July 17, 2005

"Framing."

Matt Bai has a new article in the NYT Magazine about Democratic Party politics. He wrote a terrific article in the magazine last October called "Kerry's Undeclared War." (The article can be read for a fee here, and my post about it here contains some substantial quotes.)

The new piece is called "The Framing Wars." Lots of Democrats these days trace their problems not to ideas or agendas but to "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.

Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ''tax relief'' and ''partial-birth abortion'' and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them. But now Democrats said that they had learned to fight back. ''The Democrats have finally reached a level of outrage with what Republicans were doing to them with language,'' Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster....

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story -- a frame -- for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds -- that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights -- was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ''changing rules in the middle of the game'' and dismantling the ''checks and balances'' that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.
The amusing thing about that to a conlaw professor is that the sort of judges the Democrats try to appoint are the ones who don't bother to enforce structural safeguards (like checks and balances) and don't care whether something's been around a long time or not. So the successful framing, ironically, was to package the argument for liberal judges in the rhetoric of conservative judges.

Read the whole article. Most of it is about George Lakoff and his trendy book about political rhetoric called "Don't Think of an Elephant." I haven't read that book, but I've glanced at it long enough to see that it's a remix of his material from "Metaphors We Live By," -- an excellent book, which I have read -- and "Moral Politics" -- an okay book that classifies the rhetoric of the two parties (Democrats speak Mommy, and Republicans speak Daddy).
According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.
Lakoff taps some subtle truths about how the mind works, but how do those minds taking in Lakoff's rhetoric work?
When I asked Senator Richard Durbin of Illinois, the minority whip and one of Lakoff's strongest supporters, whether Lakoff had talked to the caucus about this void of new ideas in the party, Durbin didn't hesitate. ''He doesn't ask us to change our views or change our philosophy,'' Durbin said. ''He tells us that we have to recommunicate.'' In fact, Durbin said he now understood, as a result of Lakoff's work, that the Republicans have triumphed ''by repackaging old ideas in all new wrapping,'' the implication being that this was not a war of ideas at all, but a contest of language.
Apparently, there are frames deeply embedded in the minds of Democratic politicos that "simply reject" the parts of Lakoff's message that don't fit.

And what of all the Americans who sit around watching the politicians on TV? I think their most basic frame is the one my father used in response to nearly any political argument: "It's all semantics!"

9 comments:

Bruce Hayden said...

Yes, maybe, just maybe, some of the succcess that the Republicans have had recently can be attributed to better framing.

But, I will suggest that probably more important is that the Democrats really don't have any new ideas. Really haven't had any since the disaster of HillaryCare, and, before that, the Great Society.

So, what is their solution for Social Security? Don't touch it. Abortion? Don't touch it. School quality? More money. Environment? More money.

You get the picture. To me, it looks like they are trying to repackage themselves, instead of reinventing themselves, which is what I think they really need. And until they do reinvent themselves, all that they will have to sell is how they have repackaged themselves.

Ken said...

Lakoff's ideas have a modicum of common sense to them, but this is really nothing more than a contemporary variant of the false consciousness idea, and we all know where that led. Bruce is right: Democrats have not really had a novel idea in years. Most of the big debates -- social security reform, school choice, the response to terror, cap and trade, and on, and on, are about major conservative challenges to longstanding Democratic positions. Democrats have to deal with the substance of these challenges; they simply cannot wrap up old arguments in new language and expect to win. The "What's the Matter With Kansas" theory is too close to "You People Are Too Stupid To Know What's Good For You."

L. Ron Halfelven said...

I suppose if someone truly believes that phrases like "tax relief" and "partial-birth abortion" are loaded, he's going to see frames wherever he looks.

JSU said...

The truth is, I think, pretty much the opposite: the Democrats' long ascendancy was in part the result of their matchless dominance in 'framing' Republicans as bad guys via the sympathetic media. What we see today is -- thanks to the blogosphere, talk radio, and other conduits of conservative memes -- just the result of Republicans approaching something like parity.

biff said...

Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ''tax relief'' and ''partial-birth abortion'' and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them.

Right..of course...because everyone knows that terms like "pro-choice" are completely objective and neutral and have nothing to do with "framing".

...and I guess "affirmative action" is a Republican term, too?

jult52 said...

Agree with JSU and biff. Another loaded frame word is "inequality."

biff said...

While I'm at it, how about the current meanings of the terms "progressive" and "social justice"?

Nick said...

When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were "hanging rules in the middle of the game" and dismantling the "checks and balances" that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

---

Ahhh yes... the famous one party rule argument. Of course those familiar with the constitution will remind you that there are no clauses in there talking about political parties. The check and balances are supposed to be against branches of the government... not the parties who control them. It's the job of the voters to be a check on the parties in power... by not electing them! If we want to vote in all Republicans or all Democrats... that our right as the electorate.

gt said...

"It's all a matter of ceramics" - Sherman W. Tribbit, former Dem. governor of Delaware.