Sunday, November 07, 2004

reframing the debate

Jeff forwarded me an article from The Texas Observer (November 5, 2004) called, "Frame Wars." Here are some excerpts from that article (also linked above), and my thoughts that follow.


The basic building blocks of political communication are "frames" (as Lakoff calls them) or "context" (to use Luntz's word) . . .

The most important resource that politicians have. . . is the ways in which people understand the world. Their values. Their worldviews. (Lakoff adds to this: their brains.) If you tap into those values, inform them, tweak them, focus and reflect those values back at an electorate—that’s the way to win power . . .

As long as liberals and progressives insist that having the facts on their side is all that matters, they are doomed to impotence. The next move for the left in the frame war is to accept that it’s okay to cherry-pick reality as long as it conforms to a frame that’s morally acceptable. According to Lakoff, we already do it every day . . .

How can progressives respond? They have to figure out what they believe and then put words to it. “When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas,” Lakoff writes in Don’t Think of an Elephant. “Ideas come in the form of frames. When the frames are there, the words come readily.” The frames for progressives to use to counter the “ownership society” will probably reflect how they value fairness, accountability, and opportunity. What words and images they use won’t mention those values explicitly; they’ll evoke them, and make them seem like the only values worth having . . .


People want to recognize themselves in their leaders, and through frames, leaders can reflect the public's values back at them. What's interesting is that Conservatives have been communicating in frames for decades. The article refers to "The Cold War" and "The War on Terror"--"war" being a word that evokes moral triumph, sacrifice, and honor. It's important to note that people don't want conflicting views reflected. Confusion isn't a good selling point. Apparently that's why "The War on Terror" was so much more effective in garnering support than "terrorism being a nuisance" (Kerry's stated goal for the direction of the war). What does that mean anyway--a nuisance? The article suggests it opens up the debate to all the complexities, but leaves them unexplained. The key lies in keeping frames simple so that fewer people can reject them.

That's probably why "and God bless America" is such a popular closing. Evokes those values, and who can criticize a blessing, really. You can try, but you won't win. That's the point.

I buy Lakoff and Luntz's claim one-hundred percent. I'm one of those people for whom it's perfectly okay to walk into all multiplicities of meaning. It's invigorating because that's where the mental work takes place. But like the rest of the world, I want to find the heart of what matters. If I come out empty-handed, I too feel impotent.

I've also found that when trying to talk about some personal issue, being able to say it in one line is always better than writing a treatise. Folksy can be the wisest way sometimes, but intellectuals miss that.

The most worthwhile bit of Lakoff's advice is this: "[We] have to figure out what we believe and then put words to it. 'When you think you just lack words, what you really lack are ideas.'" Dems are certainly not as at-ease with this because we don't like to define for everyone. We don't like to generalize and stereotype. I just had a little eighteen year old in one of my classes (who claims there is nothing wrong with pornography--can you say left wing?) drop her jaw when I had the class break down the ethnicity of a magazine's readership the other day--as if there's injustice inherent within grouping individuals. We're certainly flawed. We get carried away. But that's off-track.

What are our values? And it's not "tax and spend." What is it that we believe? I heard it when Barak Obama spoke, "We are The United States of America." I hear it in M.L.K's artistry: "We shall overcome . . . Let freedom ring." J.F.K. set us straight too, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country." Every one of us fits within these phrases. We can get behind them. We've got to be uniters, not dividers. Conservatives are simply better at this.

Collective responsibility, people, it's my new frame. I want to use the church's goals as my own, because they are my own. The church takes care. The church is concerned about the welfare of those less fortunate. The church teaches us to be better. Those Evangelicals and Mormons don't have a brand on it. I want it too. "Democrats for Jesus." C'mon. (Yes, I like Muslims and Buddhists, and Agnostics, and Kabbalists too, but you're missing the point. That frame isn't ever going to win. It's too wordy. It's actually a perfect retort by Conservatives. See, the Democrats want to be all things to all people and don't even know who they are.)

Thursday, November 04, 2004

the election

Hello friends. You know, yesterday didn't go my way after all. It was painful to me on a personal level. I listened to some good music, CDs my brother had made for me, "The John Kerry Mix" and "The John Edwards Mix." He packed about twenty songs on each, some political, "What if We All Stopped Paying Taxes," by Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings, some emotional, "The Art Teacher," by Rufus Wainwright, the pure beauty of notes fat with longing. So I listened to these on my way to Willie Lee Gay Hall in the south part of town. When you step outside your car there you get a view across a pasture of Reliant Stadium and old AstroWorld rides. That view gives me peace for some reason. I'm in the country, but the city is near. I can breathe full breaths, but the pace is quick just over there.

At certain moments during the listening I teared up. The government, the people, it's all personal for me, as it is for many. It has hit me hard that the majority of folks only want Republicans--the House of Representatives, the Senate, the presidency, and from them comes forth more Rs in judicial seats. The margins aren't slim anymore. Republican agendas can pass without filibusters I heard someone say on CNN yesterday (referring to some specific bill that was blocked last time around). It makes me think of drilling in the arctic, of slowing scientific research, and of political decisions made to garner the economic well being not only of the first family, but of the president's "base," those in the money.

I care about the underdog. I don't believe in looking out for yourself pretty much most of the time, getting ahead, and protecting your own interests. I know a lot of people do. There's merit in self-sufficiency, certainly. But the interests of others shouldn't be neglected while you strive for success. Does that mean we should give to the poor? A complex ethical question, does giving to an individual in need create a dependency that ultimately causes more damage? On a societal level, though, it is a spirit of collective responsibility that we should be breeding rather than one of individual strength. When we are collectively tied and involved, we are well. When we divide with an "I've got to take care of mine" attitude, we are unwell.

To me, the distinction between being a Democrat or a Republican lies here--I am a Democrat because of my compassion for others. And yet, all of these conservative folks see Democrats as the ones who've lost their values, who want to damage the moral conscience of our society. This dichotomy in perception troubles me, especially after seeing a sea of red across a map of The United States painted on Rockefeller Center's ice yesterday.

I went to a Methodist church in Montrose a few weeks back. Those of you who know Houston may chuckle at what I found there, but I didn't have a clue before I went. The congregation was about 90% gay male. I've passed church signs lately that read, "All are welcome." And in my classes we've been talking (at my prompting) about whether or not it's okay to discriminate in certain circumstances, directing it at topical issues of gay marriage and adoptions by gay couples. Religion is a tricky thing. One of my students quoted a bible verse about man being inherently evil. And then Jesus is the ultimate example of peace and love and selflessness. So which is it? Are we evil or are we good?

It's not as simple as all that, but I do think we fall more to one side than the other. Is it wrong to be gay? Is it wrong to be Muslim? If you tell someone they are wrong for being who they are, then you eat away some of your own peace, which is what we are supposed to be striving for. I prefer the Jesus model over the vengeful God. Compassion isn't selective. It just is. My Democratic friends and I know this, but the rest of the country doesn't seem to. Goodwill, acceptance, taking care--these are my Democratic values. There's no danger here. Acceptance may be scary because you have to let go of control. Rigidity becomes fluid. Things happen, but it's okay. Change happens, but it's okay.