How Political Language Is Engineered with Drew Westen & Frank Luntz

June 2, 2022

Democracy depends on our ability to choose our political views. But the language we use to talk about political issues is deliberately designed to be divisive, and can produce up to a 15-point difference in what we think about those issues. As a result, are we choosing our views, or is our language choosing them for us?

This week, Your Undivided Attention welcomes two Jedi Masters of political communication. Drew Westen is a political psychologist and messaging consultant based at Emory university, who has advised the Democratic Party. Frank Luntz is a political and communications consultant, pollster, and pundit, who has advised the Republican Party. In the past, our guests have used their messaging expertise in ways that increased partisanship. For example, Luntz advocated for the use of the term “death tax” instead of “estate tax,” and “climate change” instead of “global warming.” Still, Luntz and Westen are uniquely positioned to help us decode the divisive power of language — and explore how we might design language that unifies.

CORRECTIONS: in the episode, Tristan refers to a panel Drew Westen and Frank Luntz were on at the New York Public Library. He says the panel was “about 10 years ago,” but it was actually 15 years ago in 2007. Also, Westen refers to a news anchor who moderated a debate between George H. W. Bush and Michael Dukakis in 1988. Drew mistakenly names the anchor as Bernard Kalb, when it was actually Bernard Shaw.


Drew Westen is a Professor of Psychology in the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at Emory University. He has advised a range of organizations, from U.S. presidential campaigns to the Democratic Caucuses of the U.S. Senate and of the House of Representatives, and has been a frequent contributor on political and psychological issues on radio, television, and in print, in venues such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, and CNN. His book The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation influenced campaigns and elections around the world. It was described by President Bill Clinton as one of the most significant books in politics. Today, Dr. Westen is working on a follow-up his 2008 book The Political Brain, about how to talk with voters' on the issues they care about.

Frank Luntz is a globally-recognized political and communications consultant, pollster, and pundit. Sir David Frost called him “the Nostradamus of pollsters” and he's a winner of The Washington Post's coveted “Crystal Ball” award for being the most accurate pundit. He pioneered an “Instant Response” focus group technique that has been profiled on outlets from 60 Minutes to the BBC. Dr. Luntz has written, supervised, and conducted more than 2,500 surveys, focus groups, ad tests, and dial sessions for more than 50 Fortune 500 companies and CEOs in more than two dozen countries and six continents over the past 30 years. He's the author of three New York Times Best Sellers, including Words That Work: It's Not What You Say, It's What People Hear. In the past, Dr. Luntz advocated for the use of the term death tax instead of estate tax, and climate change instead of global warming. Luntz current focus is transcending polarization.

Episode Highlights

Major Takeaways

  • Differences in language can produce a significant difference in public opinion. For example, there’s a 15-point difference between extending versus expanding health insurance — with extending rating 15 points higher.
  • In general, Drew Westen and Frank Luntz advocate for simpler, humanizing language. For example, Westen advocates for shifting from the unemployed to people who've lost their jobs through no fault of their own, and from the underemployed to people who need two or three jobs to put food on the table. Similarly, Luntz advocates for shifting from transparency to accountability, because accountability is more broadly understood and valued. 
  • We're all becoming political messaging strategists. Historically, messaging strategists like Westen and Luntz used special tools to test language, like focus groups and MRI scanners. Today, we can all use social media to A/B test the language that will steer public opinion in our desired direction. 
  • Awareness can be an inoculant. By becoming more aware of how language influences our political views, we can be more immune to language engineered to influence us, and gain greater sovereignty over our minds.

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