The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences

RLF Recap: "The Art of Telling People What They Don't Want to Hear"

Class of 2020 Rockefeller Leadership Fellows listen as Professor Wheelan explains how how language is used to influence public perception of policies. 

Article Type 

The real distinction in Washington lies not between Democrats and Republicans, or liberals and conservatives, but between Political Hacks and Policy Wonks.  The Hacks consist of consultants, pundits, and professionals who believe campaigns are won and lost on strategies including image, polling, advertising, and turnout. The Wonks consist of policy experts and academics who believe voters care what a candidate stands for and will do in office. In order to identify the problems on Americans’ minds and develop and pass policies that solve these problems, we need collaboration between Hacks and Wonks.     

Professor Charlie Wheelan’s session entitled “The Art of Telling People What They Don’t Want to Hear” highlighted the gap between intellectual understanding of policies and public perception of the same policies. Professor Wheelan is a senior lecturer and policy fellow at the Rockefeller Center. In addition to his work as a professor, he has spent time as a speechwriter, a correspondent for The Economist, and a Congressional candidate. He is the author of the Naked series and is known for his unique whimsical style which brings levity and clarity to a subject often devoid of both. Professor Wheelan is driven by the goals of making important academic ideas understandable to the broadest possible audience and using these powerful ideas to address real social challenges.           

According to Professor Wheelan, there is always a tradeoff in the present for future benefit with an unequal distribution of the impact. So, we must frame policies in ways that resonate and encourage sacrifice. Political decisions are usually not made with the brain, but rather with the gut and are later rationalized. Framing is wrapping a policy in packaging to make others feel good and connect.            

 Through several policy examples, Professor Wheelan drove home this point. For example, when we talk about abortion, the divide lies between “pro-life” and “pro-choice,” not pro-abortion. Both life and choice convey positive emotions. When we talk about immigrants without a valid U.S. visa, we can call them “undocumented workers,” which conveys ideas of bureaucracy and workers who are helping the nation, or we can call them “illegal aliens,” which conveys ideas of breaking the law and being an invader. The language we use can make a policy or break it. Consequently, it is crucial we test language and find the words that resonate to sell ideas and policies.             

Professor Wheelan’s session left us with a new appreciation of the media we are surrounded by. Everything we read and hear has been thought through, coded, and skewed. We must look beyond the headlines in order to assess policies and make change.


-Written by Meghna Ray, Class of 2020 Rockefeller Leadership Fellows

As Rockefeller Leadership Fellows, seniors gain a better understanding of the qualities and responsibilities expected of leaders. As Fellows take part in the workshops, dinner discussions, and team-building exercises, they examine their skills, qualities, and attributes as leaders and analyze how these influence teamwork and achieving goals. 

The Nelson A. Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences