It’s The Ideas, Not The Framing That Is Hurting The Democratic Party
“Framing” is the fashionable new strategy of the day on the left. In fact, framing is so “in” right now, that there’s a 12 page long article about it in the New York Times magazine.
But, what does “framing” mean in a political context you may ask? I’ll let the New York Times answer that one:
“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.”
Put another way, it’s that old chestnut: “It’s not what you say, it’s how you say it” repackaged and put to work in politics. What’s new is that there are more than a few Democrats who seem to think that “framing” and the man promoting it, George Lakoff, are going to be the answer to all the Democratic Party’s troubles:
“The father of framing is a man named George Lakoff, and his spectacular ascent over the last eight months in many ways tells the story of where Democrats have been since the election. A year ago, Lakoff was an obscure linguistics professor at Berkeley, renowned as one of the great, if controversial, minds in cognitive science but largely unknown outside of it. When he, like many liberals, became exasperated over the drift of the Kerry campaign last summer — ”I went to bed angry every night,” he told me — Lakoff decided to bang out a short book about politics and language, based on theories he had already published with academic presses, that could serve as a kind of handbook for Democratic activists. His agent couldn’t find a publishing house that wanted it. Lakoff ended up more or less giving it away to Chelsea Green, a tiny liberal publisher in Vermont.
That book, ”Don’t Think of an Elephant!” is now in its eighth printing, having sold nearly 200,000 copies, first through liberal word of mouth and the blogosphere and then through reviews and the lecture circuit. (On the eve of last fall’s election, I came across a Democratic volunteer in Ohio who was handing out a boxful of copies to her friends.) Lakoff has emerged as one of the country’s most coveted speakers among liberal groups, up there with Howard Dean, who, as it happens, wrote the foreword to ”Don’t Think of an Elephant!” Lakoff has a DVD titled ”How Democrats and Progressives Can Win: Solutions From George Lakoff,” and he recently set up his own consulting company.”
There are three reasons that Democrats love the concept of “framing” so much.
The first is that there is something to it, it’s not all hooey. You can take a rock, put it in a box, and sell about 3 of them by calling it “A rock I found in my back yard,” or you can do what one man did, take that same stone, name it “The Pet Rock,” and make millions. How an issue or product pitch is framed does make at least some difference.
The second thing that excites Dems about “framing” is that it doesn’t require them to abandon any of their ideological goals. The idea being that the public hasn’t rejected their policies, it’s that the Dems just haven’t been able to find the right “frame” for them yet. Dick Durbin explains:
“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.”
Third, Democrats have a tendency to believe that most Americans are gullible idiots and view “framing” as an easy way to trick them. Don’t take my word for it, just read what George Lakoff had to say about it:
“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.
This notion of ”activating” unconscious thought sounded like something out of ”The Manchurian Candidate” (”Raymond, why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?”), and I asked Lakoff if he was suggesting that Americans voted for conservatives because they had been brainwashed.
”Absolutely not,” he answered, shaking his head.
But hadn’t he just said that Republicans had somehow managed to rewire people’s brains?
”That’s true, but that’s different from brainwashing, and it’s a very important thing,” he said. ”Brainwashing has to do with physical control, capturing people and giving them messages over and over under conditions of physical deprivation or torture. What conservatives have done is not brainwashing in this way. They’ve done something that’s perfectly legal. What they’ve done is find ways to set their frames into words over many years and have them repeated over and over again and have everybody say it the same way and get their journalists to repeat them, until they became part of normal English.”
See? The American people aren’t “rational actors” and they don’t understand “facts.” Instead, the population is full of drooling morons who have to be taught to believe the right things by their liberal betters. But unfortunately, the evil Republicans have gotten to the sheeplebots first and have rewired their circuits…for EVIL!
Of course, Lakoff and all the Democrats who are getting so excited about “framing” are missing the tinfoil hat wearing, talking donkey who’s sitting in the middle of the living room asking if anyone else thinks the Bush Administration hired Osama Bin Laden to knock down the Twin Towers:
It’s the ideas, stupid!
I’ll let Republican consultant Frank Luntz, who works with Republicans on related issues, elaborate on that point:
“Luntz sees Lakoff, by contrast, as a doctrinaire liberal who believes viscerally that if Democrats are losing, it has to be because of the words they use rather than the substance of the argument they make. What Lakoff didn’t realize, Luntz said, was that poll-tested phrases like ”tax relief” were successful only because they reflected the values of voters to begin with; no one could sell ideas like higher taxes and more government to the American voter, no matter how they were framed. To prove it, Luntz, as part of his recent polling for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, specifically tested some of Lakoff’s proposed language on taxation. He said he found that even when voters were reminded of the government’s need to invest in education, health care, national security and retirement security, 66 percent of them said the United States overtaxed its citizenry and only 14 percent said we were undertaxed. Luntz presented this data to chamber officials on a slide with the headline ”George Lakoff Is Wrong!!”
”He deserves a lot of credit,” Luntz said of Lakoff. ”He’s one of the very few guys who understands the limits of liberal language. What he doesn’t understand is that there are also limits on liberal philosophy. They think that if they change all the words, it’ll make a difference. Won’t happen.””
Bingo! Give that man an Ann Coulter swimsuit calender, because he deserves a prize for getting it exactly right!
What the Democrats who’re latching onto “framing” don’t get is that you can take a big old mound of horse crap, put a layer of icing on it and call it a chocolate cake, but you aren’t going to fool many people, and those you do trick aren’t going to be real happy with you after they take that first bite.
Matt Bai, the writer of the article, picks up on this as he closes out:
“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?
What all these middling generalities suggest, perhaps, is that Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don’t know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place.”
Again, bingo! Since Bai works for the New York Times, maybe he’ll have to make do with a Maureen Dowd swimsuit calender, but he does deserve a prize — especially for being able to at least consider the truth: that Democrats “lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace” their ideas.
What Democratic ideas? Just look at the “Republican mantra” that Lakoff brought up:
“He sums up the Republican message as ”strong defense, free markets, lower taxes, smaller government and family values…”
The Democratic Party is essentially the mirror image of the Republican Party, which is why they try to block us at every turn. So what do the Democrats stand for? Just reverse the mantra:
“Weaker defense, protectionism and unions, higher taxes, bigger government, and undermining traditional family values.”
There’s the agenda and you can frame it any way you want, it’s not going to look any better to the American people, which is why the Democrats can talk all day about the specific things that they oppose, but they get vague, fuzzy, and slip into “middling generalities” when you try to pin them down on their beliefs.
Take it from a guy with a BA in psychology, “framing” isn’t going to be the miracle cure for what ails the Democratic Party.