For decades America’s political discourse has been shaped by the conservative movement and right-wing media. But in recent years, progressives have begun fighting back, working to frame the political debate on their own terms.
Jeffrey Feldman, editor of Frameshop has been doing his part, using his training as a cultural anthropologist to help progressives identify the “frames” of conservative arguments. In his new book, “Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation and Win Elections” (ig publishing), Feldman uses 15 presidential speeches to illustrate how framing techniques can be learned and applied to promote a progressive worldview.
Failure recently sat down with Feldman to discuss how he reverse-engineers conservative messaging, and how he manages to avoid becoming cynical, even as he reviews virtually every word uttered by President Bush and Vice-President Cheney.
How did you get the idea to write “Framing the Debate”?
I knew I wanted to write a book after I had been blogging at Frameshop for about a year. I had this series of essays in which I was analyzing the media, using framing tools that I had adapted from my own background as an anthropologist, as well as words and tools from George Lakoff’s work. While blogging was getting me into the debate and into the media, I knew that I needed to write a book in order to push things out to a broader audience.
How has your work been influenced by Lakoff?
One of the things I noticed when I began looking at framing is that nobody really knew how to go from the theoretical to the practical. In “Moral Politics” (Univ. of Chicago Press) Lakoff provided a profound portrait of the split in American politics, and in “Don't Think of an Elephant!” (Chelsea Green) he laid down what it is that shapes a political debate—not in terms of issues but in terms of the broader narrative. I wanted to build on what he started because one of the skills I have as an anthropologist is that I am able to integrate history and culture.
Does the word “framing” have a positive or negative connotation?
Following the last presidential election it had a positive connotation. People heard “framing” and thought: this is a tool that can help us solve problems. But over time—especially in the past three months or so—framing has taken on a negative connotation, because journalists have been muddying the term. Now when people hear “framing” they think of spin and deception. When I first started writing about framing people would respond very positively and now I find that it's first necessary to define framing in positive terms, and only then can the discussion move forward.
What is the difference between framing and spin?
Spin is inherently deceptive. The best way to understand spin is to think about what we see on TV after a political debate, where people hired by political campaigns take the words that have been put out there by their candidate and turn them into an end goal that they want.
Framing is a process of clarifying. When we are framing we step back from the melee of political debate—what we hear in the media, what we hear from politicians—and ask a very basic question: “Are the words we are using really expressing the ideas and principles that we believe in?” If the answer is no, framing takes on the quality of participatory political work. It's not just about taking an idea and putting it into a new wrapper. It's about going back to the foundation of what that idea is about and asking ourselves, “What are the values at stake here? What are the principles at stake? Where in American history do I find this idea being articulated?” And then rebuilding that idea so that it can circulate in the media and in debate.
Republicans have been framing the issues on their terms for decades. When did Democrats get back into the business of framing and was there a particular catalyst?
Democrats got back into it at the very end of the presidential race between John Kerry and Bush. It was “Don't Think of an Elephant!” that turned the concept of framing into a hot topic in Democratic politics. But the catalyst was watching Kerry—who, in many ways, was the ideal Democratic candidate—lose to Bush. After that a lot of Democrats had a meltdown. They could not understand why it was that someone so “stupid” was so effective at communicating. So they began to look for answers other than what they previously thought was the best way to function in a debate. Some basic concepts emerged, namely that debate was ultimately dominated by the person who was able to set the broad rules for the discussion and reiterate those through the repetition of key words. Once that doorway opened people started to talk about narrative and big picture as opposed to smaller issues and fine detail.
The mainstream media has long been complicit in helping Republicans get their message out to the public. How can Democrats make the transition from not simply pushing back, but going on the offensive?
Democrats need to think big and hit first. Before they focus on policy they should ask, “What is the big story? And how are we going to get that story to the media?” It's that kind of forethought for the narrative context of what they are doing that Democrats almost always fail to put out there.
I think it's just going to take time before there are enough Democrats in influential positions where they are able to see that that the big narrative is key in communicating directly to Americans. Politics is not just about backroom negotiating; it's also about very broad strokes that allow everyday Americans to talk about what is going on and to support what is really in their best interests.
It sounds like you're not terribly optimistic in the near term.
I'm optimistic in the response of ordinary Americans. And I have tempered optimism in the institutionalized democratic political structure. When I go out and talk to people I emphasize that the greatest power that Americans have in terms of speaking back to political debate and how it has been corrupted by Republicans comes through basic change in our own habits as individuals. Governmental institutions are like large ships; they are very slow to turn. It's going to be a result of what we do as individuals that makes that happen. The challenge we have as individuals is not to become cynical when our leaders don't turn as fast as we'd like them to. We need to stay engaged and think of restoring the health of political culture as something we're all responsible for.
In the book you talk about conservative “magic words.” How can one learn to spot them?
By trying over and over again. Trial and error is essential here. In the beginning, when I first started doing this type of analysis, I realized that it was very difficult to reverse-engineer a conservative public relations program. It was hard to go into the final product and find those key words. You have to cross reference a lot of speeches and articles, and then you begin to pick them up.
The basic technique that I use is to go to the source text of conservative communication. Conservatives develop their messages behind closed doors and then launch them in a systematic way from the top of the party down to the base. So I go to the White House Web site and I read what the top of the party is saying. I read what the President has said and what the Vice President is saying, and I look for words that are being repeated over and over again. Then I go to the media and I look for instances where those key words are popping up.
What do you suggest doing with these words once they are identified?
Don't repeat them. The science behind framing is understanding that key words invoke a broad logic that keeps in place the entire debate. A quick example: If we insist on talking about national security in terms of the global war on terror—if we insist on using that phrase—then we can never get out of that logic. We need to stop using that phrase, so then we are able to think outside of that box and re-establish what we think should be the discussion—a national security that is smart and looks all over the board and doesn't just focus on Iraq. But if we are stuck in that “global war on terror” we are dead in our tracks. So the purpose of identifying those words is to shut down that framing effort.
Can you explain what a “troll” is, and what tactics do you suggest for combating them?
A troll refers to someone who comes over from a conservative Web site with the goal of causing trouble on a progressive or liberal blog.
With trolls, there are a lot of different tactics you can use. One of the things that trolls do is attack head-on to lure you into a fight. They are good at getting people to fight back because they are not interested in hashing out ideas; their sole purpose is sinking the discussion. So you want to force the troll to respond to his or her own attack. For example, if a troll accuses you of being racist, rather than saying, “No, I'm not racist”—the classic faux pas, which is to reiterate the frame of your opponent—one should step back and say, “What do you mean by racism?” Get them to explain their terms. In many ways that zeroes the discussion and forces you onto a more even playing field.
Another technique I often use is to ask trolls why they are repeating the talking points of people like Karl Rove or Rush Limbaugh? This is an incredibly effective technique. A lot of conservatives pride themselves on being individuals—on thinking for themselves—but they use talking points that they get from right-wing hate radio and TV. So I say, “If you're such a thinking person why are you repeating talking points?” Nine times out of ten that throws them into a more defensive position, which is enough of an opening in the discussion to get them to debate a point seriously.
The thing to remember is that you are never going to turn a right-wing troll into someone who believes in liberal views. At best, you are going to rescue the discussion from that attack and then move on.
How can Democrats combat the Swiftboating that is certain to take place in the upcoming presidential election?
What Democrats need to do is accept that there is going to be Swiftboating no matter what. Swiftboating is not just an attack on an individual candidate, it's an attempt by right-wing groups to intimidate candidates and to intimidate people from fully participating in the electoral process. Democrats need to recognize that and not leave their candidates dangling in the wind during these character onslaughts. They need to establish what is the equivalent of a task force, one based on the premise that they are protecting the electoral process itself. If they do that, whenever a Swiftboat Veterans For Truth crops up—whatever they are called in the next election cycle—this task force would say, “We are not going to stand for these groups coming in and intimidating our candidates or the electoral process. We don’t believe in a process that is dominated by these highly funded, conservative gangs that use these intimidation techniques.” In that way the groups would be defined before they even get there. I think that's the only way to deal with that particular style of attack.
But it’s going to be ugly. There’s a lot at stake and the conservative movement has invested an incredible amount of money in maintaining and building this single-party dominance and they aren't going to let go easily. The closer they come to being turned back—in this case losing the White House and an even larger majority in Congress—the more angry and violent the rhetoric is going to be.
You believe the attacks are going to get uglier as the Republicans get more desperate?
I know it’s going to get uglier. They have been testing strategies for the past year to see what it is that resonates. It's just a matter of what direction they are going to leap in. For key candidates we have seen a snippet of what they are going to do. They are going to Swiftboat John Edwards as being an enemy of working class America because he got an expensive haircut. Barack Obama is going to be smeared as a Muslim terrorist. It's ridiculous to even say it out loud but they are going to do it. For Hillary Clinton, they already have the strategy: She’s an angry, crazy liberal.
When these attacks come up in the context of a presidential election the Democrats need to see it as an opportunity to claim the moral high ground for the electoral process itself. That's the strategy for defending their candidates, not to leave them dangling in the wind. That's the great denial by the Democratic Party in what happened to John Kerry. People said Kerry should have been better at defending himself. But everybody should have rallied around and seen it as an opportunity to push back against this conservative force in the electoral process.
This raises an important point: Once the conservatives figure out how to attack a Democratic politician—and they spend a lot of money figuring that out—that stuff doesn’t go away. They just keep on using it over and over and over again. That's the reason why Democrats need to think big and hit first. If they don't do that and control the discussion before the conservatives wrap their deceptive approaches around the candidates, then in many ways the candidates get lost forever in that conservative noise. It's really hard to reclaim them once they have been brought down so savagely and brutally.
Come 2008 Republicans seem likely to pretend that George W. Bush never existed. How do you expect Democrats will frame the debate to ensure that Republican presidential candidate is linked to the Bush Administration’s record?
What activists are going to do once the primary season is over is to look for links between the Republican candidate and Bush. It will largely be driven by images and key moments.
But in terms of the campaigns themselves, I think what we’re going to see from the Democratic candidate—for better or worse—is a focus on theme rather than a focus on frame. What I mean by that is: When election campaign consultants come in and talk to Democrats they are going to say, “There are only two real themes in American politics: More of the same and change.” We are going to see the Democrats, I think, talking about change from Bush and constantly showing how the Republican candidate represents more of the same in terms of policy on Iraq and the environment and so forth.
In the book you note that in Nixon’s resignation speech he used “boasting” and “misdirection” and associated himself with other great Americans to distract from his track record. George W. Bush uses the same tactics. What can the American people do to avoid losing sight of Bush’s track record?
Initially, what the American people can do is listen more closely and not accept what they hear in the media and on the news. But it's not easy to get to that point, because people have different options available to them in terms of how much time or how much ability they have to take that perspective. What we’re talking about is division of labor in American politics. We have activists and organizers who initially are going to provide that pushback, and through them more and more people will be able to see what is really out there and not be deafened or silenced by what gets pushed out by the White House and the Republican National Committee.
But it's a long process and ultimately when I talk about framing the debate—transforming the whole discussion in all of politics—we are looking at a long time frame. It will be five to ten years before we get to the point where someone who doesn't think about politics on a regular basis can hear something that is honest and clear. Only then will they be able to see someone like Bush in a true light.