Sunday, October 16, 2011

Framing The Message

What's said is just as important as how it's 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.

Message frames are the shorthand context that set a specific train of thought in motion, communicating why an issue might be a problem, who or what might be responsible for it, and what should be done about it.

Audiences rely on frames to make sense of and discuss an issue; journalists use frames to craft interesting and appealing news reports; policymakers apply frames to define policy options and reach decisions; and experts employ frames to simplify technical details and make them persuasive. The most effective frames touch the emotional, rather than the intellectual, part of our brain.

In his book, "The Political Brain: The Role of Emotion in Deciding the Fate of the Nation," Drew Westen says there is overwhelming evidence that three emotional frames determine how people vote, in this order: their feelings toward the parties and their principles, their feelings toward the candidates, and, if they haven't decided by then, their feelings toward the candidates' policy positions.

Dr. Westen, professor of psychology and psychiatry at Emory University, says that elections are decided in the marketplace of emotions, a marketplace filled with values, images, analogies, moral sentiments, and moving oratory, in which logic plays only a supporting role.

He says a hierarchy of goals should guide every campaign that reflect the hierarchy of influences on electoral success.

The first goal transcends any given candidate: to define the party and its principles in a way that is emotionally compelling and tells a coherent story of what its members believe in—and to define the other party and its values in ways that undermine its capacity to resonate emotionally with voters. This is the first goal of any campaign because the way voters experience the party is the first influence on the way they will experience the candidate.

The second goal of an effective campaign is to maximize positive and minimize negative feelings toward its own candidate, and to encourage the opposite set of feelings toward his or her opponent. The most important feelings are gut-level feelings, from global emotional reactions (e.g., "I like this person") to more specific feelings (e.g., "She makes me proud to be an American").

The third goal of a campaign is to manage feelings toward the candidates' personal characteristics. This goal is related to the previous one, although emotional associations tend to hold more sway with voters than judgments about a candidate's particular traits (as Clinton's global approval ratings even after his impeachment demonstrate). In general, the goal is to convince voters that your candidate is trustworthy, competent, empathic, and capable of strong leadership, and to raise doubts about the opposition along one or more of these dimensions.

The fourth goal of a campaign is to manage positive and negative feelings toward the candidates' policies and positions. This goal is not only fourth but a distant fourth. And it is higher still than the more "rational" goal of presenting voters with cogent arguments for a set of policy prescriptions. These arguments tend to influence behavior at the polling booth, if at all, to the extent that they engender positive or negative feelings toward the candidates.

This hierarchy may seem obvious, but it has been remarkably opaque to many Democratic strategists for the better part of three decades.

Democrats have instead insisted on starting at the bottom of the hierarchy, practicing what might be called trickle-up politics. Trickle-up politics is the theory of electoral success associated with the dispassionate vision of the mind. It assumes that voting decisions trickle up from voters' rational assessments of specific policies, and that these specific assessments additively create an overall judgment of the expected utility of electing one candidate or the other.

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 frames political discourse by coining emotion charged phrases like ‘family values,‘ ‘death tax,’ and ‘Obama death panels' to frame the ensuing policy discussion. Those framing phrases are then distributed 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.

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