Notes on a Theory…

Thoughts on politics, law, & social science

Why is Framing So Misunderstood?: The Distorting Lens of Democracy

with 3 comments

There has been a lot of attention in progressive circles about framing, but because of the way we tend to think and talk about politics, framing itself is poorly understood. Our standard frame of politics is steeped in a particular view of the US constitutional system – American democracy. This view places two party electoral politics at the center, sees formal decision making (without attending to the boundaries of what’s possible) as the only thing of significance in politics, and includes a sharp distinction between the economy and politics, or markets and government. This view is a hindrance to progressive politics, I believe, because it is confuses a way of justifying a state of affairs (legitimation) with a way of making senses of a state of affairs.

What does this have to do with framing? When you use this politics-as-democracy lens to make sense of politics, you overestimate the role of elections, of formal decisions, and the role of individuals.  (I’ve referred to this idea that individual choice manifests itself in an unmediated fashion in politics and policy as ‘democratic efficiency’.)  As a results, the central (only?) drivers in politics appear to be 1) voting and 2) public opinion.  Given that, framing must be (it is inconceivable to think of it any other way) about changing the minds of voters usually in an unmediated fashion (i.e. presidential speeches producing shifts in public opinion, campaign tactics producing electoral majorities). Framing is about communication, only.

The problem is that this does not fit with the arguments of those who talk about framing.  To take George Lakoff as a prime example–his field  is cognitive linguistics, he has helped found the interdisciplinary field of cognitive studies, his books all reference thinking or the mind (Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, The Political Mind: A Cognitive Scientist’s Guide to Your Brain, Don’t Think of an Elephant!: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision).

Framing, then, is first and foremost about being clearer with ourselves about what we stand for. It’s about being clearer about what unites us, and what divides us from our ideological opponents.  This is necessary to build stronger coalitions, form longer term plans, and decide what things we want to push for, and it requires not just talking differently but building a progressive infrastructure to develop better frames and embed them in our institutions.  It’s about recapturing the confidence those on the left had in the post-Great Depression period that our approach is better than then alternative and more appealing. (This sort of confidence is something conservatives have built in the wake of the Civil Rights and it remains a key strength for their movement).  It’s about finding things that unite our side and divide or weaken the other side. It’s about mobilizing your own supporters and demobilizing* resistance.

Even so, some might think these things will involve persuasion. Certainly, any discussion of rhetoric will implicate persuasion, but the important thing to remember here is that people are ambivalent.  We listen to, or participate in, elite discourse, we organize our own thinking around liberal-conservative ideology, talk about opinion polls revealing beliefs.  But most regular people are not engaged with this discourse, don’t organize their thinking on a lib-con spectrum, and have more complex views than can be captured by a single poll question. Lakoff suggests that most people have progressive and conservative frames available to them, that many of us can actively use both frames, but that conservatives have been far more successful at activating conservative frames.  This means that even self-professed liberals / progressives often argue within conservative frames rather than challenging them. The issue is less convincing people to abandon a strongly held consistent position than activating one way of thinking over another.

Most people who study and talk about American politics don’t think like this.  They think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1.  As a result, talk of framing (and for that matter, organizing) sounds like naive gibberish.  Or in some cases, it means people who want to use framing but don’t understand it speak naive gibberish, thinking that if we could only get the right sound bite it would turn the tide, something Lakoff has always rejected.  I suspect part of the reason is that those who focus on framing haven’t really challenged the politics-as-democracy frame or recognized the way it distorts these discussions.

*It doesn’t mean putting barriers in the way of participation. I object to that on principle regardless of the context.

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Written by David Kaib

June 21, 2012 at 12:45 pm

3 Responses

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  1. The politics-as-democracy concept is new to me and interesting. Right, Democracy is so much more than just politics. Politics is a game we play to get what we want. Democracy is a system of gov’t. But we have a representative Democracy. We elect people to govern us. I think that accounts for the magnification of electoral politics, generally. Specifically, it is the mistake the Dems keep making. Dems play politics as Democracy.

    You say framing is about being clearer about what unites us and what divides us from our ideological opponents. I totally agree. Then you say, “Most people …think about the importance of getting 50% plus 1…” I think that’s what the Dems do wrong. The Dems think too much about electoral politics, specifically winning at electoral politics, and winning at votes in Congress. The Dems need to do more of taking stands on issues – educating the public on our point of view.

    Only people who have an interest in, or an understanding of policy – e.g. financial regulation, the farm bill – will separate the issues from the electoral politics. Isn’t this where educating the public and framing come in?

    The Dems don’t take firm stands on issues because it might alienate the “swing” voters. The Dems don’t risk losing votes in Congress because, I don’t know, what, it upsets egos, or some perception of power, or, you know, it might upset Obama’s chances of winning reelection? Anyway, since the Dems don’t take firm stands, they forfeit any opportunities to educate the public. Meanwhile the GOP takes firm stands and captures the hearts and minds. The Dems need to stop being afraid to lose. Lose one, but win the next two.

    We could research this and I think find plenty of excellent examples to bring this point home. Anyway, this is what I think.

    Michele Kelly

    June 22, 2012 at 10:33 am

  2. Michele.you’re right, when I said ‘most people,’ I misspoke. It’s true Republicans don’t typically make this mistake, while Democrats do, which is part of my point.

    As far as the point about swing voters go, I am of two minds. First is that Democratic officials mistakenly believe that there is a large segment of swing voters (there isn’t) and that voters will choose the party that hews closest to the voters own laundry list of policy positions (they don’t). This is certainly the way the media presents it, and a lot of non-officials seem to buy into it. Indeed, it’s necessary to believe that in order to maintain the belief that democracy explains what’s going on.

    Second, my thought it that what’s really going on is that the funders are the one’s that prefer these policies and this rhetoric (one that never makes a case for liberal governance or fires up people from a left perspective), and the whole swing voter thing is just a cover for that. I suspect that both of these capture some of what is going on.

    But your comment makes me realize that this same thing is operating on two levels. I was criticizing the idea that you can equate what actually happens in politics with electoral democracy, but you also can’t equate democracy as a normative ideal with elections. You said “We elect people to govern us” and I think a lot of people would describe democracy that way. But I’m not sure that’s the best way to think of it. We could also think of it as electing people to represent us as one way (but not the only way) to govern ourselves. That would require a more active citizenship from us between elections. Here again, I think conservative have embraced this and we need to.

    David Kaib

    June 23, 2012 at 10:25 pm

  3. […] 4) Why is Framing So Misunderstood?: The Distorting Lens of Democracy – One theme here has been that democracy is not a useful analytic lens for understanding politics, but rather a legitimation rhetoric.  In this installment, I argue that a democratic lens confuses us in our debates over what framing is and why it matters.  Oddly, those who focus on framing often fail to notice the deep structure of democracy as it relates to framing, which impedes successful framing about framing. […]


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