New Frames for Progressive Discourse
January 31, 2011
I misspoke. When I called Grover Norquist a “spin doctor” in the first installment of Lingua Progressiva, I was being lazy. The guy is a “framing genius.” The point is, framing precedes effective policy. Spin is always post-policy.
The influence of language on the mindset and heartset of the receiver is the underpinning of opinion. The frequency of hearing/reading the same message with the same language may be of equal import to the words chosen. We are all experts in how this works.
A LITTLE TEST OF WORD EFFECTIVENESS AND FREQUENCY
Match the brand with the descriptor words. When you see the words in column A, they immediately bring a product or company from column B to mind:
COLUMN A COLUMN B
A. It’s everywhere you want to be. 1. IMAX
B. A mind is a terrible thing to waste. 2. VOLKSWAGON
C. Solutions for a small planet 3. HARLEY DAVIDSON
D. Have it your way. 4. WALMART
E. Good to the last drop. 5. UNITED NEGRO COLLEGE FUND
F. Think small 6. PLAYSTATION
G. Think big. 7. AJAX
H. A diamond is forever. 8. IBM
I. Buy it. Sell it. Love it. 9. DEBEERS
J. Save Money. Live Better. 10. NIKE
K. Live in your world. Play in ours. 11. MAXWELL HOUSE
L. Finger lickin’ good. 12. CLAIROL
M. American by birth. Rebel by choice. 13. BURGER KING
N. Fly the friendly sky 14. VISA
O. Reach out and touch someone. 15. M&M
P. Keeps going and going and going. 16. AT&T
Q. Just do it. 17. KENTUCKY FRIED CHICKEN
R. Does she… or doesn’t she? 18. UNITED AIRLINES
S. Stronger than dirt. 19. EBAY
T. Melts in your mouth, not in your hand. 20. ENERGIZER
Come on. Do you really need an Answers Box? Anyone who does, please ask; but don’t abandon your life of meditative prayer for peace in the world. We need you. The rest of us, however, watch a lot of TV. We totally know how this works.
Some of these globally recognized and trusted brands have been using the same “tag line” to describe their product for over fifty years (M&M’s & Ajax) while the newcomers who understand how it works are brilliantly up to the same game (IMAX, PlayStation). During the time I worked for MTV Networks in New York, a.k.a. my corporate years, we learned that memorable branding language couldn’t just be spot on. It had to be embraced fully for the long run and repeated for years and years. And years.
[After we dubbed VH1 the “Greatest Hits of Music Video,” we stuck with it for five years. It wasn’t “The Real Thing” by a longshot, but it got the job done. We kept at it much to the increasing dismay of the creative people in the On Air Promo department, who were good & sick of hearing it after six months.]
I’m not suggesting that the Progressives or Conservatives need tag lines. These commercial-populist examples show how deeply the master communicators understand a truth: that finding the right words and phrases, and disseminating them with extreme frequency from multiple reliable sources is akin to fashioning and using the code key leading directly into the minds of the listeners.
Add to this the power of owning the frame, and having your opponent use your frame, and you’ve begun to understand the Power Game the conservatives have mastered.
Let’s look at a few examples that show how the frames within our political discourse continue to fog up the national lens. And let’s play with some alternatives while we’re at it.
LANGUAGE PLUS CREDIBLE SPEAKER PLUS REPETITION
If we hear “economic crisis” enough times, from credible speakers, we begin to believe there’s something endemic wrong with our economic system. But what if we called it the “greed crisis?” Perhaps too many people at the top of the income pile want more. Perhaps too many in the middle want to make their way to the tippy top, and have it all? Let’s fix the greed crisis, people, and see how our economy responds.
How about someone like Alan Greenspan or Jane Goodall standing up to say, “The greed crisis and the ecological crisis are the same crisis. They are both caused by three equal factors: first, the underestimation of risk, second, the privatization of profit, and third, the socialization of loss.”1
Sounds right? Go ahead, fill in the facts for the Greenspan/Goodall fantasy statement above. If we ran with it, the national discussion might move from (1) the too-big-to-fail blame game to real reforms in banking and on Wall St., and (2) global-warming-or-not blah blah blah to crystal clear global policy.
Merely shifting the frame from “economic crisis” to “greed crisis” could bring immediate results for progressives. If enough of us pick it up. And run with it. And never answer a question about our “economic crisis” with the words “economic crisis.” (ex. “I agree we have a crisis in the management of our national treasure. But let’s call it the “greed crisis” because it springs from a lack of balance between need and …)
And what about “tax breaks?” Everybody wants one. George Lakoff suggests we call it “Public Theft” instead. What if we framed the unfair tax codes anew? What if whenever we express an opinion, or question a policy that the press or the conservatives refer to as “tax breaks” or “tax cuts,” we talk about “deliberate raiding of the public treasure,” and “stealing through loopholes” and “appropriating vis a vis earmarks?” Wait a minute. That last one is what we call it. If every time the conservatives cry about keeping the Bush tax cuts—does anyone else remember how he pitched these as “temporary”?—the progressives respond with “public theft of our national treasure,” I think the tone of the discussion might change. And eventually, some hearts and minds may change as well.
SANCTIONED PUBLIC THEFT
Try this one on. With corporate public theft written into the tax code, we the people are donating our tax dollars to pay for business perks. How’s that? Corporations all deduct their expenses from their taxable revenue as the cost of doing business. Business expenses from first class travel, super-size lunches and huge offices to the computer I’m working on right now, my cable bill and 1/8th of my household utilities are tax deductions, paid for by the average Joe. Thanks guys. The system is rigged to favor the powerful. And, apparently, me.
Remember our rallying cry: taxation with representation. We live in America. We each have the freedom to pay our fair share for necessities.Nevertheless, most tax cuts involve money being transferred from poorer people to richer people.
Why do the poor and middle class vote for candidates who will give their money to the rich, money that would otherwise pay for their necessities? One reason is the dice are loaded when the debate is framed. People don’t vote for “giving money to rich folks.” They vote against gay marriage. They vote against a woman’s right to make a painful life decision without interference from Big Brother. And in small part, the discussion has been framed to their “someday…” as in, “Someday, I’ll be rich enough to get these breaks.” Perhaps neither the not-so-wealthy nor the wealthy need to be unfairly taxed. [Triple negative = extra points.] Meanwhile, the money just keeps trickling up.Bill Clinton. You know this guy. I trust this guy. “I’m very worried,” he wrote this week, “that the majority party in the House seems to believe that the most important public policy we can possibly have is… giving me another tax cut. …To pretend that the only thing that matters is to keep taxes as low as possible and, in the process, strangle the government… defies all evidence.” It just doesn’t add up. Part of paying down the deficit has to be regaining the operating inclome from those lobbtist’s outdated wet dream corporate “Exit Here” signs for a quick exit around U.S. Route IRS 1099 Filing.
"PROFIT” PLUS “SHARING?"
Yes. Here again, we are, in 2011. Largely over the last decade, the rich have gotten a lot richer, and the poor much poorer. You’ve all seen the Office of Management and Budget reports about the top 1% or fewer of us personally owning and directing most of America’s money. Lots of us believe this is wrong, way wrong.
Lots of us believe that markets in a democracy have an ethical and an economic function. Working people who produce goods and services should be paid in line with profits and profitability. Middle class salaries have not gone up in 30 years. Take that, you top 1%ers.
This huge discrepancy in wealth is a danger to democracy. Concentration of wealth to the few means unfair access to scarce resources. Concentration of wealth to the very few means restricted access to necessities for many. It also results in grossly unfair distribution of power over the media and over the political process. If you want to be convinced, read Alexander Hamilton. Or watch Rupert Murdoch’s “news to confuse.”
STEP BACK AND LOOK AGAIN
We spend so much time in the trenches of political absolutism, it’s a very good idea to step out of the realm of the far left or far right, the blackest nights and brightest whites of It, and see all the shades of gray along with all the colors—deep, pastel, fluorescent, earthy, psychedelic and faded colors—around us. I don’t think we’re meant to stay stuck inside the dueling duality of Progressivism—featuring mutual respect and encouragement, versus Conservatism—the home of pragmatic self-interest. I think we’re supposed to step out into the bigger picture.
Maybe it isn’t that one side is supposed to win. Perhaps they aren’t even meant to compete against one another. Perhaps Progressivism and Conservatism are two frames meant to complement one another. Perhaps together, we the people who see things from such different frames can come together to fight the forces of evil.
Yes, evil. The machine that knows no ethical bounds, that owes none but its directors and shareholders: the influence over our peaceful methods and goals wielded by the American military-industrial-congressional complex.
Next week, Dwight David Eisenhower (no, really this time) education & “public servants.” Plus the “both – and” paradigm.
1 Thanks again to George Lakoff, who probably sees me* as Juli “RipOff” Davidson. I am paraphrasing him with incredible frequency. If I thought you’d read him (please, read him) I’d never have written this. I’d never hit “post” on tumblr. [*Wow. Wouldn’t it be great if he saw this blog? Please forward my link to Mr. Lakoff if he’s anywhere near your Friend’s List.]
2 Also send link to George Hickenlooper, Michael Bennett, Diana DeGette, John Phillip Newell, Harry Booth, George Allen, Jane Goodall, Bill & Hilary Rodham Clinton and Barack & Michelle Robinson Obama.