Here's a quick way to remember that we need to change the way approach voter contact:
Stop and think about what the issue really is. What is the conservative frame? What liberal frame can you pivot to that applies to this audience?
Drop the facts and logic. Drop any conservative frames and codewords.
Roll with a shiny new message that evokes the values that make up our worldview!
There can be many frames for a single issue -and that is desirable. For instance, you can frame education funding in a message for a young family as opportunity and success for their kids, while for a small business owner you might frame it as investment for a skilled workforce. My message for a religious leader or real estate agent might frame quality education as something that strengthens the community. See the underlying values there?
Think deeper about what is going on: There are issues in the moment, but there are also our core beliefs that endure over time. We spend virtually all of our time talking about issues and next to none talking about our worldview. Why then are we so surprised when voters don't get who we are? If voters understood our worldview, they themselves might then begin to interpret issues from our point of view.
That's what conservatives understood and consciously engineered over four decades ago. By making sure every message evoked underlying core conservative frames they have been able to make their worldview the lens that most people, including journalists, now use to interpret every new issue. Like our toothless Tea Partier, their followers can instantly generate messages consistent with their worldview. And if you don't believe it, ask yourself if you've ever used the term "tax relief".
This is what framing is really about -communicating our worldview to voters in every one of our messages about every issue. We do voters a tremendous disservice by not giving them the opportunity to understand things the way we do. Instead we throw facts and logic at them issue by issue. The reason that does not work is that if they have internalized the conservative worldview their brains simply disregard all of it. And we have the science to prove that.
Yes, it's a big job and it will take time, but it will never happen until we begin exposing our worldview to voters. I'll leave you with probably the best capsule summary of the liberal worldview from one of our best natural framers -Paul Wellstone's "We all do better when we all do better".
Learning to communicate more effectively will mean that we'll have to do some un-learning. Facts and logic are nice -they just don't work for our purposes, so we need to change.
It's also important to be very clear that framing and messaging are NOT the same thing. Framing comes first. As Jeremy Powers says, "messaging without framing is like building without planning".
Using taxes as an example, conservatives always frame taxes as theft. It's not the cleverness of a slogan that drives this into people's brains (though cleverness and brevity make it memorable and repeatable), it's that the message lights up the frame of theft and associates it with taxes. It almost doesn't matter how you word it: once you understand taxes as theft, even the most toothless Tea Partier can craft a simple message: "The gubmint is takin' ma money!". Framing (not messaging) is why they all sound like they got the same memo.
Try instead making a message that associates taxes with the frame of investment or perhaps responsibility to society. The message you make will be fundamentally better for us than our usual Twilight Zone "submitted for your approval" recitation of facts and logic -or some short and clever but ultimately ineffective message.
The weight people give to their core values affects their voting behavior.
Research by Jonathan Haidt posits that liberals and conservatives make decisions based on how much they accept five moral committments he's outlined:
It's an interesting idea, but as with a good deal of social science, one must be very careful to look at definitions of terms; it is a tricky business to draw deep or lasting conclusions from narrow experimental definitions and Haidt's analysis is controversial. While I buy his idea that people weight core values differently when making decisions, it's a bit of a stretch to say Liberals don't recognize loyalty, authority or sanctity.
Progressives are loyal, but to people and institutions they believe worthy of that loyalty. I's true that liberals find virtue in questioning authority because authority cannot always be trusted. Questioning the status quo is fundamentaly necessary for progress. However Liberals making public policy are far more likely than consewrvatives to trust scientific authority where evidence has been studied and replicated to a high degree of confidence and predictability anmd where rational conlcusions have been drawn.
Conversely, today's conservatives, by their legislation and governing show little significant "loyalty" to society as a whole, however if they perceive themselves as members of a subgroup, they are indeed likely to be intensely loyal to that group -fundamental Christians, gun owners, etc. So much so that the behavior of the group is never questioned; even if the group is factually wrong or even dangerous, the loyalty must remain ("America right or wrong"). Too much reliance on loyalty makes it inevitable that contravening facts will be ignored in favor of ideology.
In addition, the effect that loyalty to their own group might have on other groups seems of little concern to conservatives. They start with protection of their closest group -me, mine- in keeping with the authoritative father metaphor and only then consider wider society. This gets them into logical trouble when they claim to be members of large groups. To be a loyal American, a group that includes all Americans, they need to demonize those who disagree with them by dividing people into true patriots and traitors (as the GOPAC memo so clearly laid out. I.e. "those" people are not really Americans.
Liberals also have loyalties to subgroups, but come at things from the other direction, first considering the greater good of society as a whole and that common ground will be found in common values.
The weakest point in Haidt's choice of fundamental morals is his glaring omission of "community" or "commons". Without a committment to community there is no society. Democracy at it's core is community decision making and the genius of the Founders was understanding that authority lies inherently in the people being governed, not kings, churches and the wealthy This fundamental human value is also where liberals and conservatives differ most markedly.
The lesson to be drawn may be that we must be careful not to inflate the importance of narrow experimental definitions and also not simply accept an analysis such as Haidt's without really questioning what he means and how he knows it.
Though conservatives say that an unfettered free market is good and government is bad, the fact is that neither free markets or government are inherently evil nor inherently benevolent. The truth is nuanced (and conservatives don't do nuance).
The laws of supply and demand in a free market do work as advertised. In general, a free market beats other forms of economies encouraging innovation and bringing more goods and services to more people. However, free markets are routinely gamed by greedy people and huge corporations who put profits ahead of the common good. Not all corporations are evil but some very powerful ones certainly are.
Centuries of history show that when wealth accumulates in fewer and fewer hands, those hands want more and more wealth until their greed creates devastating outcomes for everyone else. Greedy kings, wealthy cartels, bankers, robber barons, mega corporations -the perpetrators are sprinkled through the centuries and the stories are epic and tragic. Eventually the general population is increasingly taxed to support the greedy -as we see now with the shifting of taxes away from the wealthy and onto the middle class.
Are we entirely at the mercy of market forces? Have we no say when our ability to provide for our families is curtailed by runaway greed? Of course we have a say. Americans have the right, given to us by the Constitution, to make decisions for ourselves. Nowhere does it say the "free market" is immune from our right to prevent lurching crashes that damage our economy and our livelihoods. History shows that sensible market regulations blunt the tragic effects of pathological greed. We've done it before and we can do it again.
Huge corporations will have to suck it up if voters ever decide to reign in corporations and industries who habitually endanger our economy or don't care if they ruin the world future generations will live in just because some tycoon wants to be a bigger tycoon than the tycoon next door. We can stop them and they won't die -they'll be fine, so will we.
And what abouit the conservative claim that government is inherently bad? Like the free market it is both goop=d and bad. Citizens have every right to prevent the government from spying on us or from buying 600 dollar hammers. Governments can get out of control and we do need to be vigilant. But, government is also our tool and we can use it wisely or not. If we want to cut taxes so low that the whole place falls apart, I suppose we are free to continue, as we have, to create that tragedy. We may instead choose to empower our government to protect us, provide infrastructure, encourage entrepreneurship, ensure safety and reach for the moon -because we are allowed to do these things. In our republic we make these decisions through the representatives we elect, not mega-corporations or wealthy individuals; not a church, not a King.
The solution to the dismantling and destruction by conservatives of public schools, roads, social security, health care, higher education, environmental protection and virtually all areas of government -except for the military and corporate subsidies- lies solely with the voter. Until conservative voter supression laws and dirty tricks take wider hold, voters will still determine the outcome of elections. If you don't think that's true, consider that every last dollar of the billions spent on elections is spent to influence voters, or suppress the right to vote, or discourage people from voting at all. This tells me that the only thing the beneficiaries fo Citizens United are afraid of -is us! Voters can stop all this nonsense at any time.
We'll be much better off if voters finally shake off the fog of counterfactual and self serving propaganda from the right (and even some on the left) and vote out the politicians who don't seem to get that they work for us, not the 1%.
The unprecedented letter that 47 GOP lawmakers signed and sent to Iran's Ayatollas provides a good example of how we might create an issue frame. We want to use our underlying values (see them the left column) as often as we can, but we also need to suggest frames voters can employ to understand a specific issue.
As the letter makes very clear, the GOP is intentionally trying to sabotage the multilateral negotiations. The letter is dangerous if it stalls this attempt to limit Iran's bomb building capability. It is disrespectful to a sitting President -and to the office- and irresponsible while the Secretary of State is in final stage multilateral negotiations that have been in the works for years. It intentionally undermines US diplomacy now and in the future. US credibility is in question among our allies who are not sure they can trust our obligations anymore.
Stories are great scaffolds to use in frames (explicitly or evoked) and there is a story arc suggested here. Sabotage implies a saboteur (GOP), a victim (the US, Middle East peace) and, if Kerry prevails, a hero.
This is a very good time for this frame, because the GOP will not come out smelling good if the negotiations fail and Kerry will come out smelling like roses if a treaty results. Attaching the word sabotage to the GOP now when it is likely to stick paints the GOP as actively working against American interests and that frame may persist if we then use it describe the damage the GOP is doing in so many other areas (schools, roads, Social Security, health care, etc.).
The controversy about whether or not to require vaccination in school aged children is a symptom of a deeper issue: how we arrive at decisions when making public policy. Should policy makers make decisions based on fact and science or ideological and religious beliefs?
A recent Pew Research poll found that 68 % of all people thought the government should require vaccines while a disturbing 30% did not. Young people (41% ) are more likely than old (20%) to favor a "choice" to vaccinate, most likely because older people lived through the 60s when measles outbreaks in the US plummeted from almost 800,000 a year to mere hundreds in less than a decade (and saw similar achievements with polio and smallpox). Along party lines, both Democrats and Republicans in 2009 were equally in favor (71%) of vaccine requirements for admission to school. In 2014 Republicans slipped to 65%, Democrats increased to 76%.
Yet this still leaves us with that disturbing chunk of Americans across party lines who make decisions about vaccines on ideology or religion, when a decision so potentially catastrophic ought to be a science no brainer. Vaccine denial, like climate and evolution denial, is a great example of the human vulnerability to choose belief over facts.
What is it about ideologies that would have a minority of both lefties and righties opposing mandatory vaccination? I went off in search of conservative and progressive frames that might explain this. On the right, the core frames seem to be individualism, freedom from government interference and the primacy of parental authority, i.e., "the government can't force me to vaccinate my kids". A general distrust of science among conservatives applies to vaccines, but to a much smaller degree, perhaps because when it comes to one's health even those who generally distrust science prefer to be like the deathbed convert, "better safe, than sorry".
A core conservative frame is that wealth is proof of hard work and therefore grants moral authority to the wealthy. Anything that interferes with one's ability to amass wealth in any quantity is morally wrong. There is also the persistent assumption that government is inherently more wasteful and inefficient than the market (the tremendous waste of the Great Depression and Great Recession notwithstanding). Lowering taxes is morally right because it keeps government from wasting the hard earned tax dollars it "takes" from citizens.
Because taxes are inherently immoral, it becomes immoral to even suggest that a minimum amount of funding is necessary to keep public schools, roads, the environment, parks, air traffic control or anything else we as citizens have decided work best as government investments running. It is also complete heresy to suggest that those who benefit most from those investments should pay more in taxes.
It does not take a genius to see where dis-investment leads -to the erosion and eventual destruction of those investments and the control of crucial infrastructure placed in the hands of those for whom profit trumps any other consideration.
Why has the public, who one presumes likes driving on roads and sending all kids to school, not stopped conservatives by voting them out? Perhaps it's because we are coasting on the investments we made many decades ago. Bridges are falling down, but not too many just yet. Schools are starved, but kids still get on the bus. Air traffic control is operating on antiquated equipment, but, thanks to heroic controllers, few airplanes are yet falling from the sky.
Of course, wrecking most public investment is the goal of conservatives; it opens the way for for-profit companies to take over those functions. This is why 80% of charter schools in Michigan are run by for-profit corporations, why prisons are privately run and why our armed forces are more and more comprised of mercenaries.
Because there is no accounting for greed in the "free market", public investments can easily suffer the same fate as our own investments did when we let the banks do whatever they pleased with them. Our economy was bled dry by irresponsible and immoral bankers yet these are the very people conservatives consider most moral.
The constant cry from conservative strategists is lower taxes, not lower taxes at all costs, because they don't want you thinking about costs. The fact that everything has not collapsed just yet suggests to voters that everything is fine and conservatives may be right that we should reward the wealthy and give them implicit authority over our government.
Privatizing profit from infrastructure and important services is one thing; the socialization of cost is another. Polluters are exempted from cleaning up their messes because that happens in the future. Wal Mart racks up record profits and offers abysmal wages because they can coast along on government services provided by local, state and federal governments to feed and house their employees. I suspect they're not thinking much about the destruction of those things they so much depend on because business decisions are often made to enhance profit in the next quarter or next year, not 25 years from now. They'll deal with that then, if they think about it at all.
The fact that everything has not collapsed just yet supports the illusion that everything is fine, government truly controlled by citizens is unnecessary and that conservatives may just be right that we should reward the wealthy and give them authority over our government. Pay no attention to the destruction ahead -or the man behind the curtain.
Our Progressive Values
- Citizen Responsibility
- Opportunity & Fairness
- Strength & Progress
- Freedom & Equality
- Commonwealth & Investment
- Health & Security
- Justice & Accountability
- Decency & Dignity