17 May 2022

Saving democracy: Dr Frank Luntz’s Keith Joseph Memorial lecture

By Dr Frank Luntz

This is a transcript of Dr Frank Luntz’s Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, delivered on May 16, 2022.

When I accepted the honour of delivering the Sir Keith Joseph lecture, I was already intimidated.

Knowing people who knew him well, Sir Keith had a towering intellect, and he didn’t suffer fools gladly. He practiced a politics that were driven by often counter-intuitive ideas, and as a result, he inspired and transformed the politics and economics of a country for multiple generations.

He was not just a man of his times. His was a genuine intellect of all times.

I am humbled and grateful to stand before you knowing in my soul that I am not worthy, but I will try my best.

It has been 35 years, almost to the day, since I wrote and delivered my last traditional ‘speech’. It was at the Oxford Union, and the topic was whether freedom really mattered, or whether personal security was good enough.

Since that day, I have always spoken off the cuff, using slides, graphics or other props to guide me, and attempted to pepper my presentations with humour.

But today, as then, ideas matter and the words that communicate these ideas truly matter. I will not get this opportunity again, so I am determined to make these ideas and words count.

So if you don’t see my eyes for the next few minutes, at least you will feel my heart. If you don’t laugh, you’ll more fully understand what I’m hearing, seeing and learning from both sides of the Atlantic. And though you don’t get to comment throughout, which is my usual format, you will at least have the opportunity to engage at the end.

I came to the UK last year as an exile, because of how difficult life has become in the US. It was more of a frantic escape, really. Thanks to a relentless social media environment that taints every aspect of American life, you take your professional, and personal, life in your hands every time you comment honestly on anything political, cultural, or financial.

And I had reached the limit of personal attacks my psyche could endure. It was also a time of personal reflection for my own role in the decline of political discourse, seeking better ways to challenge a political culture that has lost its way.

So I left Washington for the New World of Westminster, where of course we all know that everyone is completely tolerant, and there are no personal attacks, and everyone tells the truth, always.

I spent much of last summer studying British public opinion for our hosts here at the Centre for Policy Studies. The people who work here deserve our appreciation, our respect and our gratitude for the impeccable work they do to save and strengthen a great country. And to its leader, Mr. Colville: the UK itself owes you a debt it cannot ever repay for your ideas and vision and, even more importantly, your pen.

Where we stand

From populism to wokeism, from anger to empathy, my mission last year was to crack the code of dissent and disappointment in the UK so that I could learn how to bring back hope and optimism to the US.

But three nationwide surveys of 4,500 people, three national focus groups, and dozens of individual interviews with the country’s leading politicians, journalists, corporate and civic leaders left me with more questions than answers. Hoping for a better response, I then asked the American public the exact same questions – and what I found made me shudder.

I’m used to thinking of America as a shining city on a hill – as are most Americans of my generation. We assume that the rest of the world recognizes us as THE beacon of freedom, independent thought and success. After all, we’re the country that talks about the American Dream, believes in American exceptionalism, that sings “America the Beautiful,” and chants USA! USA! for no apparent reason, every time we can – and really, really means it.

Yet when I gave Americans a three-way choice between saying that their country was exceptional, their country had failed its people, or their country was just as good or bad as any other, a shockingly high proportion of Americans – 28% – said that their country had failed. That’s even higher than the 22% of Britons who think the UK has failed.

On the other side of the ledger, just 42% of Americans and 34% of Britons said they felt theirs was an exceptional country. I expected that in the UK, where your population is known for expressions of humility, apology, and personal contrition for things you have absolutely no control over – like the weather.

But on the American side of the Atlantic, this intellectual damning of their country is new. And alarming.

In other words, for all the differences between Boris and Trump, between our culture wars and yours, and even how we define and play “football,” there is an almost perfect match between Britain and America in terms of increasing anxiety in their lives and the downward trajectory of their country.

In both countries, we’ve had nasty elections and referenda where people were primarily voting against something, rather than for something – where the most effective rallying cry for the side that won was simply “Enough!” – whether the ‘enough’ was Europe or Corbynism over here, or Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump across the Atlantic.

Are you invested in the UK? Is the UK invested in you?

So wearing my pollster hat, let’s explore the TRUTH on both sides of the Atlantic – NOT what people should think but what they actually believe.

The single biggest difference between the US and UK is how invested we are in our country’s future. On this, and this alone, the gap between the two nations is staggering. Despite their doubts about how well the country is doing, and even greater skepticism about their children and future generations, fully two-thirds of Americans feel invested in their country, compared to less than half in the UK.

As problematic as those results are, the follow-up question is even worse: just 31% of Americans feel their country is invested in THEM and their future. In the UK, it’s only 27%. Let me repeat that. Just one in four Brits think your country is invested in them.

The political frustration in the UK is visceral because it’s generated from the heart, not just the head. You all know how it feels when someone you love doesn’t love you back. Now imagine if that were your country. Well, you don’t have to imagine it. It’s happening all around you.

These results have kept me awake at night, literally, for if left unchecked, the antipathy it suggests towards Britain’s political, cultural and financial leaders could intensify and turn into something uglier, angrier, and more destructive. It’s a short step from not trusting your politicians to not trusting each other. And as we’re seeing in America, once that trust is broken, it can be almost impossible to restore.

As an American, I should know. I realize that most people think what happened in the US on January 6th could never happen here. Their assumption is that Americans are just louder and angrier – about everything.

Maybe they’re right. Because what is happening in America isn’t about alienation anymore. It’s not a public temper tantrum that eventually winds down. It is morphing into permanent rejection of community and society – and the consequences go far beyond populism, wokeness, and the so-called “culture wars.”

Over the past decade, we in America have seen two powerful, destructive forces creep up and poison our democracy, our society, and even our economy: populism on the right, and wokeism on the left.

The rise of populism is shredding the political fabric of the country.

The rise of wokeism is undermining the principles of economic freedom, opportunity, and meritocracy.

Living through both, at the very same time, has contributed to the decay of dialogue and, as a result, faith in democracy itself is at an all-time low, as is a sense of and commitment to community, conversation, and civility.

And thanks to social media, these forces know no borders, no boundaries, and no limits. And they can, and do, spread. Quickly. Like a cancer.

In both Britain and America, we have embraced not just a Cancel Culture but a Confirmation Culture. We have moved from seeking news that informs us, to embracing news that affirms us. To listening only to those we know we already agree with and demonizing those we don’t. Fortifying our echo chambers instead of forsaking them.

Even in this room. How many of you read The Guardian religiously?

There was a time not so long ago when the principles, if not the practice, of free speech, economic freedom, and simple expressions of national pride were accepted without argument and were unifying and universal.

For decades, standing to sing the national anthem or flying a flag outside your home were respected expressions of civic pride. No one wanted a government cheque (other than for retirees and the truly poor). People respected those who worked hard, paid their taxes, and played by the rules.

But in the hyper-divisive environment we currently live in, free speech is condemned for allowing the rise of populists like Donald Trump , capitalism is blamed for exploitation economics, and patriotism is used as a weapon to demonize your opponents. On January 6th, flag poles carrying the American flag were literally used to bludgeon police officers at the US Capitol.

Here, in the UK, at the venerable Oxford and Cambridge Union Societies, patriotism is ridiculed for being outdated, and even Prince William, a dignified and respectful Royal, was booed at the FA Cup final.

A few people shouting disgusting racial slurs at a football match or posting them online does not make the entire UK systemically racist as some now claim. It means we need to address youth intolerance in the schools and adult linguistic thuggery in public BUT without upending the entire social structure.

Similarly, solving income inequality is one of the most pressing issues of our time. Even pro-free market conservatives in both countries acknowledge this. But that is not a reason to reject responsible capitalism or mandating equal outcomes rather than guaranteeing equal opportunity.

No economic system in the history of the world has brought more people out of poverty than capitalism. And while capitalism surely isn’t perfect, it is the solution far more than the problem for billions of people globally.

As for the culture, flying the Union Jack or singing God Save the Queen should be celebrated, not cursed.

And being proud of your country is perfectly fine as long as you have something to be proud of (North Korea and Cuba not withstanding).

So let me say from this platform what too many have stopped saying across these green and pleasant lands.

Great Britain is a great country, full stop. No explanations. No justifications. No excuses.

And the politicians on the Left or Right who seek to stoke the woke or exploit existing divisions for political gain are not serving the public good.

And for that, we are all to blame. All of us.

The Right has demonstrated insufficient compassion for those at the bottom of the economic ladder who don’t see a way up.

The Left only sees victimization, playing the blame game rather than promoting personal responsibility and agency.

And the disappearing centre is simply ignored or forgotten altogether.

In America, the result was a wake-up call none of us will ever forget. What happened at the US Capitol on January 6 was impossible – until it wasn’t. A dishonest president sent the mob marching, and so they went.

And thanks to social media, it takes nano-seconds for what happens in Washington to be seen and heard at Westminster.

We all know about the damage done by toxic, dishonest populism. Even today, more than a third of Republicans, which is about one out of six Americans, still believe Donald Trump is the legitimate President. They are factually incorrect, but they believe they are right, and righteous, and that makes them dangerous.

Wokeness is certainly more prevalent in the US because, quite frankly, the US has a much more heterogenous society with a more troubling history of racial conflict.

It’s here, though, slowly and steadily metastasizing, just like it did in my country. It is like coronavirus, impacting different people in different ways, only there’s no known antidote.

Addressing Wokeism

As a pollster, my job is not just to measure the present. It is to try and see the future with clear eyes and then inform and enable people to control it.

At its core, woke is an ideology that classifies us into tribes and disrespects our individuality. It goes by different names: wokeism, political correctness, cancel culture – but the impact is the same.

It judges us not for our actions but for the actions (and inactions) of our ancestors. It seeks to demonize our ancestral traits to create the perception that our history, our economy, and our society have been built on – and are defined by – exploitation, grievance, and victimisation.

It makes entire groups of people co-conspirators in crimes committed generations or even centuries ago.

To me, walking through your capital city, and observing the astonishing buildings – some of them older than my entire country – still fills me with awe and reverence. It brought to life one of my favourite professor’s admonitions: ‘Don’t look down. Look up.’

But through the eyes of the woke community, one would never see the majestic beauty of British architecture – or the staggering accomplishments of your society. They bury their heads in shame because they believe these buildings exist only because of the wealth stolen from other countries by imperialism and greed.

In their view, our founding sin was slavery. Yours was the British Empire that facilitated that slavery.

That may seem like ancient history, but not to the woke. Fully 37% of the UK believes the UK is “institutionally racist” today. Right now.

In the US, it started in the schools. Instead of teaching practical, applicable skills, our kids are being taught to be social activists.

Every week, another school district does away with standardized tests in reading or math or science, explaining that they are vestiges of racism or white supremacy. Our universities are doing the same with their admissions.

And they dump the advanced classes for the next generation of doctors, teachers, scientists and engineers because being “excellent” at something is emotionally damaging to those who aren’t. Instead of tolerance, too many are taught resentment.

And when universities seek to understand why American kids cannot do grade-level math, or when employers seek to address why entry-level employees can’t read or follow simple instructions, or why students from China, Korea, and Japan are passing us by, the statistical evidence has been eliminated.

No data equals no accountability. No fingerprints means no one is to blame.

The tragedy is in how we are doing this to ourselves.

Accepting the past

To be clear, significant inequality does exist today in both our countries.

Not being “woke” doesn’t mean whitewashing the past. It means acknowledge it and learning from it – both the good and the bad.

Discrimination in our workplaces and in our communities is still too common. I’ve seen with my own eyes what it does to the human condition, a cancer that infects everyone and everything around it.

And where it is found, it must be eliminated. Immediately. Full stop. No exceptions. No excuses.

Moreover, our outrage over discrimination cannot be expressed as an afterthought or footnote, virtue-signaling what is embarrassingly obvious, only to ignore or bury it after acknowledging it. Symbolic gestures that grab headlines and provoke bitter debate but do not meaningfully change the lives of those disadvantaged for the better will make things measurably worse. Our mission should be to make a difference, not a statement.

Of course, many people will argue that there are bigger issues to worry about – that woke is a concern, but not the main concern.

When British people go to bed at night, they don’t lie awake worrying about the rise of cancel culture. If they’re thinking about politics at all, they’re thinking about the rising waiting time at the NHS, the rising crime all around them, or the rising cost of food, fuel and just about everything in life that makes it difficult for just about everyone just about all the time.

So why am I ringing the alarm bells? Why am I acting like Paul Revere in reverse? (Sorry, you all, he’s a hero where I come from). Because once you dive into our findings, a much more alarming picture emerges.

One of the key findings of our polling is that Britain is increasingly voting on fear rather than opportunity. The way to reach Tory voters used to be about entrepreneurship and wealth-creation. Now it’s about instability and insecurity. The way to reach Labour voters is to talk about inequality rather than economic opportunity.

But an even more alarming finding is when you break down the country by age.

In our survey, the people telling us that Britain is institutionally racist and discriminatory were overwhelmingly the young. Among those aged 18-29, 57% felt that way – 20 points higher than any other age group.

They are also, by far, the most likely age cohort to describe themselves as ‘woke’. They see the world around them entirely differently and more darkly than their parents and grandparents – and that makes intergenerational cooperation very difficult.

As if that wasn’t enough, here’s something truly troubling. Young white people in this country are more likely to feel Britain is systemically racist than the non-white community who are actually experiencing the racism – because that’s what they’re being taught and told.

I feel the need to repeat one more time: racism and discrimination do exist and must be 100% eradicated – full stop.

But if you’re raised to consider yourself a victim, you will be a victim.

If you’re raised to believe you have control over your life, you will have control.

And if the people who have the most impact over how you think tell you again and again that your country is awful, eventually you will come to that conclusion yourself.

The next generation

Why have I chosen the Keith Joseph lecture to speak out?

For two hugely important reasons.

The first is freedom of speech – something as cherished in your country as it is in mine.

The real problem with woke culture is that it is just as intolerant as what it claims to oppose. It tells me that my voice should be silenced simply because it define me as being “privileged” in certain ways. That I can be dismissed, delegitimized and even de-humanised.

Instead of lifting up those in need, woke ideology seeks to tear everyone else down.

Let me put numbers behind this. In Britain as a whole, we found that 28% of people have stopped talking to someone, in person or online, because of something political they said. But among 18-29s, that rises to 53% – a majority. Young people are also three times more likely than the average to have had someone stop talking to them.

Thanks to schools in the UK, and the US as well, we are raising a generation that does not understand or appreciate that we have a duty to disagree. That the more certain you are in the virtue of your beliefs, the more necessary it is to listen to those who challenge them – and to do so with mutual respect.

It’s why I wear this tie, the Radley tie. I taught there earlier this month, and I found not a shred of wokeism or populism. Instead, I found serious students, taught by serious teachers, engaged in serious study, that will eventually make them serious adults that can seriously contribute to society.

There are some in this society who believe schools like that should not exist. Having studied education on both sides of the Atlantic, I think precisely the opposite. I ask those in attendance here today: what can be done to ensure that every student in every school receives a Radley education.

But wokeism doesn’t just undermine the quality of education or the quality of debate. It undermines respect for the past, faith in the future, and a commitment to economic freedom for everyone.

Because its view is the opposite of meritocracy and results. It says that you didn’t succeed in life through hard work, effort and perseverance. You succeeded because you exploited others – even if you didn’t realise you were doing so, and even if that exploitation took place decades or even centuries ago.

With wokeism and with populism, there is a greater emphasis on punishing the past than fortifying the future.

They both flourish in places where injustice lives in plain sight. End the injustice and you end woke.

The solution

So let’s agree here today to make a meaningful, measurable difference for all those left out, so that when we say that everyone, everywhere should have the opportunity to have a better life, we not only mean it – we achieve it.

The big question about woke, of course, is what you can do about it. There are three answers to that.

The first is the worst. It’s to do what Donald Trump did. Turn everything into an us-vs.-them culture war. Stoke the bitterness and division. Bring together your side by accusing the other side of weakness, failure, or treason. It’s a trench-warfare approach to politics that can yield short term electoral gains, but no long-term societal benefits.

I’ve seen where it leads. In America now, I can’t even put Republicans and Democrats in the same focus group. They don’t want to listen to each other. They just end up antagonising each other.

You may not believe it, or see it, but your country is different. It is better. It is civil. I’ve done focus groups here with Labour and Tory voters, and they disagree on so many things. But they’re polite. They listen. They respond. They still care for each other. Even the Liberal Democrats.

A second response is to reject the use of racialised terms, such as white privilege, or imprecise ones like BAME, that are deliberately provocative and divisive – pitting groups against each other.

This should go hand in hand with a more constructive approach that relies on actions, not words, utilizing social and cultural mentors to promote and encourage aspiration by demonstrating pathways to success. Not just to talk about opportunity but to provide it where it is needed most.

Think of Canary Wharf, a place where you wouldn’t get caught dead in – because some people actually did – a place that defined urban failure in the 1970s but completely turned around after being declared an Urban Enterprise zone by a Conservative government in the 1980s. It sprung to life primarily because of LESS taxation and LESS regulation – illustrating a point that the current government needs to learn, that sometimes LESS is really more.

The third answer is most certainly about messaging – but personalised, not politicised.

In our interviews, when people talked about what was needed in Britain’s conversation about race, the words they used most were “mutual respect”, “fairness”, and “open-mindedness”. Those are essential British values that need to be taught to ensure that they are prized and cherished.

Populism, wokeism and grievance do best when people feel they are doing worst. If you don’t think you have the opportunity to build a better life, if you feel that the economy and political system are stacked against you, that’s when you’ll be most vulnerable to disillusionment, division, and disunity. It’s a perpetual downward spiral.

Political (dis)unity

This all raises a much more fundamental question: How can you bring people together when they feel their leaders are leaving them behind?

The simple answer: you cannot. And without changes in the structural relationship between those who lead and the people they serve, worse times lie ahead.

Part of the solution lies in a commitment by the nation’s leaders not just to build back better but to be better. To show that they have listened, learned, and agreed to meet people where they are, not where they want them to be.

We cannot be afraid to speak uncomfortable truths in rooms like this. The far left and far right stoke resentment by telling people only what they want to hear, and that their problems are caused by political or cultural or racial “enemies.”

Well, it’s working. Here’s something Labour and Tory voters absolutely agree on: 70% of the population think MPs are in it for “themselves” or “their party”, while just 30% think they are in it for the people or the country.

And when we asked respondents to rank eighteen descriptions of how politicians made them feel, the top eight choices were “disappointed, ignored, irrelevant, fed up, betrayed, forgotten, left behind and angry.” That won’t make for happy reading in Westminster, and it should act as a clarion call. There is a deficit of dignity just as important as a deficit of income – and it’s creating havoc in society.

As a Word Guy, my message to the politicos is simple: you cannot talk your way out of what you acted your way into. If you want to replace anger with answers, you need to create a Culture of Encounter.

The people you represent have a yearning to be seen, to be heard, and to be recognized. It’s more than a slogan on a bus or an email in their inbox. It requires a genuine commitment from those who serve to understand, not just be understood.

To be clear, restoring a healthy relationship between your people and their country is about both politics and economics. Voters look at them as two sides of the same coin. They think both realms are stacked against them and tilted in favour of the connected, the entrenched and the comfortable.

Here, we know the reason why.

We’re seeing this on both sides of the Atlantic. The elites call it inflation. The people call it prices. But the impact is the same. Severe economic insecurity leads to political insecurity – and both trigger social disconnection and political rejection.

This think tank addressed this a year ago – publicly in fact – but the politicians didn’t listen.

Our polling found out a year ago that cost of living was becoming voters’ number one concern.

When we asked: ‘What aspect of the ordinary person’s daily struggles do you think politicians and business leaders understand LEAST well?’, the rising cost of living was far and away the top answer, followed by those who said they were living week to week, choosing which bill to pay first.

We warned then that cost of living encompasses every aspect of daily life, that politicians are being blamed and that it was going to get worse. But the politicians didn’t listen.

So let me try again.

When so many people struggle to get by after paying their bills and taxes, it is no surprise they feel disenfranchised and believe their country is not invested in them. When they get into bed at night, lying awake wondering how they’ll get through the next week or next month, they want to punish the people who they feel put them in that situation.

If MPs aren’t seen to understand these challenges, then they will never be seen as being on the right side – the people’s side. People no longer expect you to have all the solutions, but they certainly don’t expect you to make things even worse for them.

And while battling against woke matters, what matters even more are developing and promoting economic policies that boost wages, reduce prices, and help deliver a better standard of living. How horrible it would be if you win a General Election on battling woke and then lose the country over economic malaise.

To be clear, the CPS research does show that concern for the collective good of the country still outweighs individual gain. There is still in this country a genuine nationwide commitment to work for a better future rather than just a more comfortable present.

Yes, Britons still care about each other. They just worry that the people in power don’t care about them.

And so your Prime Minister (and my President) need to recognize that “building back better” is about more than roads, buildings and physical infrastructure. It means building back the bonds of community, trust, and mutual respect.

It doesn’t mean more spending. It does mean more fairness.

I have saved the most controversial finding for last.

By a margin of 61% to 20%, voters across the country agreed with the sentiment: ‘When I look at the politicians and how they treat us, I just think – fuck them all.’ That’s sordid language, and a strong sentiment, but it elicits nodding heads across the UK – and even in this room.

A final word

In the end, I’m not sure who has it worse, you in the UK, or me in the US – that conclusion really doesn’t matter here.

In times of genuine darkness, our democracies have often produced leaders of genuine greatness – Roosevelt and Reagan in the US and Churchill and Thatcher in the UK.

Yet my aching pessimism about the politics on both sides of the Atlantic is precisely because we have not found those leaders, and instead we endure the deepening disconnect between the population and its elites and the institutions they control.

As we have both learned, sowing division is easy. Achieving unity is hard.

The special relationship between the UK and US that I personally cherish with every fiber of my being is grounded in a set of shared values, a shared outlook and a shared belief that both our countries are forces for good in the world.

So when one country veers off the rails, can the other be far behind?

We are all custodians of a great legacy which we want to preserve, strengthen and entrust to future generations. At the heart of my work here is a deep desire to harness this common interest and responsibility to unlock the potential in all of us and build a better future together.

In all the shouting about woke, cancel culture, white privilege and whatever terminology you use or reject, you do have a choice: division and demagoguery or democracy and opportunity. Its institutions still work. It still lives here in the UK. And if you invest in it, it will invest in you.

More broadly, if your intent is to share the blessings of freedom with every citizen in every community in every corner of the country, then they will share their support with you. And if you embrace your great history, then history will embrace you.

On the very last day I was in the UK last year, I went wandering through a used bookstore on the Strand. I came upon a three-volume history of the United States, published here in London in 1856, five years before our Civil War. The final paragraph left me stunned and speechless. It read:

‘Republics are created by the virtue, public spirit, and intelligence of the citizens. They fall when the wise are banished from the public councils because they dare to be honest, and the profligate are rewarded because they flatter the people in order to betray them.’

Let us today commit never to betray the people we represent.

President Reagan, in his farewell address to the country, described America as a ‘shining city on a hill’. That shine may be gone, or at least greatly diminished – and it pains me greatly to speak those words.

My sincere hope is that a better understanding of your people and their priorities will help your leaders design a better path to a better outcome.

Don’t let the shine come off the UK, too.

For unlike the British weather, once that shine is gone, it may not come back.

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This is a transcript of Frank Luntz's Keith Joseph Memorial Lecture, delivered on May 16, 2022.