The Framing Wars

Even before the election, a new political word had begun to take hold of the party, beginning on the West Coast and spreading like a virus all the way to the inner offices of the Capitol. That word was ”framing.” Exactly what it means to ”frame” issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative.


”I can describe, and I’ve always been able to describe, what Republicans stand for in eight words, and the eight words are lower taxes, less government, strong defense and family values,” Dorgan, who runs the Democratic Policy Committee in the Senate, told me recently. ”We Democrats, if you ask us about one piece of that, we can meander for 5 or 10 minutes in order to describe who we are and what we stand for. And frankly, it just doesn’t compete very well. I’m not talking about the policies. I’m talking about the language.” —Matt BaiThe Framing Wars (NY Times (will expire))

The author does a thorough profile of George Lakoff, the Berkeley linguist whose book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, introduces Democratic activists to cognitive linguistics. I never blog about politics unless there’s some rhetorical or journalism angle that I want to discuss, and this article offers plenty to chew on. In the end, though, the article questions whether simply coming up with new words to describe existing ideas will really make much difference in the political landscape:

Lakoff’s detractors say that it is he who resembles the traveling elixir salesman, peddling comforting answers at a time when desperate Democrats should be admitting some hard truths about their failure to generate new ideas. ”Every election defeat has a charlatan, some guy who shows up and says, ‘Hey, I marketed the lava lamp, and I can market Democratic politics,”’ says Kenneth Baer, a former White House speechwriter who wrote an early article attacking Lakoff’s ideas in The Washington Monthly. ”At its most basic, it represents the Democratic desire to find a messiah.”

Here’s one more passage that sums up Bai’s argument:

Consider, too, George Lakoff’s own answer to the Republican mantra. He sums up the Republican message as ”strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values,” and in ”Don’t Think of an Elephant!” he proposes some Democratic alternatives: ”Stronger America, broad prosperity, better future, effective government and mutual responsibility.” Look at the differences between the two. The Republican version is an argument, a series of philosophical assertions that require voters to make concrete choices about the direction of the country. Should we spend more or less on the military? Should government regulate industry or leave it unfettered? Lakoff’s formulation, on the other hand, amounts to a vague collection of the least objectionable ideas in American life. Who out there wants to make the case against prosperity and a better future? Who doesn’t want an effective government?

I’d have to agree… the cynical libertarian in me cringed at the nearly oxymoronic “effective government”. When my freshmen composition students choose such weightless thesis statements as “racism is bad” or “women should not be abused,” I call it a “puppies are cute” argument, framed in such a way that there is no credible evidence against the thesis, which means the thesis isn’t worth arguing.

As an news intern at WINA-Charlottesville, I drafted a completely innocuous story summarizing a local politician’s speech against illegal drugs, and one of the seasoned professionals gently pointed out that it would be unlikely for any politician to come out in favor of drug abuse.

Still, liberals have had great success inserting certain concepts into the public discourse, such as the cheerful “it takes a village [to raise a child]”, not to mention “affirmative action.” And journalists typically refer to “pro-choice” and “anti-abortion,” (or even “abortion foes”), thus framing the issue in a manner that differs from what you would get if you used terms that both groups apply internally (“pro-choice” vs. “pro-life”, or “the right to choose” vs. “the right to life”).

Bai doesn’t seem to think Lakoff has answers that will help the Democrats, but I was impressed with the linguistic creativity of Nathan Piazza. A Google search for “liberal memes” led me to “Dead Reckoning: Applied Memetics for Disillusioned Dems,” which, in one section, argues that the concepts of “rights” resonates positively with the liberal message, but that the word “right” also invokes “right vs. wrong” and “right vs. left,” which create conflicting emotional responses that automatically invoke the idea of opposition.