A Progressive Guide to Framing

Cross posted from: RFK Action Front

George Lakoff and the Rockridge Institute have done a tremendous job of educating progressives about the importance of framing.  But as I troll through the progressive blogosphere, I notice that even some of the best bloggers (who, out of courtesy, will remain nameless here) make basic framing mistakes.  So as the risk of repeating what may be obvious to many--here is my Progressive Guide to Framing:

1. LEFT and RIGHT refer to baseball pitchers and driving directions not political ideas or policy choices. It seems to me that the biggest framing mistake progressives make is referring to progressive ideas as "left" or "lefty" and Republican or fundamentalist Christian ideas as "right" or "right wing."

Why is this such a disadvantageous frame?

The word "right" of course, has several meanings. For example, "right" can mean "correct" as well as "politically conservative." Only 8 to 15% of the adult population is left handed. Every time you use the terms right and left to refer to politics you are using a Republican frame that implies that Republicans are correct and progressive only represents 8-15% of the population. See the problem?

2. By the same token, Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson are not members of the "religious right", the "right wing," the "radical right," or even "evangelical." Rather, based on their desire to impose the brutality of the Old Testament upon our culture and modern political institutions, they are properly referred to as "fundamentalists, extremists, regressive, or fringe."

3. There is nothing "conservative" about modern day Republicans. They don't conserve the environment, they don't conserve energy, they don't even conserve international law or the Geneva Conventions. Contemporary Republicans are thus not properly referred to as "conservative." Proper adjectives to describe Republican policies include "regressive, destructive, extremist, fringe, fundamentalist, violent, hateful, and anti-family."

4. Use affirmative declarative sentences to say what we believe rather than always debating what THEY are doing wrong. For example, "Barack Obama has a vision that can heal our nation" or "Hillary Clinton is perhaps the hardest working person in American politics today," is better than, "Bush is a dumb ass." We've got to get in the habit of repeating our frame over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over and over. When we go on offense by making affirmative declarative sentences the other side is often forced to go on defense (and in the process of trying to refute our frame the other side repeats and reinforces our frame).

5. Humor is more viral than anger. Check out this quote from Laura Crawford--the RNC's main viral video editor:

"I try not to make [the videos] political at all," says Crawford, "because anything political gets an automatic negative reaction, even from people with a strong party affiliation. They want humor.... We want these things to be viral, and if they're argumentative instead of clever, they just won't be." (from Time Magazine)

For example, Jon Stewart is more viral (and more effective at moving a message) than Democracy Now! Both are necessary but The Daily Show has more leverage in shaping the debate right now because of the way they package their message.

Okay that's all I got for now. If you've got some additional ideas, feel free to add them to the comments.

Tags: Framing, George Lakoff, Rockridge Institute (all tags)



Re: A Progressive Guide to Framing

I agree with 4 and 5, especially 4.  But 1 seems kind of silly and 2 even more so.

3 is just ridiculous.  You go ahead and start referring to 30-40% of the American population as "regressive, destructive, extremist, fringe, fundamentalist, violent, hateful, and anti-family" and see how well your political movement does. In fact, it directly contradicts the very good point you make on #4.

by Baldrick 2007-06-07 09:46PM | 0 recs
Re: A Progressive Guide to Framing

But if WE* don't start calling them regressive, who will? Should we just keep saying they are right.

Words mean a lot.

*I'm not sure who "we" is, but I think it has something to do with progressive netroots.

by LandStander 2007-06-07 10:13PM | 0 recs
Re: A Progressive Guide to Framing

Policies promoted by conservatives have regressive effects.  Some conservatives are regressive people.  But calling everyone who self-identifies as conservative "destructive...violent...hateful" just seems tone-deaf.

by Baldrick 2007-06-08 07:27AM | 0 recs
Yes And No

In concept, yes.  But in application, not so much.

For example, it should be a long-term project to "tarnish conservatism" as Chris argued in the aftermath of the 2004 election.  So I have to disagree with 3.  After all, they have been unafraid to demonize "liberal"--even though we live in a liberal democracy, and liberal comes from the same root word as liberty.

OTOH, 2 just sounds like either gratuitous namecalling, or giving too much credit (there are fundamentalists who don't think like them).  A far better term is theocrat(ic). People may not know what that means. but that's a good thing, a chance for education.  And once it's out there, how can that be good for them?

4 is a good point.  Affirmative declarations are important.  But that doesn't necessarily mean dropping critical comments.  After all, research shows that contrast ads (Candidate A does X, but Candidate B does Y) are highly effective.  And even if pundits confuse them with attack ads, ordinary people generally do not.  So it would make sense that the same applies to other forms of communication as well.

5 is a good point, but it has its limits.  Comparing The Daily Show and Democracy Now is ludicrous.  They do entirely different things.  You want to beware of being funny when it's not appropriate.  There was a good treatment of this on Studio 60 last night.  But, again, I agree with the basic point.

As for 1, well, I agree that up and down, for example, would be better than left and right.  But start talking like that, and people will look at you like you're from Pluto.  So what's the alternative???

by Paul Rosenberg 2007-06-08 09:02AM | 0 recs
Thanks for the comments

In reply to Baldrick, I think dropping the terms "left and right" is really important.  It seems to me that the terms are abstractions designed to plot policy ideas along some sort of imaginary X- axis (which is another disadvantageous frame--because left in this case would equal negative, right would equal positive).  I don't know when these terms first appeared in our language in reference to politics--perhaps as an outgrowth of the social sciences trying to be more like the "hard sciences"?  The abstractions are meaningless in themselves but when attached to real words that have real meanings (substantial majority verses permanent minority in the case of "handedness") they give the wrong impression.

I agree with Baldrick that not everyone "who self-identifies as conservative is 'destructive...violent...hateful.'"  Certainly those who vote Republican are not a monolithic bunch (paleolithic sometimes but not monolithic).     I think it's a good point to be careful how we refer to a group of people. But in talking about policy, when a policy is destructive or violent or anti-family we should describe the contents of the policy as such rather than just using the shorthand "conservative" (because usually the meaning of that word does not accurately describe the contents or outcomes of the policy).  And it seems to me that particular people (Dobson, Robertson, DeLay), who have a demonstrated track record of fundamentalism, extremism, or representing the fringe, should be referred to as such rather than using the polite euphemism of "conservative."    

I agree with Paul that critical comments and contrast ads are important and effective.  Likewise, I think he makes a good point that The Daily Show and Democracy Now occupy two completely different spheres and so they're not great for comparison.

Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

by RFK Action Front 2007-06-08 11:22AM | 0 recs


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