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Sunday, August 01, 2004

Framing and Rhetoric

Guest Blogger Paul Parker

In a previous post, I commented favorably on Kerry’s acceptance speech. Some others I have talked with, or listened to, were not nearly as impressed. One of the reasons is that they would still like more specifics from Kerry. How will he involve other countries in Iraq? How will he implement programs that he desires, and still be budget conscious?

The specifics trouble me less in the short run; as the post made clear, my enthusiasm was with the rhetoric of the speech. I focus on rhetoric – the art of persuasion – because I believe that the persuadable voters will be persuaded by the candidate who makes them feel good. That is a belief that has been percolating for a while, and it has had to push aside the belief that rational argument and evidence matters. It can, but often it will not. Language matters.

That humans (and by implication, voters) are not always logical, consistent, or rational in their decision making was well established by Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky a generation ago. As one example, this site quotes Kahneman saying, “people may drive across town to save $5 on a $15 calculator but not drive across town to save $5 on a $125 coat.” They argued people often make decisions using mental shortcuts, or heuristics, and their research also demonstrated that how a problem or choice was framed, or stated, affected the decisions that people make. It was this latter work that was acknowledged with the Nobel Prize in 2002 – and the 2003 Louisville Grawemeyer Award in Psychology (note that blogger Rodger directs the Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order).

Relevant to this discussion of rhetoric is their work in framing: their results show that framing mattered for people's choices, even though the alternatives were mathematically equivalent. Quoting the American Psychology Association press release on the Nobel Prize,

When Kahneman and Tversky asked people to hypothetically decide what procedure to take to cure a disease, most preferred a procedure that saved 80 percent of people to one that killed 20 percent.
So the result is the same, but are you saving 80% or killing 20%?

Newt Gingrich has long understood the importance of framing, and he worked hard to develop phrases that the right could employ to effectively win an argument before it started. Why would sensible people want to vote for those “anti-family,” “anti-flag,” “tax and spend liberals?” I first ran across this GOPAC memo, Language, a Key Mechanism of Control, in Harpers in the early 1990s, but not through the beauty of the internet, you can find it many places.

This is the background for being pleased with Kerry's speech -- it might be short on specifics, and it might be more centrist than I would care for, but it was well-aimed, I felt. And the Democrats’ use of Republican phrases and themes pleased me. (this William Saletan article from gives some more specific examples).

Among those who have made a career of arguing about the importance of framing for politics is Berkeley Linguistics Professor George Lakoff. Lakoff is associated with the Rockridge Institute, a think tank for helping the left think about how best to present their arguments. Or, in their own words, their program of Strategic Framing is“an effort to revitalize progressive discourse by reframing progressive policies in ways that speak to shared American values.”

Lakoff argues that conservatives have done quite nicely weaving an ideology through their policy positions – “The have successfully reframed issue after issue to make their language the language of everyday America.” Meanwhile, progressives have failed to do this, instead “hampered by a focus on specific policy issues, rather than the overall moral and ethical perspective that justifies specific policy choices.”

In this six page article from The American Prospect Lakoff proposes that conservative are essentially use the language of the “Strict Father Family: In this view, the world is a dangerous and difficult place, there is tangible evidence of evil in the world and children have to be made good. To stand up to evil, one must be morally strong disciplined.” Lakoff gives a few examples how this plays out, some more compelling than others, and then argues that progressives do indeed have a framework, too – but “many liberals are still largely unaware of their own moral system.” The framework Lakoff lays out for the left is The Nurturant Parent family, a view that justifies a greater role for government in assisting people, and social cooperation and community over competition.

Again, I am unsure that the consistency that Lakoff discusses is real, but his framework does seem fruitful for the left to think more about, and to develop. And it seems fruitful for the left to speak on their terms, as opposed to the terms defined by the right.

For further reading / listening:


More on strategic framing from the Frameworks Institute at UCLA

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