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Tweaking Frames for the Mid Terms

Theo Anderson's post, "Just Say What You Want: Will Progressives Ever Pass Political Linguistics 101?" at In These Times covers some familiar ground, but in an interesting way. Anderson's topic is missed framing opportunities on the left, according to the writings of George Lakoff (and touching on the insights of the right's framing wizard Frank Luntz). It seems right on time, as the 2010 political season kicks into high gear, and Anderson does a good job of keeping it current in his lede:

It's easy to imagine Frank Luntz--the baby-faced Republican wordsmith and marketing guru--as a kind of outsize trickster in a political fairy tale. When he comes across words and phrases that don't pack enough punch, or that pose a threat to conservatism, he waves a magic wand and they become rhetorical winners for the GOP. Oil drilling? Poof. Energy exploration! The estate tax? Poof. The death tax! Healthcare reform? Poof. Government takeover of medicine! Global warming? Poof. Climate change! Government eavesdropping? Poof. Electronic intercepts! Riding roughshod over civil liberties? Poof. Tools to combat terrorism!

Ouch. Did he have to remind us? Anderson provides a video clip of Luntz explaining his theories of effective rally signs to Glen Beck. Not to demonize our adversary, but think of it as Satan instructing his younger, dumber brother. Prompting Anderson to ask his readers:

...So the interesting question is, why can't two play this game? Why are Democrats still so pitiful at framing public-policy debates? Why are progressives still talking about government "regulations" rather than, say, "fair-play guarantees"? In the healthcare debate, why was reforming the widely despised insurance industry such a hard sell? Why did Republicans hammer away at bureaucratic "death panels" while Democrats talked about the sleep-inducing "public option."

Anderson answers the question by quoting from a UCBerkeleyNews.com interview with George Lakoff, who explains:

...Conservative foundations give large block grants year after year to their think tanks. They say, 'Here's several million dollars, do what you need to do.' And basically, they build infrastructure, they build TV studios, hire intellectuals, set aside money to buy a lot of books to get them on the best-seller lists, hire research assistants for their intellectuals so they do well on TV, and hire agents to put them on TV. They do all of that. Why? Because the conservative moral system, which I analyzed in "Moral Politics," has as its highest value preserving and defending the "strict father" system itself. And that means building infrastructure. As businessmen, they know how to do this very well.

Meanwhile, liberals' conceptual system of the "nurturant parent" has as its highest value helping individuals who need help. The progressive foundations and donors give their money to a variety of grassroots organizations. They say, 'We're giving you $25,000, but don't waste a penny of it. Make sure it all goes to the cause, don't use it for administration, communication, infrastructure, or career development.'...

Anderson adds "...the fate of Lakoff's think tank doesn't bode well for progressives. It folded in 2008 due to--big surprise--a lack of funding. As the Institute's brief life suggests, progressives haven't yet gotten the message about the importance of framing." Anderson sees an upside ahead:

The good news is that there's plenty of material to work with, if we ever find the money and the will. "Big government" is responsible for so many things that Americans love--parks, libraries, free education through high school, subsidized higher education, roads, Social Security, drinkable water--the list goes on. Why not figure out ways to frame that fact with some political and marketing savvy? It will be difficult after 30 years of aggressive anti-government animus from the right. But it can be done.

Anderson forgets that the progressive left has done a better job of fund-raising in recent years, but his call to invest more in framing resources makes sense. He quotes a challenge from a chapter called "Talking Democracy" in Frances Moore Lappe's recent book, Getting a Grip 2: Clarity, Creativity and Courage for the World We Really Want :

..."A big piece of the challenge is disciplining ourselves to find and use words that convey a new frame, one that spreads a sense of possibility and helps people see emerging signs of Living Democracy."...Some of her suggestions for using better words to create this new frame? Empowered citizen instead of activist. Pro-conscience instead of pro-choice. Public protections instead of regulation. Fair-opportunity state instead of welfare state. Corporation-favoring trade instead of free trade. Global corporate control instead of globalization.

Dems do have a lot more to worry about in the months ahead, from the BP spill to high unemployment. But it can't hurt to give a little more thought to how we project our concerns and the Republicans' culpability.