Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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November 30, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

FRAMING....After my less than enthusiastic review of George Lakoff's Don't Think of an Elephant, David Brodwin of the Rockridge Institute emailed to suggest that my post had been unclear about the difference between framing and message crafting. It's a fair point. For the record, framing is the creation of the deep, underlying ideas that support a particular point of view, while message crafting is the creation of snappy public arguments that take advantage of the overall framing and help to sell it further.

As it happens, despite my criticism of Lakoff I don't have a lot of brilliant ideas of my own along these lines, which is kind of a bummer. However, it occurs to me that a couple of historical examples might serve both to illuminate the framing/messaging idea and to cheer up despondent liberals. You see, although conservatives seem to own both the framing and sloganeering market these days, exemplified by catchy phrases like "tax relief" and "partial birth abortion," we liberals used to be pretty good at this stuff too.

Example #1: In the late 1940s, a subject of considerable public discussion was "the Negro problem." As a slogan, this wasn't very catchy at all, and as framing it downright sucked. It (a) limited the issue to Negroes, (b) portrayed it negatively as a "problem," and (c) even managed to imply that perhaps it was actually Negroes themselves who were at least partially at fault for this problem.

In the late 40s, though, liberals managed to get the press and public to stop talking about the Negro problem and instead start talking about civil rights. It's not just that this was a better (and less threatening) phrase though it was but that it reflected a change in the underlying terms of the debate. Rather than being an issue limited only to Negroes, it was now everyone's concern. And it wasn't just an inchoate "problem," it was a specific issue of rights that needed to be fought for. The change in framing made it an issue of fundamental fairness, regardless of what you personally thought of Negroes, and it also provided a very specific goal to fight for.

Example #2: In the early 60s, old people were....old people. Or the "elderly." There was nothing really wrong with that, but if your goal was to expand Social Security and create Medicare, you needed something better.

The answer was to relabel the elderly as "senior citizens." It's an odd phrase, although we're all used to it these days, but its purpose was a serious one: to portray the elderly as literally senior to the rest of us. Wiser and more deserving than young people, certainly, and with a lifetime of hard labor behind them. And it worked.

There are a couple of lessons here: first, liberals can reframe with the best of them. Second, that catchy phrases only work if there's some substance behind them. Garbage collectors can call themselves "sanitation engineers" all day long, but this title change never caught on in public discourse in fact, it's mostly been a cause for late night TV jokes. Why? Because nobody buys the framing behind it, namely that these folks are highly trained professionals just like the guys who build suspension bridges.

This is why so many seemingly nice catchphrases are foolish: because they're trying to create a frame that simply doesn't exist and has little chance of ever existing. Ford can spend billions telling us that "Quality is Job 1," but it's not going to work unless there's some real evidence that Ford cars are genuinely higher in quality than others. There has to be a significant kernel of truth behind the message in order for it to work.

So that's the challenge for liberals: not just to reframe issues to our advantage, but to reframe them in ways that people are likely to accept. It's a tough job, but the more people who are working on it the more likely we are to trip across stuff that works. The answers are out there.

Kevin Drum 1:15 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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