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John Perilli: Winning the War of Words

Wednesday, March 05, 2014


Changing even one word in a title or message can mean the difference between success or failure in politics, believes John Perilli.

Repeat after me: The words you choose matter. Especially in politics.

Consider one of the issues heating up at the State House this week: the “Estate Tax.” On its face, it looks like a fairly straightforward debate. Currently in Rhode Island, all estates greater than $921,000 are subject to the tax. State Rep. Doreen Costa wants to repeal it. Others want to keep it in place.

But let’s look a little deeper. What does the phrase “Estate Tax” make you think of? Specifically, the word “Estate?”

I’m willing to bet it conjures up images of mansions and summer houses. Of velvet smoking jackets, and wealthy vacationers sipping martinis against the backdrop of a sunset in the Hamptons. This is bad news for supporters of eliminating the estate tax, because most voters do not side with the “estates,” even if they support cutting taxes otherwise.

Enter a conservative strategist and pollster named Frank Luntz.

Back in the early 1990s, national Republicans had the same problem as the one just described: they wanted to repeal the estate tax, but did not have the public support, not even from their base. Frank Luntz changed the game. By making a devastatingly simple alteration, he was able to completely turn the issue on its head.

He changed the name “estate tax” to “death tax.” Now what does “death” make you think of? Inevitability. Universality. Memento Mori.

This was the change of tone the issue needed. After Republicans began using the “death tax” rhetoric, support for its repeal spiked to around eighty percent. A bill for full repeal even passed the US House of Representatives in 2000.

Such is the great and terrible power word choice can have on policy and politics. Now, I do not agree with Luntz on the estate tax issue––the tax only affects the wealthiest two percent of estates, and is a solid source of federal and state revenue––but I can only look in awe at how his simple change made a once dry issue into a lightning rod of activism and advocacy.

And if this change can work in national politics, it can work just as well on Smith Hill. Perhaps the opponents of the estate tax can pull some pages from the Luntz playbook. Or perhaps Democrats and progressives can follow the example as well, and look to turn underappreciated or complex issues to their favor.

Bringing In the Payday

After the passage of marriage equality, one of the issues progressives have coalesced around at the State House is payday lending reform. Basically, a payday loan is a short-term loan mostly taken out by people scraping along on the edge of a paycheck, just so they can have enough money to get by. But there’s a catch––the loans often need to be paid back at annualized interest rates as high as 260 percent, potentially trapping borrowers in a cycle of debt and poverty. Reformers want to cap this interest rate at 36 percent. The case for reform is compelling, but the main opponents––the payday lenders themselves––have a powerful lobbyist at the State House in former House speaker William Murphy.

This is clearly a crucial issue for families and workers. The problem of poverty, even for employed Rhode Islanders, is visceral and immediate. Yet somehow, the groundswell of support that buoyed issues like marriage equality and paid family leave just isn’t there for payday reformers.

The problem with the payday loan issue is that it’s technical and opaque. As soon as reform advocates begin to talk about numbers and interest rates, the number of people interested in the issue falls at a precipitous rate. And with the status quo so jealously protected, this spells doom for the reformers.

I think the payday loan issue could use a word change––a good Luntzian kick.

Rather than call themselves the “RI Payday Lending Reform Coalition,” what if the reformers went by “Borrow Safe RI?” Or what if they made an even smaller alteration, such as “Rhode Islanders for Safe Loans?” This would immediately change the discussion without compromising the goals of the reform movement. If they wanted to go negative, they could be “No Profits from the Poor,” or if they feel especially pugnacious, the “Coalition Against Legalized Loansharking” (CALL).

Payday lending could become an issue people more readily attached themselves to. Do you oppose payday lending? Well, what’s that? Do you want to stop companies from profiting off the poor? Of course, sign me up!

This is just one example of how advocates on Smith Hill could change the game on an issue they care about. They would not be selling themselves out. They would not necessarily be deceiving anyone. They would just be changing the discussion.

Going the Full Mile

There is, however, a downside to this word-wise way of thinking: It can sometimes get in the way of actual reform. By making a cosmetic change, we sometimes forget to alter the actual complexion of the issue.

Consider the recent rebranding of the troubled Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC), the agency responsible for the 38 Studios loan. After the 38 Studios incident broke, suggestions poured forth as to what should be done with the organization. Some suggested it be folded into a cabinet agency. Others wanted to abolish it altogether.

Last year, the General Assembly essentially just changed the name of the organization to the RI Commerce Corporation, complete with a new logo and website. In 2015, the new agency will be absorbed under the Executive Office of Commerce, and a new era of economic development in the Ocean State will begin.

Was this rebranding necessary? Absolutely. The old RIEDC name was tainted, and needed to go. But was there enough substantive change to the organization to put Rhode Island on a more responsible development track? That’s debatable. What was done about moral-obligation bonds? Picking winners? Back-room deals?

Changing words is one thing, but changing substance is quite another. Ideally, they ought to go hand in hand, but do not always.

So be warned, all you Frank Luntzes of the world. Altering word choice is not a silver bullet to achieve change or solve a problem. Words hold incredible power which should not be misused. But if you have a substantive policy goal in mind, and you need to take that next step to get voters and stakeholders on your side, a fresh set of words might be all you need.


John Perilli is a native of Cumberland, RI and a junior at Brown University. He is the Communications Director for the Brown University Democrats. The opinions presented in this article do not necessarily represent those of the organizations of which John Perilli is a member.


Related Slideshow: From the EDC to Commerce Corporation

The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation, which was created in 1995, is slated to be replaced with the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation as of January 2014.

Below is an overview of the formation of the EDC, the fallout of 38 Studios, and the recommendation -- and approval -- of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation to take its place.  

Prev Next

EDC Formation

The Rhode Island Economic Development Corporation (RIEDC) was created in 1995 with a "mission to strengthen the Rhode Island economy through policies, programs, and projects, which enhance and enrich the business environment for public and private sectors in order to create prosperity for all Rhode Islanders."

Annual Budget: $19,400,000

Total Personnel: 81

Prev Next

EDC Responsibilities

According to the Secretary of State, RIEDC "works with new and existing business to improve their competitiveness, train their workers, clear away barriers and provide the resources they need to grow and prosper.  [RIEDC works to] research, introduce and promote legislation and programs to make Rhode Island a more hospitable state for starting and expanding a business."

Prev Next

38 Studios -- Beginning

RIEDC issues $75 million in taxable revenue bonds to finance Curt Schilling's 38 Studios, LLC. in November 2010. Governor Chafee takes office in January 2011 and appoints Keith Stokes to Director.

Prev Next

38 Studios -- Fallout

RIEDC holds an emergency closed door meeting May 2012 in light of failing 38 Studios , Executive Director Keith Stokes is fired.  

Prev Next

RIPEC Recommendation

The Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council issues a report in September 2012 calling for "systemic and internal restructuring" -- and for the formation of the Commerce Corporation to take the place of the current EDC.  

Prev Next

Valois Takes Helm

Chafee nominates former EDC Director Marcel Valois to replace interim Director William Parsons in April 2013.  Valois served at the post once before, from 1995 to 1997.

Prev Next

GA Approves Overhaul

The General Assembly approves four pieces of legislation to "move Rhode Island's economy forward and reform the state's economic development structures" during the 2013 session. 

Governor Lincoln Chafee allows three of the four bills to become law without his signature, signs a fourth bill


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