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Frame This by Leighton Woodhouse

by Leighton Woodhouse

It was sometime during 2002 that the name "George Lakoff" started coming up from time to time on my local NPR station, in a handful of book reviews, and in other sources of political and academic chatter. I remember being heartened at the time to learn that some creative thinking was finally coming out of our side of the aisle. After all, by the time that "Moral Politics" was in its second printing, two years of Republican rule had been preceded by eight years of a Democratic presidency whose brand of progressive innovation followed the formula: Take one part Latest Republican Policy Initiative, add one part water. In spite of the fact that I was, and remain, seriously skeptical of the claim that political dispositions can be boiled down to whether your parents were nice to you or not, and slightly dubious of the notion that "frames" are literally built into the structure of your brain, it was quite a relief to hear that at least we were starting to move our party's conversation away from choosing which core Democratic value to butcher this week to pick up two percentage points in the Sunbelt suburbs.

Lately, however, I've been following the growing celebrity of George Lakoff with dismay. The man has some interesting ideas, to be sure, and in the narrow field of professional political wordsmiths, they deserve a good deal of attention. But I'm starting to get the sense that Democratic rank-and-filers, desperate for a beacon to follow to victory in '06 and '08, are beginning to regard his advice as The Answer To All Our Problems. To hear a lot of progressives talk about Lakoff, you'd think that we were just handed some sort of secret decoder ring that unlocks the secrets of the other side, and now it's just a matter of deciphering Frank Luntz's talking points, breaking the code and using it for the powers of good. In the imagination of a good number of Lakoff devotees, the two-party system is nothing but a massive Skinner Box, and winning political campaigns is just a matter of knowing all the right buzzwords that trigger some primitive response mechanism that makes voters reach for either the lever marked "Republican" ("Tax relief!" Bzzt!) or "Democrat" ("Right to marry!" Bzzt!). Is this what behavioral scientists see when they look at the world?

The first practical problem with taking Lakoff's advice too seriously is that, frankly, rank-and-file Democrats have little to no power to institute it. We can all agree that the next time the Republicans start talking about tax cuts, our side should talk about the wealthy sharing the obligation to pay our "patriotic dues." But unless the DNC starts mass emailing draft proofs of its talking points and swing state ad scripts for our review, it really doesn't matter what we think.

"Well," you may reply, "we could always band together and demand that our representatives start using more effective frames," and that's absolutely true. But that brings me to my next point: We didn't lose the 2004 election because we used the wrong catch phrases, and we wouldn't have won it if John Kerry had read "Don't Think of an Elephant." We lost the 2004 election for a complex array of reasons, among them: a weak candidate, an unclear national security plank, a reactive field strategy, African-American voter disenfranchisement, the decades-long demise of organized labor, over-reliance on overpriced and out-of-touch consultants, and a host of other problems. Any one of these factors will require our banding together and demanding things of our representatives; do we really want to top our list with the request that they start saying "Right-wing power grab" repeatedly every time they have a microphone in front of them? Is this really the biggest fish we have to fry?

The second problem with taking Lakoff's advice too seriously is the converse of the first: Lakoff lets us off too easily. Lakoff's message is quite easy for rank-and-file Democrats to stomach, because it lays all the blame on the campaign professionals and none of it on things that regular people can and must do  something about. As much as I sympathize with the sentiment – the Kerry campaign was horrendous – I reject the notion that campaigns belong to the consultants' to win or to lose, and that we have nothing to do with it. Armchair quarterbacking is as easy as it is useless; fortunately, unlike professional football, in party politics we can do more than sit around and be spectators. This is our party, we're the ones who suffer from its defeat, and it's thus our responsibility to build the basis for its success. The answer to our party's woes is not to yell at the coaches, or to get Bob Shrum to do better focus group tests on the "frames" he chooses.

Solutions require a lot more hard work on our part. Poor framing doesn't even begin to describe the degree of the Democratic Party's disrepair. If I were to point to a single, paramount cause of the Democratic Party's decades-long decline, it would be the decimation of the labor movement in an era of free market globalization. Unions were once the institutional backbone of progressive political engagement; in 35 years, their representation has been reduced from nearly a third to less than 13% of the workforce, and they have to fight hard to keep their own members from voting Republican.  Moreover, their decline has coincided with the rise of evangelical churches as the institutional backbone of conservative Republicans.

Again, the 2004 election, like the 2000 one, was decided by a dizzying array of factors, but chief among the reasons for the steady rise of the GOP since the 1960s is the fact that the Republicans have developed a strong foundation of enduring institutions that has brought conservative activists together in person, molded their common values into strong ideological convictions and clear political objectives, and put them to action on the ground. Politics is merely the formal exercise and expression of the power that religious conservatives have accumulated over years of organizing themselves into a coherent movement with a single voice. The institutions they have built to accomplish that feat include not only the network of evangelical churches, but the constellation of self-help groups, magazines and newspapers, rock bands, summer camps, political action committees and so forth that orbit around it. It is this type of grassroots foundation that is missing from our party, and that is our task to re-create if we hope to win elections in the future without compromising the values that separate us from the party of Ann Coulter and James Dobson. Juggling synonyms will do nothing to accomplish that task. Politics may exist in our heads, but it also exists in the world, and we're losing in both arenas.

Posted by Charlene Johnston on May 23, 2005 at 08:11 PM | Permalink


Sorry for the delay -- technical problems. Charlene had to post this for me, but I'm responsible for the content. -Leighton

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 8:16:37 PM

Great post Leighton.

I find the pro-framing/anti-framing argument fascinating.

People seem to have a strong opinion one way or the other.

Framing is not the saving grace for Dems, nor is it Satan in disguise.

It is a tool that we can use to express ourselves in a more effective way.

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:21:30 PM

Haven't seen much of the anti-framing argument, to be honest. Hopefully this wouldn't be interpreted as belonging to that camp; I think the idea is interesting and probably effective, but of limited value. It worries me that GL is becoming something of a guru. So I think we're in agreement.

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 8:24:27 PM

Haven't seen much of the anti-framing argument, to be honest.

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 08:24 PM

You havn't been on the DFA Blog lately...there are anti-framing people there.

I like your post because it says framing is a good thing, but not the *only* thing.

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:28:42 PM

So, what do you think of the fillibuster deal?

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:31:58 PM

I just heard the news from Charlene, to tell you the truth, so I haven't had time to investigate it. What's the story?

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 8:33:18 PM

WASHINGTON - Averting a showdown, 14 centrists from both parties in the Senate reached agreement Monday night on a compromise that clears the way for confirmation votes on many of President Bush's stalled judicial nominees, leaves others in limbo and preserves venerable Senate filibuster rules.

"In a Senate that is increasingly polarized, the bipartisan center held," said Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn.

“The Senate is back in business,” echoed Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C.

“We have reached an agreement ... to pull the institution back from a precipice … that would have had damaging impact on the institution,” said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at a news conference where the agreement was announced.

Officials from both parties said the agreement would clear the way for yes or no votes on some of Bush’s nominees but make no guarantee.

Under the agreement, Democrats would pledge not to filibuster any of Bush’s future appeals court or Supreme Court nominees except in “extraordinary circumstances.”

For their part, Republicans agreed not to support an attempt to strip Democrats of their right to block votes.

The two-page memorandum of agreement said it is “based upon mutual trust and confidence.”

Under the terms, Democrats would agree to oppose any attempt to filibuster — and thus block final votes — on the confirmation of Priscilla Owen, Janice Rogers Brown and William Pryor. There is “no commitment to vote for or against” the filibuster against two other conservative nominees, Henry Saad and William Myers.

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:36:19 PM

Sorry for delay getting here; I was trying to clean up the initial mess that I made of Leighton's post. : )

Leighton, thanks so much for this thoughtful post. I remember highlighting almost all of Lakoff's book and watching videos of him, thinking I'm doing it all wrong...no wonder I'm not changing folks opinions.

Unfortunately, it's been difficult to turn this old dog's tricks and the result is I shy away from trying to convince anybody of my view. This has been frustrating for me. You might be giving me a way out.

By the way, you forgot to list stolen votes as a reason for us losing the election. ; )

We might have trouble getting traffic today. The filibuster news conference ended only a few minutes ago so people may have been tied to their t.v. instead of to their computers for a change. : ) The good news for me is that I don't have to go and filibuster in Boston tomorrow now. I was busy recruiting people today to join me.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 8:37:04 PM

The good news for me is that I don't have to go and filibuster in Boston tomorrow now. I was busy recruiting people today to join me.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 08:37 PM

There's 2 planned in VT. I wonder if they will just cancl them...

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:42:21 PM

I'm in agreement with Jessica. I took your post as framing is a good tool but it isn't the end all. GL does a good job of keeping it simple which is what most of our political gurus don't do; this has made it even more appealing. Plus, we recognize that the Bush admin has been great at using this tool and we now get why it works for them. I used to think that Healthy Forests and Clear Skies was so obvious that people wouldn't buy into it. Not.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 8:42:33 PM

No problem.

I just read Reid's statement on the deal. I think the lasting value of the whole episode will be that people got to see a glimpse of what a "moderate" like Bill Frist looks like when the party closes ranks.

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 8:42:49 PM

I'm overbooked this week, so, unless, they provide a compelling reason that I should still go out in the rain and do it, I'm not going to the filibuster.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 8:44:19 PM

Leighton, I know that you've had lots of experience getting people to stop being armchair quarterbacks and get out and make a difference in elections.

What do you consider to be your most effective argument to get someone involved?

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 8:46:23 PM

GL does a good job of keeping it simple

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 08:42 PM

You think so? It doesn't seem that simple to me...

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:47:41 PM

I think the most effective ask is the big ask. A lot of organizations nowadays custom-tailor their asks to members to make them as convenient as possible -- after work, just takes an hour, we've got the web tools to make it really easy, etc. I understand the concern, but I think those kind of asks are really easy to ignore. I ignore them every day. Surprisingly, people are much more receptive to calls to action that ask a lot more of them, that actually demand a real sacrifice.

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 8:53:05 PM

Simple in that you can understand it within 5 minutes of video enough to recognize it happening everywhere. The difficult part is retraining your brain to speak in a way that goes against your own framework.

I think it's like any other change of habits; you have to practice, practice, practice. Problem is that takes time!

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 8:55:59 PM

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 08:53 PM

Really??? I think it's very difficult to get people to make major commitments and follow through on them. Advise?

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 8:58:14 PM

When I worked for SEIU, I was given the advice to follow a formula called "AHUY." Sounds silly, but it's effective:

A: Anger - appeal to people's sense of injustice
H: Hope - offer them a vision of how it can be rectified
U: Urgency - convey the importance of acting now
Y: You - give them a specific role they can play right away

Posted by: Leighton Woodhouse | May 23, 2005 9:03:21 PM

Interesting concept, Leighton. The big ask vs. the little ask or more appropriately the sacrifice ask vs. the convenience ask.

This could be one of my issues; I'm always asking folks for just a little help so that I don't scare them away. If I transfer your philosophy to my work environment, I see that you're right in many instances. If I ask a junior engineer to do one small task within a large project and give them no background on why it is necessary, they have no buyin to the project and lack enthusiasm. If I explain the project to them and why their task is important, I get more buyin but may still not have enthusiasm shown. The best results are generally if I give them a larger task within the project and outline for them how to accomplish it.

However, if I ask an extremely busy Engineer to do a task, it better be very specific and ready to go; otherwise, it will sit.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 9:04:07 PM

I gotta go. Catch ya later.

Posted by: Jessica | May 23, 2005 9:09:56 PM

How many major commitments can, does the average person commit too?

Civic Duty

But I agree,
to make things easy means that your cause is not that important because you need 'gimmicks'to convince me.
The idea, the cause itself is not convincing enough.

Posted by: Rm | May 23, 2005 9:11:21 PM

LOL. I must be "framing" the ask wrong, because I think I use AHUY wrong. I'm always getting people angry, telling them there is another way, giving them something they can do to improve the situation (though most of them are too cynical to believe in my hopeful statement), while expressing a sense of urgency.

How come they aren't knocking down my door to hellp? My one great volunteer moved away. : (

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 9:11:37 PM

Most folks I work with seem to commit to work, family, golf and t.v. time. They all think I'm nuts for all of my involvement. I have to admit that I am probably diluting my asks in that I'm involved in too many orgs, so they hear asks from me on a wide range of issues. I'm getting better at figuring out what appeals to who and selecting my asks based on the individual's likes.

Posted by: Charlene | May 23, 2005 9:16:14 PM

Getting people angry is counter productive.
You appeal to their emotions.
The problems with emotions is that most of them don't last very long.
And re-igniting them is very exhausting.

I guess nothing is easy, most things take time and endurance.

Posted by: Rm | May 23, 2005 9:27:49 PM

When I checked in last night at 7:30 pm EST, I didn't see this blog? Yet it appears to have happened much earlier. That makes me wonder...
Anyway, I'll make this short. I know now that there's only so many hours in a day, days in a week, etc. So, I pick the role towards change that fits. As most of you already know for me that's teaching, teaching, teaching. When I see my students go off with more knowledge and the ability to express that knowledge - and challenge, question and debate the issues, I've done what I can do best. They will begin looking at issues critically, be willing to speak out, and won't be afraid to be part of committees, groups or organizations that bring about informed decisions that benefit all. You can see it in their eyes, and hear it in their voices - but most of all their smiles. This is the future we work for.

Posted by: Bob | May 24, 2005 4:55:09 PM

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