar, if not identical, meanings but that can have very different impacts on the people hearing those words. A careless use of words can create very bad unintended consequences. In fact, it is almost impossible that a government spokesperson not influence the behavior of people.


President Trump’s choice of words creates one reaction in his base and a quite different reaction in his opponents, perhaps as much as the policies the words describe. And the words being chosen exacerbate the division that the underlying policies have caused.


Progressives have known this for a long time. That is why they call the killing of a viable human fetus as “a woman’s right to choose” and reframed racial preferences into affirmative action (I always struggle to remember the phrase “affirmative action” because the words are so bland and neutral that they lose all meaning). All of this is straight out of Saul Alinsky’s book, Rules for Radicals.


America’s Founders understood this aspect of human nature. That is why they built in the checks and balances so that the basic functioning of government would be less vulnerable to manipulation as well. Some of those checks and balances have been weakened over time and there is a push from the left to further weaken them or eliminate them altogether. But if people are easily manipulable then we need strong institutions that adhere to our principles to protect us from the vagaries of our own human nature.

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