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Reframe This!

You may remember the pathetic moment in the 1992 presidential campaign when George H. W. Bush read aloud his stage direction: "Message: I care."

Today I was sent a speech by California Treasurer, and likely gubernatorial candidate, Phil Angelides, on the occasion of World Environment Day. (A holiday that's new to me, but seems worthy.) In the course of explaining that while Arnold Schwarzenegger has seven Hummers, one of which he might convert to hydrogen power, he -- Angelides -- has one Toyota Prius, he declares,

So I?m going to do it the way every good politician does: By reframing the issue. I am here to tell you today that we are not going to save the planet by converting one Hummer at a time.

When Democratic politicians, even in California, are so immersed in this Lakoff stuff that they announce, "Okay, now I'm going to reframe the issue," I think we can all agree that the medicine has been applied, and it's time to move on.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on June 5, 2005 | Permalink


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From that quote, I'd more less worried about the medicine and more worried about the kool-aid. PR is best when it isn't believed to be PR. Sigh.

Posted by: kenrufo | Jun 5, 2005 10:46:55 AM

Lakoff is just our latest fad. It'll pass.

Posted by: Curt | Jun 5, 2005 10:56:56 AM

I second kenrufo's comment.

Some Democrats and liberals seem to have learned the lesson in part, some of the time, but it's not universal.

Why is it so easy for the right to understand the importance of language and not the left? The same reason women are better at it then men, because they have been out of power forever and they have to learn the nuances of life. The underdog studies those in power and learns ways to get what it wants, if not full control.

The word underdog, perhaps, is not an accident. Dogs do this too. Any dog trainer will tell you that a dog can control a household. They can get food, walks, petting, when they want it.

I learned a little about George Lakoff in college 30 years ago at Michigan, and own his book Metaphors We Live By, 1980, but haven't read any of these recent, more political books. His wife (now ex?) Robin Lakoff wrote a nice, very short book called Language and Women's Place.

Posted by: AE | Jun 5, 2005 11:13:09 AM

From Ken Baer's review on Lakoff's Elephant book, which one of Mark's January posts discusses:

"Clinton was the master of doing exactly of what Lakoff says Democrats need to be doing now; he reframed the debates surrounding welfare, affirmative action, budget politics, Social Security—just to name a few."

Did Clinton reframe debates, or did he steal Republican ideas like welfare reform, balanced budgets, social security reform, and lots of pandering to corporations and Wall Street?

Posted by: | Jun 5, 2005 11:53:13 AM

Nice catch, Mark. Hilarious. This sort of stuff seems to be epidemic: we're ALL 'insiders'! Even Dubya said , the other day:

"See, in my line of work you got to keep repeating things over and over and over again for the truth to sink in, to kind of catapult the propaganda"

I don't know how the people at The Onion do their jobs as well as they do...

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 5, 2005 12:20:20 PM

Not at all....they've got the words maybe but not the music...they don't know how to execute reframining. Of course you don't tell everyone what you're doing before you do it. That would be like a boxer saying, now I'm going to execute a right upper cut. That's patently ridiculous.

Lakoff was on C-SPAN Saturday explaining why republicans get it... They have a Leadership Institute http://leadershipinstitute.org/index_flash.cfm which trains them to speak in effective frames. They have apparatus for testing the frames, focus groups, I assume. And they have effective "bookers" who book effective spokespeople for their point of view on the talk shows.

Meanwhile we have Joe Judas Biden going on This Week and trashing Dean while destroying the democratic negotiating position on Bolton. He as much as told republicans we're gonna cave on Bolton.

That's why the medicine has not been EFFECTIVELY applied.

Posted by: Oleary | Jun 5, 2005 1:40:49 PM

I hope Dean has a thick skin, because he is one of the few people around who seems to be fighting (AND he seems to get it about reframing, at least while he was running for DNC chair it seemed like it).

As Steve Clemons said, the Democrats are very defeatist. I remember a Democratic (SFRC?) staff member posted anonymously somewhere a while back how they "deserved to lose" on Bolton because they were incompetent and lost elections. Losing elections doesn't mean you're wrong.

Of course, I don't work in that environment on Capitol Hill, but if Republicans had given up in 1964 they wouldn't be where they are today.

I watched Lakoff on Saturday too. One problem for Dems is money. Why doesn't Soros apply his money in this direction? Or other wealthy people? Warren Buffett is sort of moderate; he helped found The Washington Monthly and he's very upset about the deficits. There must be others. Has anyone asked some of the large, old time foundations to help, like Ford? Maybe Lakoff is working on expanding his institute, but if Dems don't get it, what's the point.

Posted by: AE | Jun 5, 2005 3:10:30 PM

From what I know Lakoff is actively engaged in spreading his "gospel."

But unlike the Lakoff bashers, Lakoff himself knows that he is not a political guru. He's suggesting organization, not a cult. He's not taking the Luntz route.

The blogosphere stoked liberal desperation for a diagnosis post-election and blew Lakoff's work out of proportion. It's good, it's useful, it's part of the solution. It is far from the solution in its entirety.

Posted by: Crab Nebula | Jun 5, 2005 9:08:24 PM

You guys, Mark isn't bashing Lakoff here (he may or may not have done at other times - I have no idea). His only point is basically what Oleary said:

Of course you don't tell everyone what you're doing before you do it.

You don't read memos your political people write for you to audiences, for god's sake! It's preposterous!

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 5, 2005 10:25:00 PM

And of course Crab Nebula is right that some dems have overestimated 'framing' - which is just another name for what pols and debaters have always done. The joke here is not on Lakoff - who simply developed a new term and angle on the problem - but on humorless politicians like Angelides who think the concept behind the term is something completely new and magical. Thinking in terms of 'framing' might be useful for some people. But if you can't see that what framing really is is as old as politics, you are a pretty clueless politician anyway.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 5, 2005 10:39:32 PM

I didn't interpret Mark's post as Lakoff bashing, and I doubt others did. Mark did end his post with this, however:

"the medicine has been applied, and it's time to move on"

which isn't quite right. Lots of Dems haven't learned the lessons, and they don't have the infrastructure to help them. Lakoff said they don't know what's happening, how the right orchestrates the news and the language and the topic of the day. All they do is react, and defend.

I bashed Ken Baer a bit, though. I don't know who he is, and I'm no expert in politics, but Clinton's reframing mainly consisted of taking some of the right's ideas, therefore moving the whole country rightward. Clinton is called a liberal these days, which is false. He was right of center in 1992 and moved right as he governed.

Posted by: AE | Jun 5, 2005 11:04:05 PM

I think we, in the opposition party, need to 'reframe' politics altogether, and that includes thinking and speaking strictly in terms of 'the right' and 'the left'. (Bush and Co have done that - they have drained the term 'conservative' of all literal meaning, while we on the 'left' fecklessly point out literal inconsistencies - who cares?!) Notwithstanding how he governed, Clinton was successfull politically/rhetorically not because he slyly mixed 'left' and 'right', but because he forgot about them: Americans, quite sensibly, couldn't care less about the 'old spectrum', as such. Clinton had the 'third way' conceit (or not-conceit, depending on how you look at it).

I know Lakoff's work is much more involved than this, and I don't mean to denigrate it at all, but in essence, successful 'framing' is controling the terms of the debate, making your opponent react to YOU. There's nothing new about that. I don't usually link to my own posts in comment fields, but I will now, just to save me some work: I wrote a couple posts in reaction to David Sirrota's recent, hysterical 'friendly' smear of Obama, which attempt to sum up what I'm getting at here. The more pertinent one is here , and the original fact checking one (with a link to the original Sirrota piece) is here . They are both short.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 5, 2005 11:59:30 PM

Jonnybutter: I think you're on the right track. In effect, the right wing has "redefined" conservative to include the basic tenets of the "radical reactionary" creed. And anyone who is not a subscriber to that radical creed is therefore a LIBERAL.

Lakoff, in his book, DTOAE, starts to deal with what he calls a "unity agenda" trying to define the basic values, principles and policy directions which unite all progressives and get away from the traditional labels of right and left. As he points out, when you move to actual POLICIES, you get a splintering effecta and disagreement but when you stay at the higher levels of abstraction, you get a unity agenda. He also mentions the need to develop a 10 word progressive philosophy, just as the right has developed a 10 word philosophy, low taxes, smaller government, etc.

In addition, he right, with the help of incompetent (e.g. Joe Biden) and underfunded spokespeople on the left, has successfully demonized the term LIBERAL so you'll notice that they use the term to label their opponent as one of the first bullets out of their guns in every argument..."Well don't pay any attention to him or her, they're LIBERALS and by definition not to be believed." By cleverly demonizing the term and then labeling their opponents thusly, they lessen the need to engage in substantive argument keep the argument within a well-established right wing frame; are they a liberal or not rather than is their argument right or not.

We have got to start doing the same thing.

Another case in point, which I have developed a posting on my blog about is
Right Wing Framemasters And Semanticists Invented The Term "Embryonic" Stem Cell...

George Lakoff mentioned on the Saturday, June 4th, C-SPAN Washington Journal that the religious right framing experts label these groups of around 80 completely undifferentiated cells surrounding a fluid core EMBRYONIC so that the layman will think of them as babies. And of course, only a goul of the first order would destroy a baby.If you look up the definition of "blastocyst" on google, you will see how effective they have been.

I did find this definition which was correct and wasn't a product of right wing spin:
blastocyst: The small mass of cells that results from several days of cell division by the fertilized egg. Not yet an embryo.By far the majority of definitions contain the words: "preimplantation embryos" or "early stage embryo."

If you believe in what is more accurately labeled BLASTOCYSTIC STEM CELL RESEARCH you'd better stop using the term "embryonic stem cells." Just as republicans stopped using "nuclear option" and started using "Constitutional option."


Posted by: Oleary | Jun 6, 2005 10:01:02 AM

'Zygote' Stem Cell Research?

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 6, 2005 12:32:34 PM

jonnybutter is partly in the ballpark, and oleary has a handle on it; most of the other comments are, regrettably, too ignorant to allow for meaningful comment.

Framing is not spinning or propaganda. It's a complex process of determining which emotional/conceptuals frames your target audience is using, and activating the ones that you want to have activated. These frames generally are at a pre-cognitive level; Lakoff says they are operating at a biological level (I'd say like a conditioned reflex). And frames are complex and interrelated with other frames.

If you remember one thing, remember this: frames are pre-existing, you don't invent them, what you do is to evoke the ones you want. (That's what the cons have been doing for years, and in the absence of meaningful opposition, it worked.)

So yeah, it's stupid to say "Here's what I'm going to do now, reframing", and changing the subject or casting a different light on the same subject has the same relationship to reframing as tic-tac-toe does to master's level bridge.

Posted by: vorkosigan1 | Jun 6, 2005 2:55:09 PM

I think I'm more than 'in the ballpark'. Nothing I said contradicts what you wrote. My original point was that if you are clueless about framing - both in the general sense of that word and in the specialized Lakoff sense - reading Lakoff isn't going to help you very much. Effective good politicians and demagogues alike have always known how to communicate at this pre-cognitive level. I don't mean to dis Lakoff's actual work at all, but it's foolish to think it's some technical silver bullet. That some dems seem to think it is says a lot about how lame they are (and I'm a Dem myself - I complain because I care).

My larger point about imposing different rules of debate is also about framing - maybe in the specific Lakoffian sense and maybe not. So what?

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 6, 2005 4:33:27 PM

Dem's need a Luntz, and Lakoff it ain't.

Those who caught him on CSPAN heard him respond to a caller who complained about Limbaugh's lying lies, referring to these Rush-ism's as "dialectic".

Lakoff jumped all over the poor fellow's case, upbraiding him for his defective understanding of Hegel, and (apparently) mistaking him for an opponent of progressive values.

He did all right with the rest of the show, though.

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Jun 6, 2005 7:54:17 PM


No insult intended. I agree Lakoff's not a silver bullet, he's not even the gunpowder. He's more like the chamber of the gun.

Ronk - Yup, Lakoff is brilliant, and not practical. Definitely not a Luntz.

Posted by: vorkosigan1 | Jun 7, 2005 4:18:18 PM

No insult intended.

None taken, thanks.

Lakoff's...more like the chamber of the gun.

A very good way to put it. Perhaps even a superficial understanding of some of Lakoff's work could spur some dems to examine their literalism, humorlessness, and their detachment from the people they want to govern (!); that would be a very good thing, whether it's entirely fair to Dr Lakoff himself or not.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 7, 2005 7:20:33 PM

"Lakoff's work could spur some dems to examine their literalism, humorlessness, and their detachment from the people they want to govern."

Al Gore in cowboy boots, anyone? *shudder*

An extreme example, but I think a good illustration of what vorkosigan is talking about. It's not enough to want to "reframe the debate" or "get back to the people" if you don't know how to trigger the correct response. Asking career politicians to change their behavior can be as harmless as Bush Sr. bowling, or as disasterous as Dukakis in a tank. It's farce.

I think if these ideas are to be applied effectively, they should be applied to up and coming politicians who haven't yet achieved notoriety on a national (or state) level.
If Democrats took as much time developing effective liberals on university campus' as Republicans do (College Republicans), the next generation of Dems would come of age on a much more even playing field.

Posted by: EPMason | Jun 8, 2005 2:12:37 AM

"Perhaps even a superficial understanding of some of Lakoff's work could spur some dems to examine their literalism, humorlessness, and their detachment from the people they want to govern"

I think that captures the problem perfectly. At times, Democrats seem to love the "people" but hate the persons that make up the people. Republicans have been able to persuade large segments of the public that they share their values; once you do that, the specific policies aren't really important. FDR was extremely popular even though a lot of his specific policies were not, but people believed he shared their values and had their interests at heart. IMO, too many liberals have a faint contempt for the public. Many people today feel the same about George Bush.

Clinton's policies may have been "center-right" to some liberals, but Clinton had a hell of alot better feel for the country than did than did Kerry.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | Jun 8, 2005 2:21:39 PM

too many liberals have a faint contempt for the public.

I'd call it 'detachment', but it's more about image than reality, IMO. W Bush has more (actual) breathtakingly cynical, patent contempt for the public than any pres since Nixon - probably more than Nixon. He's just a good con. Con men always despise their victims.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 8, 2005 3:32:44 PM


See that's the point. It seems to me that you are saying Bush has contempt for the public, in large part because you don't like the values that he represents or want to accept that he actually shares their values (or that the public shares his). It seems to me Bush is quite sincere in his core beliefs and people respond to the fact that those beliefs are also theirs. I'm not defending Bush in the slightest, but I think to write him off as a con man is a big mistake that liberals make.

Perhaps this is off the point somewhat, but here is an example of where I think liberals are detached from the American public. I recently read an exchange at TPMCafe about the relative importance of personal responsibility and government action in people's lives. Frankly, the fact that this was even controversial illustrated to me why liberals have been so marginalized and why Clinton was such a successful president. Most Americans, whether rich or poor, believe in the concept of personal responsibility to at least some degree. (Even though they may think, as I do, that the government should do more to help people.) I just think that liberals have to, not just mouth the right words, but actually believe in them as I think Clinton did.

Posted by: Marc Schneider | Jun 8, 2005 4:44:04 PM

you are saying Bush has contempt for the public, in large part because you don't like the values that he represents or want to accept that he actually shares their values (or that the public shares his). It seems to me Bush is quite sincere in his core beliefs and people respond to the fact that those beliefs are also theirs.>

No, I'm saying he has contempt for the public because he lies to them/us (or creatively 'misleads', if you prefer): Iraq war; tax policy; 'Clear Skies'; Social Security 'reform'; his budget; etc. etc. He has quite conciously mislead or flat out lied about all these things and more. That is sky-high contempt.

I agree with your point about personal responsibility. Edwards, like Clinton, emphasizes that. Does Bush believe in personal reponsibility for himself, BTW? Absolutely not. Look at what he does rather than what he says. When he makes a mistake of any kind, it's always somebody else's fault (eg, the CIA). When people who work for him make huge mistakes....they get promoted!

Bush is a con, and I don't mean that to be a cheap slur: he is a true confidence man, someone who swindles his own supporters - not his very rich supporters, of course, but rather his 'regular folks' ones.

Want to know what Bush's 'core values' actually are? Sometimes he says exactly what he means:

That's the great thing about a democracy; occasionally, there is a chance for the voters to express their belief or disbelief. I guess that chance will be coming down thhe road one of there days. (he's talking about the US here, not some nacent democracy).


From Woodward's book: I'm the commander; see, I don't need to explain - I do not need to explain why I say things. That's the interesting thing about being president. Maybe somebody needs to explain to me why they say something, but I don't feel I owe anybody an explaination.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 8, 2005 5:33:26 PM

Sorry for getting excercized (or 'exorcized'!).

Short version: Yes, many people subscribe to the beliefs Bush claims to have. He doesn't really have them, for the most part.

I'd say that his actual political core is authoritarian, and, in that case, I agree with you: some people do indeed like authoritarianism, especially after 9/11.

Posted by: jonnybutter | Jun 8, 2005 6:32:39 PM