Framing Primer: Part I -- Philosophy and Rational for Framing

"Tax Relief", "Tort Reform", "Partial Birth Abortion", "Death Tax", "Marriage Penalty". You've heard them all before. You've digested them. You've probably even used the terms yourself.

And each time you did you were helping to legitimize the Republicans' views on the issues -- that taxation is an affliction requiring relief, that our court system is corrupt and therefore requiring reform, that a very rare procedure (usually reserved to save the mother's life) is equivalent to killing a born child, that you 'can't even die without being 'afflicted' by taxation, that the current tax structure is an assault on marriage (and in turn that the 'tax and spend' Democrats are attacking marriage.) You were reinforcing and legitimizing their frames -- their vision and context of ideas, rationales, images, and perspectives -- in short, the conservative world view.

Don't blame yourself, though. They've been perfecting these frames and their means to meld them with 'mainstream' thinking in America for decades. It's only recently that the left has realized the power and effectiveness of frames in driving the national debate and subsequently the electoral results.

Fortunately, the left is waking to this reality -- understanding the critical importance of framing, and implementing it at every stage of the game.

The introduction of framing into the progressive community could well prove to be the beginning of a revolution. But such a revolution can evolve and sustain only with a concerted, impassioned effort by progressive opinion leaders -- executed in such a way that will compel the average voter to IDENTIFY with progressive values.

The Journey Begins

As we journey down this path to framing supremacy, we will borrow generously from the pioneer in this field, George Lakoff. In his groundbreaking work, Lakoff, author of "Don't Think of an Elephant" and "Moral Politics", and a Fellow at the progressive Rockridge Institute, has set the stage for a progressive framing revolution -- a revolution that we hope to perpetuate and strengthen.

To start, we offer this primer.

It will bring those unfamiliar with the concept of framing into the loop. It will also serve as a kick-off to the "The Political Strategy Framing Project" -- a project that will, over time, present framing suggestions and tutorials on every issue covered in contemporary politics.

So what is framing?

Frames are part of what cognitive scientists call the 'collective unconscious' -- Structures in our brain that we cannot consciously access but know by their consequences: the way we reason and what counts as common sense. We also know frames through language. All words are defined relative to conceptual frames. When you hear a word, its frame (or collection of frames) is activated in your brain. Established frames create clarity and promote a vision.

Every word comes with one or more frames. Most frames are unconscious and have just developed naturally and haphazardly and have come into the public's mind through common use. But, over the past 40 years, conservative Republicans -- using the intellectuals in their think tanks -- have consciously and strategically crafted an overall conservative worldview, with a conservative moral framework. They have also invested heavily in language -- in two ways:

* Framing: Language that fits their worldview, and hence evokes it whenever used. "Tax relief" is a good example.

* Spinning: Deceptive language, that evokes frames they don't really believe but that public approves of. Saying "Tax relief creates jobs" is an example -- or referring to their environmental positions as being "clean," "healthy" and "safe."

Reframing is telling the truth as we see it -- telling it forcefully, straightforwardly, articulately, with moral conviction and without hesitation. The language must fit the conceptual reframing -- a reframing from the perspective of progressive morality. It is not just a matter of words, though the right words do help evoke a progressive frame.

Reframing requires a rewiring of the brain. That may take an investment of time, effort, and money. The conservatives have realized that. They made the investment and it is paying off. Our goal is to reframe the issues in terms of progressive values.

Moral: The truth alone will not set you free. It has to be framed correctly.

For a more intuitive understanding of 'framing', try carrying out the following directive as presented in Lakoff's book, "Don't Think of an Elephant":

Directive: "Don't think of an elephant!"

Of course once you've read the directive it's impossible to carry out…and that is the point. In order to purposefully not think of an elephant, you have to think of an elephant. And along with that you automatically and unconsciously think of everything that relates to that elephant. A landslide of context and information erupts -- gray, leathery skin, a winding trunk and massive torso. Throw in a couple of tusks if you like. You might even have some peripheral context including Africa, a zoo, your childhood trips to the circus, peanuts, Dumbo, the GOP, etc. The suggestion of an elephant -- even when directed NOT to think of it -- automatically stimulates a concurrently unmentioned cache of associations that have built in your psyche over the years.

It is these caches of context and associations that our framing hopes to shape using key ideas, keywords, and phrases. From here, we establish a progressive language. Once established, the language we create and use elicits an context of associations that shape how any information is received and interpreted.

The same applies to other, more abstract concepts. An example in the words of George Lakoff:

On the day that George W. Bush took office, the words 'tax relief' started appearing in White House communiqués to the press and in official speeches and reports by conservatives. Let us look in detail at the framing evoked by this term.

The word 'relief' evokes a frame in which there is a blameless Afflicted Person who we identify with and who has some Affliction, some pain or harm that is imposed by some external Cause-of-pain. Relief is the taking away of the pain or harm, and it is brought about by some Reliever-of-pain.

The Relief frame is an instance of a more general Rescue scenario, in which there a Hero (The Reliever-of-pain), a Victim (the Afflicted), a Crime (the Affliction), A Villain (the Cause-of-affliction), and a Rescue (the Pain Relief). The Hero is inherently good, the Villain is evil, and the Victim after the Rescue owes gratitude to the Hero.

The term tax relief evokes all of this and more. Taxes, in this phrase, are the Affliction (the Crime), proponents of taxes are the Causes-of Affliction (the Villains), the taxpayer is the Afflicted Victim, and the proponents of "tax relief" are the Heroes who deserve the taxpayers' gratitude.

Every time the phrase 'tax relief' is used and heard or read by millions of people, the more this view of taxation as an affliction and conservatives as heroes gets reinforced.

Now we're hearing the slogan "Tax relief creates jobs." Looking at the Relief frame, we see that afflictions and pain can be quantified, and there can be more or less relief. By the logic of framing (NOT the logic of economics!), if tax relief creates jobs, then more tax relief creates more jobs. That is just how the president has been arguing for increasing tax cuts from $350 billion to $550 billion. The new frame incorporates the old Tax Relief frame into a new "Tax Relief Creates Jobs" frame

Now suppose that a Senator goes on a Fox News show in which a conservative argues with a liberal. The way these shows work is that the conservative host states an issue using a conservative framing of that issue. The conservative host says: "Some say that more tax relief creates more jobs. You have voted against increased tax relief. Why?"

The Senator is caught. Any attempt to answer the question as asked simply reinforces both the Tax Relief frame and the "Tax Relief Creates Jobs" frame. The question builds in a conservative worldview and false "facts". Even to deny that "tax relief" creates jobs accepts the Tax Relief frame and reinforces the "Tax Relief Creates Jobs" frame.

The only response is to reframe. But you can't do it in a soundbite unless an appropriate progressive language has been built up in advance. With more time, one can bridge to another frame. But that frame has to be comprehensible in advance.

This is the dilemma faced by those who would refute someone with an established framing language. The mere mention of their language, even in refutation, elicits THEIR frame and all of the accompanying associations. At this point your argument is being filtered through their frame. Thus, a primary tenet of framing is that you never use their language. Ever! Even more importantly, we must establish our own language.

In fact, there are 4 basic tenets to framing:

1) Every word evokes a frame. A frame is a conceptual structure used in thinking. The word elephant evokes a frame with an image of an elephant and certain knowledge: an elephant is a large animal (a mammal) with large floppy ears, a trunk that functions like both a nose and a hand, large stump-like legs, and so on.

2) Words defined within a frame evoke the frame. The word trunk, as in the sentence "Sam picked up the peanut with his trunk," evokes the Elephant frame and suggests that "Sam" is the name of an elephant.

3) Negating a frame evokes the frame. Refuting your opponent's argument using his frame (and language) is self-destructive. It causes your arguement to be filtered through your opponent's frame.

4) Evoking a frame reinforces that frame. Every frame is realized in the brain by neural circuitry. Every time a neural circuit is activated, it is strengthened.

The way we create this language is a process unto itself, requiring first that we as progressives know and deeply understand exactly what we stand for.


Quick, name 5 things that progressives stand for.

Uhhhhh...equality, freedom...liberty, justice....and...opportunity?

Okay, now the conservatives, what do you stand for?

1) Smaller Government
2) Lower Taxes
3) Family Values
4) Strong Defense
5) Free Markets

Very good. Now who do you suppose has an easier time getting their message across to the American people in a way that is effective, compelling, meaningful and memorable...i.e. in a way with which the average person can identify? Who do you suppose is more effective at instilling in the electorate, their set of ideological frames -- the bedrock foundation within which all new information will be processed, evaluated, and stored for future use.

Given, not all of you will concede that my response to the 'progressive values' question is valid or fair. Nevertheless, few would argue that the shortlist of progressive values is, at present, far more ambiguous than those of conservatives.

Because of this, conservatives will, over the long haul, be able to present messages and frames in a way with which the average person can identify -- intentionally appealing to that little conservative (perhaps subordinated, perhaps not) in all of us. It is this value-based approach that will win the hearts of the people and in turn, win the battle for the vote. Conservatives have understood for decades that people vote for those with whom they identify. This is a critical concept for progressives to understand because it runs directly counter to the general beliefs that we have held regarding the behavior of the electorate.

Coming out of Denial

I used to be fond of the belief that the 'facts are on our side' and therefore, we have the true advantage since the 'truth shall set us free'. As we progress, you will discover that the truth will only set those free who are willing to accept it. In short, objective truth often takes a distant back seat to a person's established frame.

In fact, Progressives have traditionally fought for the vote based on 4 primary (and mistaken) beliefs:

1) The truth will set you free: We believe that 'if only the people knew the truth' about Bush…or about Republicans... or about the tax structure, etc., then they would change their minds and join us on our progressive quest.

2) People will vote in their self-interest: We believe that if someone lost their job as a result of Bush's policies, or lost benefits from a social program because it was cancelled due to Bush's tax cut to the top 1% of income earners, then they would join us.

3) Political campaigns are like marketing campaigns: We believe (at least our political representation in Washington does) that a campaign should be run like a product is sold. The candidate is the product and the candidate's platform is the product's attributes. Target the attributes to the needs of the 'client' (the electorate) and you will have a successful 'product'.

4) Media access is what we need to retake the nation: Although certainly part of that quest, it is neither its driver nor its primary focus. Indeed, if we promote a compelling message based on our values, then it will be easier to take back the media.

All of these assumptions are wrong. We've been sprinting down this path -- the wrong path -- ignoring the fact that people vote for those with whom they identify often regardless of the 'objective truth', against their 'self interest', regardless of whether the product has the attributes they need, and without regard to the media access of the candidates or their message.

Frames rule over facts!


"A Real Life Encounter with Right-Wing Framing"

I was amazed and shocked, one day, when confronted by a Bush supporter who called me on my support for Kerry, "What does Kerry stand for?"

I whipped off a few platitudes much like those mentioned at the beginning of this primer... with the addition of healthcare for children, a higher minimum wage, and a multilateral approach to foreign policy. I retorted, "What do you think Bush stands for?"

He rattled off the conservative list without a blink of his eye. Immediately, I realized the advantage that conservatives have over progressives in not only head-to-head debate, but also in the all important sphere of public persuasion.

I found it remarkable how he was able to rattle off such a succinct list of sound bites that effectively summarized the primary objectives of the right. Since then, I have seen the list published in multiple places. As far as I know, there is no such talking-point list of value-based goals for the left... until now.

Despite the superficial aura that such a list creates, its practical implications are invaluable.

Once we recognize and define our values, we will be able to summarize them in a further list of objectives that encapsulates those values and presents a solid foundation with which to appeal to the progressive part of each person's psyche. Only then can we move forward with frames (facts, phrases, and anecdotes that communicate a value system and set of principles) with which the average person can willingly identify on both an emotional and intellectual level.

Only then will we truly be prepared to retake the electoral and ideological landscape of America – an endeavor that we can undertake with the confidence and understanding that we move forward in a nation where "American Values" are "Progressive Values". The founding fathers were progressives. The Constitution is progressive. And freedom, liberty, equality, and justice for all are foundational progressive values.


Framing: Primer for a Progressive Revolution

Framing Primer: Part I -- Philosophy and Rational for Framing
Framing Primer: Part II -- The Nurturant Parent Vs. the Strict Father
Framing Primer: Part III -- Techniques, Rules, and Execution
Framing Primer: Part IV -- Strategic and Slippery Slope Inititiatives
Framing Primer: Part V -- Implementation: Respond with 'Value-Based' Answers