As I’ve stressed in the past, I don’t put a whole lot of weight on the importance of how issues are framed. It’s important, for sure, but underlying power dynamics are what matters most, and history is littered with carefully, compellingly framed arguments that lost because one side had deeper pockets and greater access than the other.
[To be reductionist about it: $+good frame beats good frame alone. And worse, $+no frame probably beats good frame+no $.]
That said, ever since the R’s countered President Obama’s emphasis on fairness in the tax code with shrieks of “class warfare,” I’ve been thinking a lot about framing. These thoughts were amplified by this smart piece in today’s NYT, arguing that as the language of budgets (“fiscal sustainability,” “deficit reduction”) has replaced that of economic security, progressives have ceded key intellectual ground.
The piece compares, to great effect, the rhetoric of FDR during the Depression to that of today. But that led me to reflect on the points Stan Greenberg made, as I reviewed them here. In this regard, the most salient difference in this context between today versus the days of FDR is not just the rhetoric or framing. It’s the underlying faith in American institutions, most notably government.
Greenberg’s point is that absent that faith, a positive frame, even if it’s based in fact (we really do have the right ideas re economic security and they really don’t) will fail to resonate.
This means progressives have some heavy lifting to do. Our work must be to re-establish faith in the institution of government…the belief that this institution is a force for good in your lives and can be more so. And that has to come from explanation, evidence, and effective implementation of government programs.
It also underscores the importance of the current fight for fairness: if people continue to believe that government has devolved into an ATM for the wealthy, an enforcer of the inequality-inducing policy agenda, and a bailer-outer of the rich and the reckless, no frame will be smart enough to convince them otherwise.