Got Frame?


As I write these words, energized Democrats across the nation are preparing to descend on Boston for their national convention. One can only hope that their leaders are paying more than lip service to George Lakoff. A professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, Lakoff’s work carries an important message: Progressives need to once again take the lead on framing issues.

It is progressives who are best positioned to offer Democrats something they lack: a coherent value system. (Note to Kerry and Edwards: Simply repeating the word “values†all the time probably won’t get the job done.)

It used to be that progressives could be relied upon for bold ideas that could be expressed in accessible ways and then converted into policy platforms. Lakoff calls such catchphrases “frames.†Today, frames such as “civil rights†and “social security†have been woven so thoroughly into the warp and weft of our society that most people don’t even realize how pioneering they were when first proposed. Somewhere along the way, Democrats—gorged into lethargy on special interest cash and cowed by vicious partisan attacks—lost the art of framing. Meanwhile, Republicans, bent on revolution, mastered it.

One example cited by Lakoff is “tax relief.â€

“Conservatives have worked for decades and spent billions on their think tanks to establish their frames, create the right language, and get the language and the frames they evoke accepted. It has taken them awhile to establish the metaphors of taxation as a burden, an affliction and an unfair punishment—all of which require “reliefâ€,†writes Lakoff. “Taxes look very different when framed from a progressive point of view. As Oliver Wendell Holmes famously said, taxes are the price of civilization. They are what you pay to live in America—your dues—to have democracy, opportunity and access to all the infrastructure that previous taxpayers have built up and made available to you: highways, the Internet, weather reports, parks, the stock market, scientific research, Social Security, rural electrification, communications satellites, and on and on. Interestingly, the wealthy benefit disproportionately from the American infrastructure….The more wealth you accumulate using what the dues payers have provided, the greater the debt you owe to those who have made your wealth possible.â€

The Republican framing effort has been so successful that even Democratic politicians now promise tax relief.

Lakoff notes how important it is for a comprehensive worldview that connects all the frames. “Defeating radical conservativism gives us a negative impetus, but we will not succeed without a positive vision and cooperation,†he says.

Many progressives are looking toward the concept of shared responsibility, to each other, to one’s community, to one’s nation, and to future generations as a foundational ideology through which specific policy frames can be fashioned. For example, corporations that move offshore to escape taxes or find cheaper labor shirk the responsibility they have to the society in which they operate. What can be done about that? This line of thinking could provide a helpful antidote to another successful Republican frame, the false idea that the “market†is a force of nature.

As Lakoff notes, “In the face of a force of nature, one can only be “flexible†and “adjust. In reality, the market is a social institution with rules and regulating mechanisms that have been put in place by human beings. This reality is hidden by the force-of-nature framing.â€

The value system of shared responsibility implicitly carries with it a defense of government and its vital role in society. Where are the progressive thinkers who will frame that? —JB