Monday, August 27, 2012

Framing the Democratic Message

by Michael Handley

At the west Texas summit of Democratic County and Precinct Chairs last Saturday, Bill Brannon, Executive Director of the Texas Democratic Party, told the gathering of Democrats they must stand up boldly and actively counter Republican message frames. He said Democrats can win the hearts and minds of voters by explaining to them that Democratic values are the values that built a strong America and Texas, and they are the values shared by all Texans.

Brannon said Democrats must make an effort to frame policy arguments in a positive context that speak to the core values held by most Texans. Brannon told the gathering of Texas Democrats they must no longer silently accept GOP message frames, like Democrats support "big government tax and spend" programs, such as road building projects. He said Democrats must learn to counter-frame such GOP rhetoric by explaining to fellow Texans that building roads is "an investment in America's and Texas' future."

"We built this country together. We built railroads and highways; the Hoover Dam, the Golden Gate Bridge together. We sent my grandfather's generation to college on the G.I. Bill together. We instituted minimum wage and safety laws together. Together, we touched the surface of the moon, unlocked the mystery of the atom, connected the world through our own science and imagination. We did these things together not because they benefited any particular individual group, but because they made us all richer. Because they gave us all opportunity. Because they moved us forward together as one people, as one nation." ~~~ Barack Obama

Voters cast their ballots for what they believe is morally right, for the things that make moral sense to them. Yet Democrats too often fail to use language that links, or frames, a moral values position with their issue policy.

Language always comes with what is called "framing." Every word is defined relative to a conceptual framework. If you use a word like "revolt," that implies a population that is being taxed unfairly, or assumes it is being taxed unfairly. That's a frame. Then, if you add the word "voter" in front of "revolt," you get a metaphorical frame saying that the voters are oppressed by big government tax and spend programs.

This video was shot, edited and posted on YouTube by one of the guests of a Warren campaign "meet and greet" stop last summer in Andover, Massachusetts. The video was initially passed person to person in Massachusetts through online social networks, but the video quickly went viral nationally and then moved into the mainstream media.

Former White House financial reform adviser Elizabeth Warren, who is running for the U.S. Senate seat from Massachusetts, blasts Republicans for accusing Democrats of engaging in "class warfare" by saying everyone, including millionaires and billionaires, should pay their fair share of taxes.

“There is nobody in this country who got rich on his own,” Warren says in the clip, “Nobody.”

She shoots down the notion that the wealthy owe nothing back to society by pointing out that entrepreneurs and business owners rely on publicly built and maintained roads and bridges as well as a vast array of other public services like public education, law enforcement and fire fighting services.

Warren explains that everyone paying their fair share is part of the American “social contract” to give back to the society that has given them so much:

“You built a factory out there? Good for you.

But I want to be clear: you moved your goods to market on the roads the rest of us paid for; you hired workers the rest of us paid to educate; you were safe in your factory because of police forces and fire forces that the rest of us paid for.

You didn’t have to worry that marauding bands would come and seize everything at your factory, and hire someone to protect against this, because of the work the rest of us did.

Now look, you built a factory and it turned into something terrific, or a great idea? God bless. Keep a big hunk of it. But part of the underlying social contract is you take a hunk of that and pay forward for the next kid who comes along.”

George Lakoff's and Elisabeth Wehling’s, The Little Blue Book: The Essential Guide to Thinking and Talking Democratic, gives advice on how Democrats can better connect with voters, with advice for discussing the most pressing issues of our time: the economy, health care, women’s issues, energy and environmental policy, education, food policy, and more.

Lakoff and Wehling write that in politics, the highest frames are moral frames. The reason is that all politics is moral: political leaders propose policies because they are right – not because they are wrong or don’t matter. All policies, therefore, have a moral basis.

Facts and logic do matter. Democratic policies should fit empirical facts. Facts and logic do matter in politics, but they exist in moral contexts, or frames. To persuade people to support Democratic candidates or policies, Democrats must persuade voters that they share their moral values. But Democrats too often focus on detailed explanations of cold facts and figures without first framing the related policy issues in a moral context more readily understood by most voters.

As Lakoff and Wehling write:

The central issue of our time is what kind of country America is and ought to be, that is, what system of values should govern us. First, we must understand that all politics is moral: every political leader says to us that we should do what he or she recommends because it’s right, not because it’s wrong or doesn’t matter. And today our politics is governed by two very different views of what is right and wrong.

The progressive view, mostly in the Democratic Party, is that democracy depends on citizens caring about each other and taking responsibility both for themselves and for others.

Conservatives hold the opposite view: that democracy exists to provide citizens with the maximum liberty to pursue their self-interest with little or no commitment to the interests of others.

Each moral worldview comes with a set of frames on the issues. By frames, we mean structures of ideas that we use to understand the world. Because all politics is morally framed, all policy is also morally framed, and thus the choice of any particular policy frame is a moral choice. Americans are now faced with two sets of moral choices, each leading the nation in opposite directions.

The Democratic framework should be "cooperation." We do not want to win as Democrats but to win for all Americans, not merely an elite few. We abhor polarization. We do think of America as a family. We do believe we have to work together. We do conceive of the common good as something that benefits the country as a whole. We do want people of all religions and of no religion to live in harmony. We prefer to have people exercise their own religious consciences, rather than being coerced by a dominant religious group. We do believe in diplomacy first in all international relations. We do think that security comes from making friends and not from making enemies.

"We're in this together" is our big idea. "Let's talk it over" is our motto. "The common good" is our goal.

People vote their moral identity, they don't just vote on the facts, and Democrats must understand that. Democrats must learn how to correctly frame the conversation for their side of the public debate on which moral path the nation should follow. Then Democrats must learn how to combine Internet-based (social media) communication channels with traditional organizing activities to engage the public in that conversation!

George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including Don’t Think of an Elephant and Moral Politics. Elisabeth Wehling is a Ph.D candidate at the University of California, Berkeley and earned her master’s degree in communication psychology at Hamburg University. In addition to her research, she writes and consults on German and European politics.

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