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Tuesday, October 28, 2003

Frame Up

A number of readers have written to me today asking if I’m familiar with George Lakoff, whom Atrios points to in this interesting interview, because I discuss this kind of thing quite a bit here on Hullabaloo. As these guys guessed, I’ve read much of his work and have been very influenced by it. He is completely correct, in my view, about the immense power of framing issues with language and image and his ideas about candidates as “identities” is right on the money.

If I have a beef with Lakoff it’s that the one frame he’s most known for --- the Republican “strict father” and the Democrat “nurturing parent” --- is one of the most unfortunate metaphors for the progressive cause that I can imagine.

It’s not that he’s wrong in his analysis, it’s that he’s used the wrong terms to frame it. (Yep. You heard me. I hereby accept the 2003 Shameless Intellectual Arrogance Award. Thank you very much.)

I don’t think it’s a very good frame to begin with because it isn’t honest. Let’s not pretend that the real frame isn’t “strict father” vs “nurturing mother.” The frame doesn't really make sense otherwise. And, rightly or wrongly, this frame makes the tension gender based, and in doing so it defines progressive leadership as female leadership, something that is an indistinct and still evolving archetypal image. This puts progressives at a disadvantage because people don't immediately associate women with public leadership just yet. That will, of course, come to pass in the not too distant future (I hope.) But framing isn't a matter for wish fulfillment. To work, it must be immediately recognizable. The fact that Lakoff didn’t use the obvious "father-mother" construction indicates to me that knew that this was a problem.

I do not mean to condemn him completely for the fact that his framework is being used to give Republicans an advantage. He has never suggested that Democrats use this as a campaign slogan or even a public identity and yet I read people all the time who think that this “nurturing parent/mother” image is a winning one for the Democrats. I think that it informs a lot of thinking about what issues on which the Democrats should run even when the political environment makes those issues far less salient than others, regardless of what polls say people care about. And, just because we are the “nurturing parent” party does not mean that the way to win elections is to pretend that the only problems worth addressing are those that can be solved with nurturing --- or that nurturing can solve every problem.

Lakoff says that the progressive worldview is:

“Children are born good; parents can make them better. Nurturing involves empathy, and the responsibility to take care of oneself and others for whom we are responsible. On a larger scale, specific policies follow, such as governmental protection in form of a social safety net and government regulation, universal education (to ensure competence, fairness), civil liberties and equal treatment (fairness and freedom), accountability (derived from trust), public service (from responsibility), open government (from open communication), and the promotion of an economy that benefits all and functions to promote these values.”

The conservative worldview, the strict father model, assumes that the world is dangerous and difficult and that children are born bad and must be made good. The strict father is the moral authority who supports and defends the family, tells his wife what to do, and teaches his kids right from wrong. The only way to do that is through painful discipline — physical punishment that by adulthood will become internal discipline. The good people are the disciplined people. Once grown, the self-reliant, disciplined children are on their own. Those children who remain dependent (who were spoiled, overly willful, or recalcitrant) should be forced to undergo further discipline or be cut free with no support to face the discipline of the outside world.

I believe that this is all true. But, I don’t like the “strict” and “nurturing” characterizations any more than I like the “Father” and ”Mother” dichotomy.

If it is necessary to frame the political divide in family terms, I might have done it as “rigid parents” vs. “conscientious parents.” The analysis remains the same, but the words don’t imply character traits that people automatically associate with strong vs weak leadership, but rather they connote negative vs positive leadership.

The word “strict” does imply discipline but self-discipline is valued by most people, even if cruel methods to attain it are not. And the word strict does not, as Lakoff seems to say, necessarily correlate to abuse and heartlessness in most people's minds. “Rigid” on the other hand, implies narrow mindedness and inability to admit error along with a severe, uncompromising temperment.

The word “nurturing” does exactly what Lakoff admonishes the Democrats to stop doing, which is play into the GOP framework. The right has been framing the left and right for many years as the "nanny state" vs "individual freedom." "Nurturing parent" and "nanny state" are too closely related. “Conscientious”, however, encompasses all the empathetic qualities that Lakoff ascribes to the left, but also implies a willingness to react with strength where necessary. A conscientious parent responds to hostile threats as well as well as cries for help.

Both traits are equally masculine and feminine, so there is no archetypal leadership image associated with them.

From a tactical communications standpoint, it is very important for the left to acknowledge that Lakoff is telling us that our current method of framing ourselves is as flawed as the way the other side frames us. (Indeed, I’ve just argued that the master himself has made a major error.) But, even if I agreed with his framework, it would still not be useful to merely parrot it and assume that it is a good tactical framework merely because Lakoff himself is a progressive. The point of all this is to frame issues in such a way as to persuade the undecideds and apathetic and at least some members of the opposition to agree with our side of the argument. That means we have to stop preaching to the choir all the time.

And framing alone is not enough. We also have to take into account certain realities about how people arrive at political decisions these days. It’s my observation that they rely on simplistic symbolism and image more than they have in the past, mostly because of the pervasiveness of the shallow celebrity culture and television's position as the epicenter of the American community. (I’ll elaborate on that in a later post.)

As Lakoff says in the article:

In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it's in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn't have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what's right and wrong, and he's going to take it to the people. He's not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he's going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.

I think this is right on the money. Schwarzenegger’s campaign rested solely on his scripted action-hero persona. In fact, this may be the first election in which all pretense of substance was completely abandoned in favor of purely manufactured Hollywood symbolism. The “crisis” that precipitated the recall wasn’t real, the ensuing voter “anger” wasn’t real and the winning candidate wasn’t real. The entire narrative was scripted as a loose form reality TV show in which the drama was pushed and prodded by the “producers” even though the outcome wasn’t preordained. It was “real” in the same way that “Survivor” is real.

As Lakoff rightly points out, this stuff is important and the Democrats are just not getting with the program. The other side is doing it with a tremendous amount of sophistication and almost unlimited financial backing. California is the most populated state in the nation and if it can happen here, a Democratic state, it can happen nationally. In fact, in many ways, election 2000 was an early version.

Meanwhile, many on our side seem to believe that there is something distasteful about framing issues and using symbolism and metaphor to win elections as if being unable to govern honestly is the natural consequence of using these communication techniques. This is wrong.

It is only a method to get our ideas across and make the American public see our candidates in a way they are comfortable with. There is no reason that politicians must be vapid in order that their campaigns and issues are communicated through positive framing, metaphor and symbolism. It’s just that the Republicans have such geeky, unpleasant politicians and policies that they have no choice but to pick people like manufactured movie stars or dynastic restoration figures as their symbols and then destroy the opposition with ruthless character assassination.

Here’s a little example of framing that worked for the Democrats. As much as any position on issues or rhetorical brilliance, Bill Clinton, for all of his wonkish intellect, won in 1992 mostly because he symbolized the changing of the guard from the WWII generation to the baby boom. The cold war was over; the boomers were middle aged and ready to take power. There were two important symbolic moments in that campaign, both of which Clinton seemed to instinctively grasp and where his natural gifts as a politician served him well.

The first was when he played “Heartbreak Hotel” on the sax with his shades on, an unprecedented act of post-modern presidential media coolness. The other was showing the footage at the convention of John F. Kennedy shaking a 17 year old Bill Clinton’s hand – an almost literal passing of the torch from the guy who inspired the baby boomers with an inaugural speech in which he said “the torch has been passed to a new generation.” It was brilliant. Clinton understood his historical moment and framed that election as Young vs Old, Change vs Stasis and he used his own quintessential baby boomer narrative (and all that that entailed, good and bad) to make that case.

The task for Democrats in 2004 is to recognize this historical moment and muster all the tools at our disposal to frame this election in our favor and nominate the most qualified candidate whose image and personal narrative best serves as a metaphor for the current zeitgeist.

I’d be very interested in hearing any ideas out there as to how people think their preferred candidate and this election generally should be framed, and what images, symbols and metaphors might be used to advance our cause. (I’m interested in long term solutions but since I believe that this election is critical, I think it's important to focus on that first.)

Any thoughts?