Framing, Shmaming: New phenomenon is just the same old double talk

Posted: Aug 03, 2005 12:00 AM

“Dean, former governor of neighboring Vermont and a Democratic presidential candidate in 2004, said Romney has ‘changed his position two or three times on fundamental issues, like a woman's right to make up her own mind on her health care; fundamental issues like whether we respect all citizens or only some of them.’”

Howard Dean’s shopworn line is an example of what Democrats today call “framing.”  Forget for a moment that Dean’s frame is nearly incomprehensible.  Framing is supposed to revolutionize Democrat political communication. And forget that Democrats have tried to make abortion a healthcare issue, as opposed to a moral issue, for decades.  Framing is supposed to be something new.  If you listen to the adherents of framing and its admirers in the pundit class, framing is the final key to unlocking the door to the long-promised Democrat majority. 

Well, not really.  Chairman Dean’s jumbled utterances are real-time proof political communication should be left to experts, not those whose idea of effective outreach includes shouting over the next guy. (If you’re still confused, Dean was “framing” abortion and gay marriage.)

So what is framing?  Well, it’s what we used to call “spin.”  But it’s more, too.  It’s the putative brainchild of Berkeley linguist George Lakoff.  Lakoff’s theory, spelled out in his bestselling book Don’t Think of an Elephant, is that Americans perceive words, metaphors, and ideas through innate filters that cause them either to accept or reject political communication based on what they already accept to be true or false.  Lakoff and his growing league of disciples – which includes Dean and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, among others – believe if Democrats can just learn to frame key issues in the right language, they’ll never have to live through another 2004.

Lakoff’s theory is hardly revolutionary, however.  Indeed, it’s really more of a tautology than a theory.  It is self-evident that people process information through pre-existing paradigms and prejudices.  Moreover, Democrats have couched their ideas in favorable language for decades.  President Bill Clinton, for example, was a master at getting folks to see the world as he wanted them to see it.  Of course, Clinton’s communications skills set a high bar.  But that doesn’t mean other Democrats haven’t tried to frame the public debate.  Does anyone believe Al Gore’s “risky scheme” and John Kerry’s “Stronger at home, respected abroad” were anything other than market-tested slogans?

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