Over a lifetime spanning many decades, I believe that I have learned many life lessons. Saying no to everything will simply make a child stop listening; God invented Darwin; Francesco Geminiani is the most underrated Baroque composer. And a Smith and Wesson beats four aces.
Even more obvious in the world of politics, especially the fractured and sclerotic sandbox of today, there are different lessons to be learned. This is the first of four columns on the way politics operates, in no specific order of importance.
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He who frames first wins.
Framing is the way in which an issue or subject is verbally structured. Frames are structures of thought. Framing is an everyday occurrence, everybody engages in it all the time.
All words in all languages are defined in terms of frame-circuits in the brain. But ultimately, framing is about ideas, about how we see the world, which then determines how we act.
In politics, frames are part of competing moral systems that are used in political discourse and in charting political action. In short, framing is a moral enterprise because they say what the character of a movement is. And all politics is about morality.
Political figures and movements always make policy recommendations claiming they are the right things to do. No political figure ever says, “Do what I say because it’s wrong!” Or “because it doesn’t matter!” Thus some moral principle lies behind every political policy agenda.
Framing has turned into a cottage industry with pundits, political consultants and think tanks spending inordinate amounts of time conceiving of frames for ideas, principles and policies that will, hopefully, win them converts, convince people of the efficacy of their positions (and vote accordingly) and marginalize the opposition or, at the very least, put it on the defensive. This is because frames are effective.
However, frames do not spring out of some mental womb fully formed. Many different frames are conceived of by think tanks and floated to target audiences via focus groups or carefully monitored advertising. Most frames fall flat, but inevitably one or two will resonate and, voilà, we have a winner.
Not only can frames help in the arena of competing ideas and ideologies, but he who frames first will inevitably win. For when you frame first, the other side is put on the defensive. They must then spend inordinate amounts of time and money telling the target audience what is wrong with your frame and what the “right” frame should be. When the audience starts yawning, stops listening and returns to their television program, you have lost. You have not only lost the audience, you have lost the argument.
It is important to note that in creating the perfect frame, fear and loathing trumps logic and reason every time. It would be hard to forget the GOP movement to defeat the proposed Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare,” a framing attempt that backfired), which included Republicans labeling the included provision of paying doctors to discuss end of life issues with seriously ill patients as “death panels.” That is as ominous sounding as it is incorrect.
And as long as we are discussing death, think about the frame Death Tax substituted for Inheritance Tax. Makes it seem wrong somehow doesn’t it?
A good example of a frame, and one that put the Democrats on the defensive for years, was “Tax and Spend” to characterize their fiscal policies. This is a simple phrase that rolls off the tongue easily and evokes a mental image of profligacy and irresponsibility. This frame is expansive as it could be applied to the Democratic Party as a whole, as well as to individuals.
During the George W. Bush administrations, in just a short eight years, the GOP ran up the national debt by trillions of dollars and squandered the trillion-dollar surplus it had inherited from the Clinton administration. In order to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans and the unfunded Medicare prescription drug plan, a massive deficit was created. Thus the U.S. was forced to borrow trillions of dollars from other nations, chiefly China. The Democrats fought back eventually and gained traction with the frame — “Borrow and Spend Republicans.”
On a local level, developers and real estate interests are attacking Measure Y, which ties residential housing growth to traffic gridlock on Highway 50. Underlying this initiative is the reliance on a Caltrans model of traffic. Those opposed to any restrictions are using the frame, “Taking planning away from the county.” As if using a traffic model developed by state transportation experts is taking away our ability to plan our future. What it actually does is give us an ability to control our future. Measure Y is stopping a land grab not seen since the days of the Wild West.
Recently activist groups concerned with low-wage workers (agricultural, home health care, fast food), new age socialists if you will, have been stymied as to how to get these workers their unpaid wages from overtime or from employers who take advantage of their immigration status or lack of English language skills to underpay them.
Many state and local governments are anti-labor and refuse to pass any legislation protecting wage earners. By framing the employer actions as “wage theft,” some notable successes have been achieved because the authoritarian-bent conservatives are more opposed to theft than promoting fairness.
Words really count — pen versus sword kind of thing. So not only watch what you say — but listen carefully to the way in which others tell you something.
Gene Altshuler is a resident of Cameron Park and a community activist interested in economic development and local government.