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“Frames are mental structures that shape the way we see the world. . . . When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain. . . . In politics our frames shape our social policies. . . . Because language activates frames, new language is required for new frames.”—George Lakoff
For decades, the powerful communications machine of the conservative movement has controlled our national political discourse. One of the biggest obstacles to progressive victory has been seeing what American political speech looks like when it is not “framed” by the Republican noise machine.
Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections ) is about unleashing the power of communication in contemporary progressive politics. The book presents fifteen key speeches by American presidents—George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, Dwight Eisenhower, John F. Kennedy, Lyndon Johnson, Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton, and George Bush—in order to define the big ideas and images—the “frames”—that each speech evokes to show how those framing techniques can be applied to today’s political debate in order promote a progressive perspective.
An essential book in today’s political climate, Framing the Debate will be instrumental in helping to reshape progressive political language and rhetoric.
An expert on speeches and messaging, Jeffrey Feldman is the editor in chief of the influential political blog Frameshop (www.frameshopisopen.com). He also has a weekly segment on The Thom Hartmann Show on Air America, and travels the country offering seminars on language and progressive politics.
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About the Author
Jeffrey Feldman, Ph.D. is a cultural anthropologist and the Editor-in-Chief of the influential political blog Frameshop(www.frameshopisopen.com). An expert on speeches and messaging, he has a weekly segment on The Thom Hartmann Show, and travels the country offering seminars on language and progressive politics.
Read an Excerpt
FRAMING THE DEBATEFamous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections)
By JEFFREY FELDMAN
Ig PublishingCopyright © 2007 Jeffrey Feldman
All right reserved.
Chapter OneFRAMERS AND FRAMING
A routine search for the word "framer" in the American Heritage Dictionary brings back the following peculiar definition:
NOUN: 1. One that frames: a picture framer; a framer of new laws. 2. often
Framer: One of the people who wrote the U.S. Constitution.
What an astounding range of possibilities! One the one hand, a "framer" is a person engaged in the simple act of packaging pictures, while on the other hand a "Framer"- with a capital "F"-is a founder, one of the people who thought up and crafted the principles that shape the entire American system of government. From the mundane to the profound and back again-the concept of "framing" covers it all.
What we see from the definition, however, is that in the context of American history, there are few concepts more important and enduring than framing. This country began with an act of framing, and to this day continues to forge ahead-sometimes for better, sometimes for worse-through quiet, but powerful framing.
And yet, despite its historic footing, many people often react to the idea of framing political debate with suspicion, concerned that framers engage in little more than the cynical packaging of ideas for political gain. "It's the substance that matters, not the wrapper," they say. In fact, framing the debate is never just about the wrapper. To make rotten politics smell better by wrapping them in clean paper is the goal of "spin," or deception, not of framing. Indeed, we should be opposed to the increasing number of "spin doctors" who use their skill at mass manipulation to pollute American politics. Unfortunately, as long as there are scandals in politics, there will be spin doctors to make the smell seem less offensive. While both framing and spin involve the packaging of ideas, "framing the debate" is as different from spin as coffee is to whiskey.
What Does "Framing the Debate" Mean?
A basic working definition of "framing" as it pertains to political debate looks something like this:
The presentation of political ideas and principles so as to encourage one
interpretation over another.
But in a much broader sense, beyond politics, framing has long been in use across a variety of professions and academic disciplines interested in how people communicate with each other, experience the world around them, and solve their problems.
In the 1950's, for example, anthropologist Gregory Bateson likened frames to the body, focusing, through studies of children at play, on how bodily gestures and facial expressions framed communicative interaction. Similarly, in the 1960s, sociologist Erving Goffman considered the full range of human behavior as a series of framed interactions, where one social actor uses words, phrases, or gestures to communicate what kind of social interaction was appropriate in a given moment. A decade later, linguists Richard Bandler and John Grinder modeled individual speech habits to help reframe people's unconscious towards therapeutic ends. In the 1990s, business and legal scholars in the Harvard Negotiation Project, such as Douglas Stone, considered how conversations could be approached so as to mitigate blame and lead to productive outcomes. In each of these fields, "frame" and "framing" had a slightly different meaning, but always referred to a broad logic or context through which key events unfolded. And in each case, the scholar would compare a frame to something else to help explain what exactly was meant by "framing."
Despite the fascinating aspects of each of these other approaches, framing did not enter progressive politics with full force until cognitive linguist George Lakoff published his book Don't Think of An Elephant! just prior to the 2004 presidential election. Different from all other approaches to framing, Lakoff began by considering a very basic and very grounded question:
Why do Democrats lose elections?
Because Lakoff's book coincided with President George W. Bush's stunning-to progressives-re-election against the Democratic nominee, Senator John Kerry, this initial question quickly morphed into a more chilling and timely inquiry:
Why did Bush win again?
Up to this point, most progressives had assumed that Kerry was a better candidate. Setting aside all dirty campaigning from the nefarious allies of Bush, Kerry seemed to present key positions and issues that were more relevant to the problems Americans faced than those presented by Bush. Kerry was more thoughtful and informed than Bush. The conventional progressive wisdom was that Kerry should have won the election.
But with Lakoff's question in mind and a bit of hindsight, most progressives now realize that something was amiss in our understanding of the 2004 election. Looking back, we realize that the debates between Kerry and Bush were a key point in the campaign, albeit for a reason that was unexpected at the time. While Kerry clearly gave the better performance, he failed to gain what many expected to be a considerable bounce in the polls. It was a desperate feeling for many idealistic progressives who believed that Kerry had the right ideas and was so much more articulate than Bush. Kerry might have seemed a bit stiff, but he certainly was smart, prepared, and statesman-like. He was even taller. Bush, by contrast, was cocky, he stuttered, endlessly repeated the same words, and even balked on many answers. He was even caught wearing a wire that many believed was used to feed him answers by closed circuit radio!
I remember the questions I asked myself in that week following the debates when I realized that the polls had not shifted definitively as a result of the two candidates' debate performances. "Aren't we supposed to win when we present the best ideas in the clearest way? Aren't we supposed to win when their candidate acts and looks unprepared and uniformed? Aren't we supposed to win when the majority of the electorate agrees with what our guy is saying?"
Interestingly, the dynamic my questions identified fit right in with what Lakoff was talking about. The problem was not the positions and issues the Democratic candidate presented, but how Democrats approached the entire idea of political debate. My candidate might have won the debates on the issues, but he lost the larger battle of the election because the opposition controlled the frame-and therefore framed the debate. We were talking issues, but they were invoking frames.
From Lakoff's perspective frames are defined as:
mental structures that shape the way we see the world ... You can't see or hear
frames ... When you hear a word, its frame is activated in your brain.
Intellectually, Lakoff's definition put forward the general perspective of a cognitive linguist who views speech and communication as a product of certain big ideas and concepts that have been hard-wired into our brains through habit and experience. He then applied those concepts to the specifics of American politics over the past thirty years. Even without delving into the technical workings of the brain, this insight opened a profound discussion of why and how the Republicans won in 2004, and engendered a new, eye-opening perspective on political debate for progressives.
Whereas progressives had previously understood political debate as a forum for presenting policy and issues, framing redefined political debate as a stage for invoking principles and values through keywords, metaphors, and strategic phrases. Winning the debate-and by extension winning elections-would be the result of driving the debate towards progressive frames and, most importantly, keeping it there.
While progressive ideas may have been good, we lost elections because the opposition chose words that invoked powerful sets of unspoken ideas that structured the entire debate. These ideas described a worldview of how the country should work that ultimately trumped and undermined every possible statement made by progressive candidates. While Democrats were obsessing over the best words to use in order to give people the facts, the Republicans chose words that repackaged the conceptual framework through which the entire American public saw the world. Those Republican "magic words" were then repeated and amplified endlessly by the media-not just by FOX News, but by all media and even by progressive candidates themselves. And so, the Republicans won because their words drove and held the frame.
When progressives take on the task of framing the debate, election campaigns become much broader struggles to establish the vision, principles, and worldview of a candidate. For decades, Republicans have made great strides establishing what they call a "conservative" worldview which consists of strong, authoritarian perspectives about the right of government to intervene in the private lives of citizens, the priority of particular religious values over constitutional principles, divestment from public ownership and the public good, concentration of private wealth, and preemptive military aggression. In many ways, President Bush's victories in 2000 and 2004 were the product of several decades of this relentless framing of the "conservative" worldview.
In the 2006 midterm elections, Democratic framing efforts finally began to get some traction. A broad initiative to frame veterans running for election as "Fighting Dems" helped drive the debate towards a progressive vision of responsible change in the Iraq. While not all "Fighting Dems" managed to eke out victories at the polls, the frame helped to dispel the myth of Democrats being weak on defense. In another framing initiative, the progressive grassroots organization MoveOn.org framed their pre-election voter outreach program through the telephone frame by launching the volunteer initiative "Call For Change." At a technical level, "Call for Change" was not much different from previous volunteer phone bank operations designed to encourage Democrats to vote. However, by framing the often unappealing concept of campaign volunteering through the concrete metaphor of "telephone calls," the MoveOn.org program had unprecedented success, bringing in far more people and contacting far more voters. Such an effort demonstrated once and for all that framing helps to define and extend a progressive worldview in key political moments, which in turn leads to greater participation and deeper commitment to the work needed for campaigns to succeed.
But even with these first Progressive framing successes in 2006, many questions remained. Paramount among them: What is the progressive worldview? Despite the 2006 election success, many progressives still had a lingering sense that they were struggling against conservative frames at least as much as advancing their own unique worldview. And that was no accident. For over twenty years, advocates of the conservative movement had lured progressives into a fight they could not win a fight that left the words "liberal" and "Democrat" bloodied and hanging on the ropes. The endless beating-up of these words by conservative think tanks, broadcast media, and church leaders had convinced many Americans that the Democratic Party was not only incapable of governing, but was an immoral choice at the polls.
After years of bloody losses against conservative efforts, the sudden interest in framing by progressives in late 2004 suggested a radical new tactic, and the progressive successes of 2006 proved that that tactic could work if applied broadly. Rather than try to win the battle of worldviews inside the ring of ideas and political positions crafted by conservative strategists, progressives could walk out of the conservative ring into one of their own. To stop bleeding and start winning, progressives looked beyond defensive, reactionary approaches to political debate and rebuild the debate on progressive terms from the ground up.
And yet, as genuine and explosive as the enthusiasm for framing the debate became amongst progressive leaders, activists and citizens alike, a vexing question appeared on the road to Damascus:
How can progressives continue to frame the political debate moving forward?
How can framing continue to work in practice? For every book, letter to the editor, seminar and blog post urging progressives to start framing the debate, there were a dozen responses that asked that same basic question: "How?" Now that the 2006 elections have proven that framing the debate is crucial for advancing a progressive vision and winning elections, the question has become: "What do we do next?"
Framing in Five Steps
Becoming a progressive framer begins with changing a set of habits with respect to how we receive and process information. Framers make a choice to stop being passive consumers of political debate and to start producing the debate themselves-to seek out the situations where politics happens and drive the debate. Progressive framers must be willing to step into the shoes of the traditional media. Gone are the days of reading one daily newspaper to get information; framers must read dozens of sources each day, tracking political ideas and issues as they take shape across the broad landscape of media- driven contemporary politics.
Blogs are the central haunting ground for progressive framers because they offer a nexus between political organizations, mass media, and the chatter of popular culture. A remarkable feature of the world we live in today is that most words politicians utter in public are instantly made available to everyone. Every public word President Bush says, for example, appears within minutes on the White House website. Progressive framers must be willing to track down what is broadcast on television, radio and the internet in order to tease out the frames at work in the broader debate and, whenever necessary, reframe the debate in progressive terms.
In addition, progressive framers must never be satisfied to frame the debate only for themselves. Just like the old adage about whether a tree that falls in the woods makes a sound if nobody is there to hear it, when progressives frame the debate on their own, but do not communicate that effort to others, does it have an impact? Clearly, communicating the results of any progressive effort to frame the debate has a wider impact than keeping that effort hidden from others. And once the choice to communicate has been made, the work of framing can begin immediately.
In November 2004, I made the choice to become a progressive framer by establishing a website called Frameshop (www.frameshopisopen.com), a place for communicating the results of my work throughout the progressive movement. At the outset, I defined Frameshop as more than a website, more than a blog. It was and continues to be a "place" for framing the debate.
Frameshop is not just a clearing house for my opinions. It's a "repair shop." It's a noisy, dirty place. There's grease on our policy coveralls. Broken sound bite pieces are lying around in open bins. Protective eyewear is required at all times. I begin with the idea that political debate in this country is a highway filled with language long due for repairs. During election time, political debate becomes a racetrack. Even the fastest phrases will crash and burn after a few laps if not properly maintained. In debate, like in driving: paint looks pretty, but it's what's under the hood that matters.
Frameshop began with this basic metaphor about "driving" and "repairing" the debate. Yet, over the course of hundreds of "repair jobs"-long and short essays in which I reframed key aspects of the political debate-a five-step approach to framing the debate took shape.
Excerpted from FRAMING THE DEBATE by JEFFREY FELDMAN Copyright © 2007 by Jeffrey Feldman. Excerpted by permission.
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Table of Contents
Introduction George Lakoff xi
Framers and Framing 1
Voice of the Country: George Washington, First Inaugural Address (1789) 17
Wise and Frugal: Thomas Jefferson, First Inaugural Address (1801) 25
Of the People: Abraham Lincoln, Gettysburg Address (1863) 34
The Muck Rake: Theodore Roosevelt, Address on the Cornerstone Laying for the Cannon Building (1906) 43
Highways of the World: Woodrow Wilson, War Message (1917) 52
Happiness is Achievement: Franklin D. Roosevelt, First Inaugural Address (1933) 64
Us Against Them: Harry Truman, Inaugural Address (1949) 75
Balance in Progress: Dwight Eisenhower, Farewell Address (1961) 87
Ask and Answer: John F. Kennedy, Inaugural Address (1961) 99
Build a Society: Lyndon Johnson, University of Michigan Commencement Address (1964) 109
I Have Succeeded: Richard Nixon, Resignation Speech (1974) 118
Down That Path: Jimmy Carter, Address to the Nation (1979) 129
A Small Story: Ronald Reagan, Farewell Address to the Nation (1989) 139
Government is a Person: Bill Clinton, Second Inaugural Address (1997) 151
Evil Will Attack: George Bush-State of the Union (2002) 163
The Three P's of Progressive Politics 175
Selected References 191