Patrick Hynes

Instead of revolutionizing political communication, Lakoff’s take on framing might well lead to its continued degradation.  In Don’t Think of an Elephant, Lakoff writes, “This gives us a basic principle of framing, for when you are arguing against the other side: Do not use their language.  Their language picks out a frame and it won’t be the frame you want.”  One result finds public officials engaged in parallel conversations.  Witness the torturous efforts to define the word “crisis” in the early stages of the Social Security debate. 

Some of Lakoff’s recommendations smack of the absurd parodies of political correctness that were all the rage in the 1990s.  You know, using “gravity challenged American” instead of “fat guy,” and so forth.  Lakoff believes Democrats should refer to “trial lawyers” as “public protection attorneys” and “taxes” as “user fees.”  You can see where Howard Dean gets it.

Worse, many of Lakoff’s insights are pure pap.  “I took the various positions of the conservative side and on the progressive side and I said, ‘let’s put them through the metaphor from the opposite direction and sees what comes out,’” he writes.  “I put in two different views of the nation, and out popped two different models of the family:  a strict father family and a nurturant [sic] parent family.  You know which is which.”  I can’t believe anyone takes this seriously.  The “Daddy Party versus the Mommy Party” dichotomy has been a standard of armchair political experts for decades.  Yet Lakoff has convinced the most powerful Democrats in the country that he has conjured up a powerful new metaphor.

Democrats already attribute two victories to framing.  The first is Social Security.  By framing President Bush as a callous rich guy who wants to cut benefits for seniors, the story goes, they have left his private accounts reform plan in a lifeless heap.  No doubt the Democrats have done a masterful job at obstructing reform, but framing had nothing to do with it.  Instead, Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Harry Reid employed time-tested political devices that will be around long after the framing fad dies: lies and demagoguery.  There has never been a time in Social Security’s sixty-five years of existence in which Democrats did not accuse Republicans of wanting to cut benefits and dismantle America’s government retirement program.  Again, nothing new here.

The second alleged victory regards the issue of judicial filibusters.  Democrats believe by framing the judicial fight within the context of separation of powers, they brought Republicans to the bargaining table and forced upon them the judicial compromise of late-May.  Truth be told, however, neither party was thrilled about the outcome of the compromise.  Moreover, the judicial filibusters contributed to the Democrats’ loss of six U.S. Senate seats in four years, including the South Dakota seat once held by their party’s leader.  If this is the consequence of Democrat framing, Republicans should be thrilled the idea is catching on.

Here’s a frame for you to consider:  imagine a huckster selling snake oil from the back of his pick-up truck …

Patrick Hynes is a political consultant and the co-author of the book How to Write Copy that Gets Votes.  He is the proprietor of the website

Patrick Hynes

Patrick Hynes is the president of New Media Strategics, a blog relations consultancy. He is the proprietor of Ankle Biting Pundits and the author of In Defense of the Religious Right (Nelson Current).

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