Sunday, January 16, 2011

Seven Democratic Message Frames

Op-Ed: Sudhir Joshi

I am an average Democratic voter in Texas. When I watch the news and political talk shows, I notice that the language has decidedly turned to the advantage of Republicans. That is because what is said is just as important as how it is said when it comes to influencing voters. Just as framing a picture focuses attention on what is enclosed within that frame, framing a message focuses a reader's or listener's attention on the idea within the frame.

A sizable body of research supports the notion that emotion often plays a central role in impacting individuals’ political decision-making processes. It is not surprising, then, that conservative political organizations and candidates seek to influence opinion and garner public support by using the emotion of fear to frame public debate on a range of political issues to shape media and public opinion. Conservative operatives, like Frank Luntz and Alex Castellanos, have skillfully framed Republican talking points to end Social Security, block health insurance industry reform, block financial industry reforms, and much more.

The conservative message factory coins phrases like ‘family values,‘ ‘death tax,’ and ‘Obama death panels’ and then distributes them throughout the Republican messaging channels to be parroted non-stop by Republican operatives, candidates and pundits, starting with Rush Limbaugh and Glen Beck. These framed conservative messages permeate the national dialog on TV and, eventually, the national media concludes America is a center-right nation. For example, most media pundits consistently repeat the conservative talking point that raising taxes will kill job creation, even though historical experience shows the exact opposite; After the TV viewing pubic hears such framed conservative messages often enough, they begin to accept them as fact.

Why does the subtle conservative message framing work? Because people are busy. They have kids to raise, mortgages to pay, and so on. Very few people research key political issues to any depth. They make their decision based on their surface knowledge of issues. And their surface knowledge of issues is very much affected by the language used by traditional media journalists and pundits who simply parrot the carefully framed conservative talking points.

If the Democrats are going to make a comeback in the 2012 election, we must stop letting Republicans frame every issue message to their advantage. Democrats must start framing messages with the same skill as conservative operatives like Frank Lutz to successfully compete in the debate of ideas.

So here are some suggestions on phrases Democrats should use consistently in 2011:
“Bush-Debt” With the rise of the Tea Party, the national debate has shifted to how we can reduce the growing US debt. However, the Republicans have successfully removed from the discussion that they created the debt. George Bush was handed an annual surplus by Bill Clinton. The National Debt Clock in New York was running backwards as the debt was being reduced each year. With a conservative, ‘fiscally responsible’ Republican majority in both the House and Senate for his first six years, George Bush promptly eliminated the annual surplus created the largest debt in US history.

So the next time someone says, ‘we’ve got to do something about the national debt and get our country back, ‘your response should be, ‘Yes, the Bush-debt is a major problem.’

“Government Responsibilities” If you watch political talk shows discuss the Bush-debt, the conversation immediately turns to what to do about ‘entitlements.’ Entitlements refer to Social Security and Medicare. Entitlements make the issue sound like the government is giving out charity. It is not! Social Security and Medicare are paid for payroll taxes. The benefits are not charity. They are earned by recipient and a contract of the federal government.

I don’t know about you but when I go to Starbuck and pay for a latte, I want what I paid for – a latte. When I put money in the bank at an agreed upon interest rate, I expect to get paid the interest owed to me. And, when I pay Social Security payroll taxes for over 50 years of my working life, I expect the benefits promised to me. It is not an ‘entitlement.’ It’s a contract. It’s a “Government Responsibility.”

So the next time some says, “we need to do something about entitlements.’ Your response should be, “The US government must honor its responsibilities to its citizens.”

”Global Defense Burden” Staying on the discussion of the Bush-debt, one item that is rarely discussed is the defense budget. The US spends more on defense than all other countries combined. Do we really need that much defense? Do we really need bases in Germany and Japan anymore? Do we really need over a dozen types of jet fighters?

We cannot let the discussion of the Bush-debt be only about changing government obligations. We also need to add the defense budget to the discussion. For that we need to refer to it as the ‘Global Defense Burden.’ Why should the US police the world at our expense while other countries do not contribute. The US defense budget is $623B. The next largest budget, according to the CIA is China at $65B – one-tenth the size of the US. Do we really need 10 times the defense of China?

So the next time some says, “we need to do something about debt.’ Your response should be, “One place we can start to reduce the Bush-debt is by reducing our global defense burden.”

“World Trade Center Attacks in 2001” Related to the topic of defense are the attacks on the World Trade Center on 9/11/01. If you took a poll of what year the attacks on the World Trade Center occurred, I imaging many people would guess wrong. This is because we use the phrase 9/11 to describe the date of those attacks. The problem with using the phrase, “9/11” is that the year is forgotten. So psychologically, it seems they occurred more recently than they really did. This allows the Republicans to continue to scare us into thinking we need more defense spending than we really do.

So the next time someone says, “we’ve got make sure we don’t have another 9/11;’ your response should be, “We’ve been at war for 9 years since the World Trade Center attacks in 2001 and Obama bin Laden is still free. We’ve got to try a different approach.”

“Party of the Rich” During a light office discussion once, I mentioned that I’m a Democrat – a rarity in the suburb I live in. I got the strangest response. The lady said, “So you want everything for free?” Now there is so much wrong with that statement but there’s not enough room to write about it here. But it shows the impact of language in the media on the perceptions of a gullible public. Republicans have successfully labeled Democrats as ‘tax and spend liberals who support handouts (entitlements).’ We need to re-label the Republican party the same way. The Republican’s are the party for the wealthy, not the every day working person. Their recent move to stop all Senate activities until the richest 600 families got a tax break proves it.

So the next time someone says, “I’m Republican are you?” Your response should be, “No, I’m not a member of the party that takes from the average working person and gives it to the ultra-rich -- I’m a Democrat.

Yeah right, and there’s WMD in Iraq” We all know that the Republican Party simply makes up carefully framed messages and consistently repeats them to attack the character of their opponent. Some recent examples are the ads Mike Huckabee is running to repeal the Health Care Reform act. Huckabee’s ads parrot the Republican claim that the Health Care Act was written, ‘behind closed doors’ and no one was allowed to read it’s ‘2500 pages.’ Of course that’s not true. Other examples are the swift-boat ads regarding John Kerry and constant claims that Obama was not born in the US by the ‘birthers.’ Republicans hope to send the national talk shows off in these tangential issues so that public can be fooled into not discussing real issues and the Republican Party’s record. It works and we’ve got to stop them from doing it. Just point out it’s a lie by bringing back memories of the biggest deception in recent history.

So the next time some says, “Obama isn’t qualified to be president because he wasn’t born in the US,” respond, “Yeah right, and Pres. Bush started a $1 trillion war claiming there were WMD's in Iraq and that was also a false claim. But right now, let’s discuss the real issue why you think we can reduce the Bush-debt and reduce taxes at the same time.”

Ignore and talk about the issues: This is not a phrase but a linguistic tactic. I read once that Al Franken sent a copy of his book, ”Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them” to Rush Limbaugh to comment on his TV show. Rush had a TV show at that time. Rush never commented on it and never mentioned it. That was smart.

In contrast, Democrats and the media comment on every controversial thing that Sarah Palin, Rush Limbaugh, Bill O’Reilly, and Fox New do. This plays right into the hands of the Republican Party because the more we discuss the made up, but well framed, Republican talking points the more people are exposed to the right’s ideology and some buy into their lies. Sometimes, the best thing to do is to completely ignore the opposition.
So the next time some says, “What do you think of Glen Beck?” Your response should be, “Let’s discuss how to stop corporations from exporting jobs overseas and getting America back to work.”

Let’s win back the language frame and the Congress in 2012.

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