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.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.
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.
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!"