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Saturday, March 25, 2006

Frame Job

TMcD's first post raises the interesting problem of Democrats and "frames." I'm not a fan of Lakoff's, either. But I have a point/question for discussion (as someone who hasn't read this latest book by Lakoff, admittedly):

Maybe Lakoff gives frames too much credit. There may be an endless number of possible frames, and it may be possible to switch frames. But. It's also possible that there are a very, very limited number of frames that actually work in (small-d democrat or American or modern) politics. Most of the frames that exist seem to be contrast frames--we are what we are not, which is the other side. At the same time, though, maybe there is one ur-frame, which is almost a cheat in politics. And that ur-frame is the total denial of ambiguity, the "you can have your cake and eat it too" frame that, in small-d democratic politics since ancient Athens (I'm looking at you, Ivy) wins, every time, at least in the short-run.

In other words, it's OK to say that the GOP has framed itself as the strict daddy party. I think that that is basically true. But it's "more true" that the GOP has engaged in the ur-frame, promising tax cuts and balanced budgets, war without sacrifice, an invasive wiretapping program and complete law-abidingness and no violation of civil liberties. If you listen to the modern GOP, there is no such thing as a trade-off.

If you give the average voter the following choice: Party A says that we can get most of what we want, but it means (a) slightly higher taxes, (b) slightly more government regulation, and (c) some limits on individual freedom and choice. Party B says that we can get the same, or maybe more, of what we want, but with (a) lower taxes, (b) less government, and (c) more freedom and choice. The voters will tend to choose Party B.

Party B's platform was essentially compassionate conservatism, which promised the same, maybe more, social goods but less of the unavoidable trade-offs.

My sense is that if Party B wants to promise the impossible, it can win in the short, even middle-term, if it has some luck and a palatable enough candidate. But Party B can't actually deliver the impossible. Thus, at some point--and I have to admit, I'm surprised to this day that that point has yet to be reached--the voters decide that Party B can't deliver on its promises.

In the example above, Party A is the Democrats of Clinton and Gore. Clinton proved that he was a master of the difficult trade-off. But after the 9/11 attacks, especially, large segments of the U.S. didn't want to hear that the attacks were "blowback," that U.S. policy was at least part of the explanation, etc. They wanted to hear about how we were going to kill the evildoers. Even if those evildoers were in Iraq. Etc.

So, to make a long story short, I think it's fine to worry about frames. But what's at stake here may be a very simple frame: whether the world is one of black and white, in which "people like us" are the white hats, the other guys are the black hats, or whether there is ambiguity, whether you can't have your cake and eat it too.


At 5:18 PM, Blogger tenaciousmcd said...

Em, this is partly why I'd suggest attacking the GOP on the "spoiled child" frame. These guys are not strict parents, they're adolescents who can't handle money, don't respect any limits, spend most of their time engaged in silly name-calling, and scream to high heaven when they don't get their way. The Dems' alternative is "responsible adult." But this also means that the Dems can't just try to imitate GOP behavior b's it cedes a big tactical advantage.


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