September 25th, 2011 at 12:31 pm

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.

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20 comments in reply to "Frames"

  1. Ron E. says:

    This seems largely wrong to me. FDR was re-elected in 1936 because the economy had greatly improved since 1932 not because of his rhetoric. Similarly should Obama lose next year, it will be because unemployment is around 9% and income and GDP growth are close to non-existent not because he didn’t say enough mean things about rich people. The key to progressive success is to mimic Bill Clinton and take office at the beginning of a period of good economic times. Then people will attribute the good times to whatever you did in office, vote to re-elect you, and will to try repeat your policies and rhetoric for years afterwards (see the GOP re: supply-side economics).

    • Michael says:

      The problem with that theory is that when Republicans take office during good times, they inevitably turn the economy sour.

    • Barry says:

      “because the economy had greatly improved since 1932 not because of his rhetoric…”

      True, because of his actions.

  2. Fr33d0m says:

    For some odd reason, whenever someone mentions the need to focus on framing, everyone thinks in absolute terms. No framing doesn’t always trump money. But I doubt money always trumps framing either.

    If we’re always going to limit ourselves to thinking of the next election and always going to think that we need only focus on one factor then I guess we deserve what we get.

    If we never consider the way we make our arguments because money always wins elections, then we always loose the meta arguments, Good policy is easily batted down, and we fall face-first into the negative frame the other side builds for us. Does anyone think the framing the Republicans incessantly use about tax-and-spend liberals has not effective for them over several years?

    The framing debate exists because it is important ALSO, and because it is one reason Dems are so weak in messaging. not because it is solely important. Adherents believe it is of supreme importance because it is a foundational skill that Dems consistently have trouble with. I don’t know anybody who thinks we could ditch our fund raising efforts if only we did better framing.

    Focusing on your weakness is one way to get stronger, not an excuse for letting other areas become weak.

  3. Rick Thomas says:

    Here’s a good frame:
    Our government is “of the People, by the People, for the People.”

  4. Michael says:

    Obama’s failures have come from an unwillingness to acknowledge the class warfare the rich have declared on the rest of us.

  5. perplexed says:

    Good article by Marmor & Mashaw, thanks for calling attention to it Jared. Their question and observation at the end, “Can we talk about this? Maybe not.” is critical to understanding the role that campaign financing plays in the choices “we the people” have. Our politicians can not speak freely if we force them to depend on the wealthy for campaign contributions; it constrains what they can say and how they say to only those things that won’t negatively affect fundraising. The power this coneys to the wealthy undermines everything it influences; which is almost everything at this point. It’s also central to the understanding of Democrat’s “trust” problems:

    “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.”

    Unfortunately, all of the “explanation, evidence, and effective implementation…” are to little avail if progressive’s don’t somehow cut the umbilical cord to the wealthy campaign financiers. This is where the real “heavy lifting” comes in. You can’t have both trust and conflicts of interest, you have to choose between them. It’s likely that most Americans are ready for elimination of campaign finance laws that disenfranchise them and put them at the mercy of the wealthy. Trust doesn’t come easy, but real change comes a lot easier once you have it.

  6. ereinion says:

    “Over the last five decades, that discourse has changed in ways that emphasize individual choice, agency and preferences. The language of sociology and common culture has been replaced by the language of economics and individualism.”

    I think Jared missed the point here, or at least has come at it from the wrong angle. Framing doesn’t matter so much where the political battle has really been lost in the hearts of the people, and believe me, it really has, for the moment. It’s not just that people don’t beleive in the government. It’s that they don’t believe in, for lack of a less loaded word, “solidarity”. FDR’s quote from the article would be a genuine, grass-roots loser today, not because of the ebil media or whatnot, but because people generally don’t believe in common welfare anymore. I think people believe in government plenty when it gives (see Medicare, policing when it comes to other people) but not when it takes away (taxes, regs, policing when it comes to them).

    • Michael says:

      I definitely agree that one major part of the “problem” is that conservatives hate both the idea of America and most individual Americans. Until we address that fundamental problem, we won’t get far in persuading them to back solutions to our problems.

  7. ReaderOfTeaLeaves says:

    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.

    Bam! Dr JB nailed what is, in my mind, a critical nexus of issues.

    I would love to believe in government again, but it’s a slog on a hill that’s steeply uphill.

    There are so many challenges, from demographics to scale to competing for the finest minds to work in government. The demands on government are huge, but I believe that in an era of climate change and resource pressures, government becomes even more critical. And control for legal and government power becomes more intense, because the stakes are higher for everyone from Big Pharma to defense contractors to telecoms… Et cetera.

    At the risk of sounding trivial, I believe in Apple Computer and UPS and my local power utility. The USA, I have my doubts about some days.

    The power utility offers me a chance to contribute to a ‘Green Energy Fund’ specifically dedicated to solving long term problems. Then they include updates about their progress quarterly, in short statements I can read in under 2 minutes. Feedback! Accountability! I *love* my public power utility because it’s obvious when things work. And when they don’t work, they fix it as fast as they can. Feedback! Accountability!

    UPS let’s me track the progress of any item. Feedback! Accountability!

    Apple computer makes things simple to use in the first place, then asks what I think about it. Feedback! Accountability!

    One reason that I suspect Elizabeth Warren is a genius is that, like Steve Jobs, Johnny Ivey, and other clear thinkers, she has a gift for distilling complex things into their
    simplest elements. She appears to understand — more than anyone else I see — that we are in an age of such complexity that there is ** tremendous VALUE** in making things simpler. Simpler –therefore, more accountable, useable — consumer contracts is a good place to start.

    Government ** creates value** every single time a person accesses US Census records or other public documents like those at NARA (National Archives and Records Administration). Those agencies have obviously been working hard to design useable public services — AND I’ve even had their websites ask me for feedback, so that they can improve their services. Hooray!!

    So I see some green shoots here and there, but consider TARP. Zero accountability. Zero options for citizen feedback, so we ended up with a Tea Party and all the good work at NARA and Census is political roadkill.

    I think this post hits at key issues. But I don’t see evidence or implementation improving until more government processes are easier for more people to understand. Confusion breeds mistrust, and that plays to GOP preferences for simple answers to stupid questions, and to people tuning out about the importance of government’s ability to improve lives.

    Greatly appreciate the graphs and charts at OTE that help simplify and explain important concepts. Plus, you know, that whole ” feedback” thing by allowing comments…

  8. Main Street Muse says:

    “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. ”

    30 years after the Reagan Revolution declared war on the government, the one reason our financial sector exists to declare profit today is thanks to the enemy, i.e. the government. Without the massive and expensive government bailout, the financial sector would have ceased to exist. So, too, can be said of Chrysler and GM. Without a government bailout, these businesses would be shuttered.

    Though squeezed by stagnant wages and a housing crisis that has hurt the finances of homeowners across the country, homeowners and consumers have not gotten a bailout.

    Thus, there are many who believe the government is acting less like a “force for good” and more like a funding source for wealthy capitalists who profit when the going is good and get bailed out when the going gets bad.

    The notion that the framing of an idea is not relevant is a huge reason why progressives are losing the battle for the American mind. The GOP and tea partiers completely understand the value of framing – and they use it to their benefit. The progressives have yet to learn this lesson. That taxing wealthier people is held up as “class warfare” by the GOP is indeed framing the issue in inflammatory and untruthful ways. Since Reagan, the losers in “class warfare” are certainly NOT the wealthy. No, it’s the middle-class that’s been beaten to a pulp by those interested in framing the debate in ways that incite rage but do little to solve serious issues that confront our nation today.

  9. Fred Donaldson says:

    Good article with many excellent points.

    Many miss the fact that Americans knew how to protest in the early 20th Century and were very distanced from government. But they marched for their causes – union, wages, women’s vote, even Prohibition (three out of four isn’t bad).

    FDR was honest, brave, truthful and couldn’t be bought or scared, and the American people recognized that. The rich hated him, which is often an excellent endorsement.

    Newspapers then covered the protests and the issues, because most had private owners. I saw the change as a publisher from private to corporate and attribute much of the media fuzzy thought and big advertiser allegiance to today’s bank investment influence and quarterly profit reports.

  10. Anthony Miller says:

    It should not be about framing or money. It should be about the American people having the desire or making it second nature to learn the facts to determine which representatives are truly acting in our best interest.

    If the electorate truly look at the actions by all parties over the last three years it should be a no brainer as to who is working on behalf of the American people and who simply are trying to retain power or get power.

    It is sad that we are allowing people who makes millions shape our opinions with sound bites and selective editing. As long as American people are too lazy to get the facts and learn about laws and policies being implemented or denied, unfortunately money and framing will always determine the destiny of our country up to a certain point. The only time that framing or money cannot make a difference is when things are so bad that spinning the information will not help in most cases.

  11. Comma1 says:

    Framing is very important — both short term and long term. At least since Reagan, Repubos have been much more effective creating a long term narrative that all government is bad government. Dems didn’t bother fighting this narrative — in fact they acquiesced to it. (This, in my mind, is the major disaster of the Clinton administration, but I digress). Repubos are better at the short term framing too, but this short game is simpler for them because it is helped by their long term game.

    Even without the fairness doctrine there is a simple solution — though it is not immediate. Marketing. The US government is the largest employer in the country and it has a miniscule marketing budget. Repubos have built marketing paths through talk radio, “business news,” and fox to disseminate their point of view. The point of these entities is to get across two ideas: 1) all government is bad government, 2) repubos are the only option. Like businesses, government needs to tout its accomplishments, explain its products and services, and increase public awareness. It is obvious to me that this is not a matter of Repubo vs. Dem, but a matter of functional government in 2011. If half of the country doesn’t believe that there is such a thing as functional government, we won’t get functional government — and at this point, it is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

    Again, the answer is to do the same thing that Dairy Queen does, have a good product (policy) and then market that product.

    • Comma1 says:

      I would add, that the larger and more effective role of government in the past century followed a large and effective marketing campaign attached to WWII. WWII likely bonded different groups and classes of men because of the shared experience, horror, and sacrifice, but also because it was a time in which the government realized it was necessary to market to the public.

  12. Will Neuhauser says:

    How you make your case matters. But first you have to choose what is most important to frame – what is the big problem you want to address. By saying that distrust in government is the big problem is not to say that framing of how you make the case that it in fact is worthwhile to invest in public structures.

    I think you set up a false dichotomy by saying framing the wrong thing shows framing is bad.

    It isn’t an either/or. It should always be both.

  13. general c. san desist says:

    …it is easy to find fault, if one has that disposition. There was once a man who, not being able to find any other fault with his coal, complained that there too many prehistoric toads in it.-Pudd’nhead Wilson’s Calendar

    Thirty years of framing the issue as lower taxes & less government while increasing both is a bit facetious. The plan was framed to bring us the brink of today’s impasse. The conservative brotherhood can’t help themselves, it appears. I think it stems from religious leanings. The unbearable light of being is way too much for the feeble mind.

    Whether their heads are half-full or half-empty doesn’t matter, their ideas will forever be half-baked. I believe the word temerity is operative here.

  14. Tom Cammarata says:

    “This means progressives have some heavy lifting to do.”

    Just pay attention to what Elizabeth Warren is saying in her run for Senate. She’s combining the facts of importance, of necessity and of trust in the Progressive message within the very strong frame of the “social contract” to — in Jefferson’s words — “place before mankind the sense of the subject in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent.”

    You can’t get any better than that.

  15. Around The Dial – September 27, 2011 | South By North Strategies, Ltd. says:

    […] Bernstein points out that power dynamics matter more than message […]