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New tack on Messaging and Framing

Adam R.'s picture

Posted November 11, 2008

Since last week, it has become clear that our country has taken a new turn politically.  The White House is Blue.  Most of the Republican Congressional seats in the Upper Midwest and Northeast are gone.  Some say that the Republicans have become a marginal party devoted just to increasingly out-of-step constituents in the Southern United States.

This means that trailer parks no longer have to go under the name of "workforce housing."

Let me explain.  If the above reports are right, then George Lakoff and his theory of framing may lose its relevance.

Who is that?  Well, Dr. Lakoff is the UC-Berkeley professor, mostly known for his work on semiotics and linguistics, who found fame as a consultant to

left-leaning non-profits during the last eight years.  He espoused a strategy known as "framing," where progressives focus on how language can serve to market ideas in a hostile (Red) political discourse.

Lakoff is by no means a disengenous huckster.  His contributions to linguistics are significant.  He is a rival to Noam Chomsky.

Lakoff says that most communication is "emboldened" by metaphor.  That is not much of a stretch.  People like stories, and they understand things better when it is capured within a storytelling device.  My complaint was more about how his ideas were handed down into the non-profit world.

It was both what was said, and how it was communicated.

Framing was often communicated with the message that you could soft-peddle a policy if you deftly spoke about it in a way that made it sound different, and usually more socially conservative, in the policy sphere. The ideas definitely had some merit, especially after years of hearing Orwellian phrases from the right like "Clear Skies Act."

Yet the sessions would always have this problem.  I remember one such session, with a consultant, at a hotel in DC.  She was a wearing a suit with a black shirt and a solid black tie.  I think she a law degree from Penn.

What made her emblematic of the problems associated with the whole thing was that she was a Northeastern lawyer from an urban area, paid by a West Coast foundation, to tell a bunch of people from Montana and Mississippi how to act like rural Southerners.

"Let's not think of it as welfare," she said.  "Let's think of it as community-based commitments."

Let's not say "gun control," she said.  "Let's be anti-crime!"

I think that the era of framing analysis will retreat back into its rightful purpose, which is in the more patient, thoughtful, and exacting world of academia.

I think public policy took framing as a convenient bride for its own craftiness.  When pedaled in short soundbites during the last half-hour before a lunch break at a convention, it just didn't seem sincere.

The beauty of last week's election is that it appears that there is going to be more room for conservatives and progressives to both be themselves.  The correlation between political allegiance and geography is only growing stronger.  Districts that went red in 2004 often were moreso this time around.

In this world, framing may not be necessary.  Lakoff's public policy consulting shop, the Rockridge Institute, closed down this spring.