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Framing the Issues

Reported by Eleanor - July 23, 2004 -

Bill Moyers on PBS "Now" (July 23, 9:00 p.m.) had a fascinating discussion on the republican expertise at framing issues by using language and repetition to manipulate people's thinking. Republicans have developed this skill over many years, and the democrats have yet to learn how to frame issues because they assume that the facts will speak for themselves. Not true.

According to Moyers guest, Prof. George Lakoff, professional linguist, the republicans see the facts as irrelevant, and they have developed the framing of issues into an art form. Everyone can think of examples, but here are a few offered by Lakoff.

Tax relief - Taxation is an affliction. If democrats oppose tax RELIEF, they're bad guys. Democrats have failed to change the frame to a description of taxes as the cost of living in a free society where everyone pays their fair share. Through taxes we pool our resources for the common good. The democrats have no word for that. Tax "relief" is repeated endlessly as a good thing by the republicans. No matter that the "relief " is vastly disproportionate. Everyone is "relieved." The only answer the democrats have is that the "relief" is for the rich. If they knew how to reframe the issue, they would say the "elite," not the rich. Rich is a good thing. Everyone wants to be rich. Democrats lose. Republicans win.

Trial Lawyer - Republican frame: "Frivolous lawsuits" that run up the cost of everything. The democratic frame could easily be "public protection" from corporations and professionals who are negligent and/or unscrupulous - our last line of defense. But democrats don't know how to frame the issue. The republicans win again.

Healthy Forests - It's "common sense" to clear "excess" trees, meaning experts (scientists and environmentalists) are not needed. The republicans don't say this means cutting down trees or clean cutting, but it does mean just that when loggers can now go onto any public lands. The democrats could call it "leave no tree behind" or the "forest destruction act," but they don't. Democrats lose again.

Any time their position is weak, republicans use descriptive words that are the "opposite" of what they actually mean and repeat them incessantly to manipulate public opinion, i.e., "death tax" instead of "estate tax" (on estates worth more than a million dollars); "clean air act" is really the "dirty air act;" gay marriage with pictures of the same gender kissing, instead of the right to marry the person of your choice without government interference; a Yale, Andover, Harvard millionaire with a Texas good-ol-boy accent, who is "one of us."

The word "liberal" is connected with the "elite" when the conservatives are the real "elites." Liberal is a dirty word. In the Goldwater era, no one wanted to be called a conservative. Now the word liberal is avoided. The American people are "safer" is said millions of times, whether we are safer or not. Democrats negate with, "The American people are NOT safer." The democratic frame should be, "More terrorists have been created. The world is more dangerous." But democrats don't reframe - they negate and lose again.

War on Terror - Executive power combined with abstraction and an endless war. Democrats could reframe this as war on "Terrorists" - not general terror - only a few thousand - can be done. But no, democrats don't reframe this issue either.

Comment: It's no wonder that in spite of the fact that the republicans have brought this country to the brink of disaster, they still have support from almost half the population. Through repetition and constant attention, emotionally charged social and cultural issues are framed as the most important issues of the day - gays, guns, abortion, religion, death penalty, affirmative action, stem cell research as cloning or killing babies, God in the Pledge and in buildings, etc. These issues divide people and interfere with critical thinking about our own best economic and national interests. Emotional and social issues cause voters to forget that the legitimate role of government is to provide for the common good. That has nothing to do with these personal emotional issues. But as long as the social, cultural, emotional issues are what we're talking about, the republicans win again.