July 18, 2005

Framing is a force that gives us meaning

The long article in Sunday's New York Times Magazine is about Democrats' new consciousness of and use of framing. Framing has to do with the way in which information is presented. It is a concept developed by the cognitive linguist and, now, political strategist George Lakoff. Lakoff's research argues that when the human brain processes ideas and language, it does not treat and evaluate each as an isolated piece of data on its own merit, but it views them through frames, i.e. biases and preconceptions that are hardwired into the neural networks of the brain (certainly by information previously encountered, likely also by genetics). If a piece of information is presented to a person in a way agreeable to their neural framework, the person is likely to accept the information. If it's presented in a way that conflicts with their previous experience (of what's good, profitable, right), the person will likely reject it. But presentation is key, and an idea presented in different ways may have very different results.

I posted before about Lakoff months ago, after I read "Don't Think of an Elephant!", his primer on framing in politics. Matt Bai's article does a good job tracing Lakoff's meteoric rise on Capitol Hill and treating the belief in framing as panacea for Democratic woes with a healthy dose of skepticism. The possibility the article considers is that Democrats' problems run deeper than language, and that their recent successes on social security and Terri Schiavo are due more to party discipline, not a common language.

Bai rightly points to Lakoff's own proposal for a 10-word summary of Democratic principles as a sign that Dems lack more than just the mots justs:
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.

Bai's tendency throughout the article, however, is to put language and ideas in a stark dichotomy. This is where he goes wrong, I believe. The process of framing is not a matter of cloaking arbitrary concepts in deliberately chosen, appealing rhetoric. Framing is an active exercise that makes one think about what exactly the values and policies expressed in the language are. Lakoff himself says his 10-word party identity is just a suggested starting point, and that it will take years for Democrats to fully develop their approach. He believes Democrats badly need to launch new and comprehensive policy initiatives (a counterpart to the "Contract with America") to live up to the rhetoric. In Don't Think of an Elephant! he specifically champions the "New Apollo Program" of investing in alternative energy as Democrats' (and America's) great opportunity of the era.

My concern is not so much defending Lakoff as highlighting how potentially useful the idea of framing is. A huge part of Republicans' ascendancy in the past few decades has been their attentiveness to the power of language ("Tax relief," "Constitutional Option," "Death Tax") and the importance of coordinating ALL their communication around a single party line. It's kind of frightening, and the discipline becomes repetitive as hell, but it works. Science tells us so. Sound science. Plus, thinking about how to frame our ideas will help us refine our ideas. It's as simple as that.

So, anyone got a better 10-word summary for the Democratic Party? Cons, here's your chance to really shine.


  1. "Plus, thinking about how to frame our ideas will help us refine our ideas."

    That's the key. First, Democrats have to have ideas with which they agree that will resonate with a majority or a large plurality of voters. Certainly Gingrich's 'Contract' was a brilliant piece of marketing, but I contend that the success of the program was that it adopted a short list of positive objectives with which most Americans agreed. Secondly, it was quick. Some involved changing the House rules on day 1, then a series of bills within the first 100 days.

    Americans as a group are upbeat, postitive thinkers. If the ideas don't resonate, you can frame all day long and accomplish nothing..

    I think you said it well: "The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place."

    But I think you attribute too much to slogans like "death tax." The basic unfairness of the tax is the key, and combine that with an aging and fairly affluent population and you have a idea with legs.

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  3. [Had some errors with the last post, so its been deleted and reprinted here]

    How about social justice for domestic policy? That's an over-arching philosophy that encompasses just about every democratic mainstay: progressive taxation, guaranteed health care, affirmative action, gay marriage, higher minimum wages, etc.

    You could frame all those policies in a message of fairness and justice that appeals to the very heart of Americanism: is it fair that someone can work 40 hours a week and still not make enough to live? Is it just that being born poor is tantamount to a life-long sentence of poverty? On and on. That puts Dems in the position to use the language of ecumenical values.

    I'm also working on a post about answering Republican positions within their framing, i.e. on their terms. For example, you can craft a nice argument for a somewhat left-of-center abortion policy in terms of individuality and personal responsibility, two hardcore Republican values.

  4. The tax issue is something that needs to be framed against Bush, but it's difficult to do so because fbb is right: Americans prefer tax cuts. I think this brings up an issue that both Lakoff and Bai ignore. By successfully boiling down nuanced political philosophies to a few key phrases, Republicans (and now Democrats given the enthusiasm for such a platform) have created a country in which we get our news by scanning the headlines and understand issues according to the adjective that precedes 'Option.' Some issues are more complex than this. It takes a few full sentences, for example, to explain that cutting taxes and raisilng spending accrues mounting debt that has to be paid back.

    It'd be nice if Democrats could use rhetorical tricks to fool people into voting for us and then fix the country once we are in power. More fundamental changes, however, are going to need to occur.