Saturday, September 20, 2008


I finally finished Framing the Future: How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People, four months after the author led a training for candidates at work this summer. (For some odd reason, I kept falling asleep at my work desk while trying to read it....)

Having read George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant almost four years ago (it was the book that catapulted Lakoff from linguistic, nerdy obscurity into the mainstream political spotlight) and having had to attend many work-related trainings on the concept of issue "framing" as well as re-reading articles for a policy class last spring, there was nothing conceptually new in Horn's book. What was different was that he relied on polls and surveys to test frames, which was fascinating.

The idea of framing is, to be blunt, that words are loaded. For better or worse, like it or not, certain words carry certain images and convey specific wordviews (or frames). Everybody knows the "illegal alien" versus "undocumented worker" frames -- each phrase conveys a different ideology. ("Illegal" lumps people with murderers and rapists, "alien" makes them "not one of us"; "undocumented" calls attention to the paperwork, and "worker" on the fact that individuals are both working as well as, well, hired by someone...) But my favorite example is the conservative "death tax" versus the progressive "estate tax." It's not hard to figure out how those words affect voters.

Conservatives have mastered the art of framing; progressives have not, sadly. For the past five years, it's been drilled into my head that using the Other Side's frames does nothing but reinforce the Opposing Viewpoint. (So anytime anyone's ever said "gay marriage" I've always responded with "marriage equality" or "equal marriage rights" or "marriage for same-sex couples" ... if nobody's ever noticed...) Lakoff as the cognitive linguist goes into detail how frames determine the starting point for all political discourse; Horn backs it up with survey data to show how many Americans will run off and vote for politicians that oppose their values, based on how an issue is presented. Framing the Debate is specifically geared to persuading the "moveable middle" voters.

A cynical person might think that framing is just another attempt at political spin, but it's not. The vast right wing network has been honing the craft of framing for almost thirty years now, to the point where frames that were deliberately constructed to further one political agenda have entered the mainstream vocabulary (see "partial birth"). The values, as Horn points out, stay the same; it's the language that changes.

Horn's three frames are freedom, security, and opportunity. Every issue can be framed according to these values -- frequently all of them, depending on the goal. Three years ago, after the Washington State Supreme Court smacked down our challenge to the state DOMA, one recourse for same-sex couples was domestic partnerships. The first few weeks of the legislative session after the ruling, our framing around the bill was one of freedom: LGBT Americans work hard and serve their country, and should have the right to basic benefits that the government only gives to married straight couples. Then, as it became obvious that the "denial of rights" argument worked with some legislators and constituents but not others, the framing switched: LGBT familes and their children deserve basic protections in order to remain stable and healthy. That's the frame that worked, and the bill passed. Both frames are true, but only one persuaded enough elected officials and members of the public at that time.

I like how Horn ends his book, by saying framing is just one of many, many tools in a progressive activist's kit. There's still a lot of organizing and hard work, not just talking to do!

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