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The Framing Wars

We talk about the framing bias (how you frame something can encourage a particular outcome) quite a bit at Farnam Street. It seems like politicians are catching on (and even testing wording before going live). Calling something the “Patriot Act” for instance, is a form of framing. 


Exactly what it means to ”frame” issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and, more important, with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines. In the months after the election, Democratic consultants and elected officials came to sound like creative-writing teachers, holding forth on the importance of metaphor and narrative.

Republicans, of course, were the ones who had always excelled at framing controversial issues, having invented and popularized loaded phrases like ”tax relief” and ”partial-birth abortion” and having achieved a kind of Pravda-esque discipline for disseminating them. But now Democrats said that they had learned to fight back. ”The Democrats have finally reached a level of outrage with what Republicans were doing to them with language,” Geoff Garin, a leading Democratic pollster, told me in May.

Through his work on metaphors, Lakoff found an avenue into political discourse. In a seminal 1996 book, ”Moral Politics,” he asserted that people relate to political ideologies, on an unconscious level, through the metaphorical frame of a family. Conservative politicians, Lakoff suggests, operate under the frame of a strict father, who lays down inflexible rules and imbues his family with a strong moral order. Liberals, on the other hand, are best understood through a frame of the nurturant parent, who teaches his child to pursue personal happiness and care for those around him. (The two models, Lakoff has said, are personified by Arnold Schwarzenegger on one side and Oprah Winfrey on the other.) Most voters, Lakoff suggests, carry some part of both parental frames in the synapses of their brains; which model is ”activated” — that is, which they can better relate to — depends on the language that politicians use and the story that they tell.

The most compelling part of Lakoff’s hypothesis is the notion that in order to reach voters, all the individual issues of a political debate must be tied together by some larger frame that feels familiar to us. Lakoff suggests that voters respond to grand metaphors — whether it is the metaphor of a strict father or something else entirely — as opposed to specific arguments, and that specific arguments only resonate if they reinforce some grander metaphor. The best evidence to support this idea can be found in the history of the 2004 presidential campaign. From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.) Democrats, on the other hand, presented a litany of different complaints about Bush, depending on the day and the backdrop; he was a liar, a corporate stooge, a spoiled rich kid, a reckless warmonger. But they never managed to tie them all into a single, unifying image that voters could associate with the president. As a result, none of them stuck. Bush was attacked. Kerry was framed.

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