Democrats are constantly resorting to disaster messaging. Here’s a description of the typical situation:
- The Republicans out-message the Democrats. The Democrats, having no effective response, face disaster: They lose politically, either in electoral support or failure on crucial legislation.
- The Democrats then take polls and do focus groups. The pollsters discover that extremist Republicans control the most common (“mainstream”) way of thinking and talking about the given issue.
- The pollsters recommend that Democrats move to the right: adopt conservative Republican language and a less extreme version of conservative policy, along with weakened versions of some Democratic ideas.
- The Democrats believe that, if they follow this advice, they can gain enough independent and Republican support to pass legislation that, at least, will be some improvement on the extreme Republican position.
- Otherwise, the pollsters warn, Democrats will lose popular support – and elections – to the Republicans, because mainstream thought and language resides with the Republicans.
- Believing the pollsters, the Democrats change their policy and their messaging and move to the right.
- The Republicans demand even more and refuse to support the Democrats.
We have seen this on issues like health care, immigration, global warming, finance reform, and so on. We are seeing it again on the Death Gusher in the Gulf. It happens even with a Democratic president and a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress.
Why? Is there anything the Democrats can do about it? First, it has to be understood. It doesn’t just happen.
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The Difference Between Framing and Messaging
Framing is the most commonplace thing we do with thought and language. Frames are the cognitive structures we think with. They are physical, embodied in neural circuitry. Frames come in systems. Their circuitry is strengthened and often made permanent through use: the more the circuits are used, the stronger they get. Effective frames are not isolated. They build on and extend other frames already established.
All words are defined in terms of conceptual frames. When the words are heard, the frames are strengthened – not just the immediate frames, but the whole system.
Fit matters. The brain is a “best-fit” system. The better a new frame “fits” existing frames, the more effective it will be; that is, the more people will think and make decisions, using that frame.
The activation of one brain circuit may either activate or inhibit another. A frame that fits a system will activate other frames in the system and make them stronger. Strongly activated frames will weaken frames that they inhibit.
There are progressive and conservative frame systems. Activating the conservative frame system, weakens the progressive frame system – both individual frames for particular issues, but also the system as a whole.
That is how framing works. There are consequences.
High-Level, Moral Frames Matter More
Higher-level frames, deeper in the system, have a disproportionate effect.
The more the language of frame is repeated, the stronger the frame gets, along with the system the frame is in. And the weaker the frames of the contradictory system gets. The stronger high-level frames are, the more effective frames that fit them will be. And the less effective frames that contradict them will be.
In politics, the high-level frames are the moral systems that define what is “right” for a conservative or progressive.
Most Framing Is Unconscious
Frames are conceptual; they are the elements of thought. Most thought is unconscious. Words activate frames. We are rarely conscious of the frames that are activated by the words we hear. Yet, those frames are there in our brain circuitry and more we hear the words, the stronger the frames get, even though we aren’t aware of it.
Framing Is Long Term
Framing is the establishment of permanent (or long-term), high-level frames and systems of frames with the brains of voters. Framing can be done by long-term, careful political messaging, or through education (say, by controlling school textbooks).
An important part of framing is the establishment of prototypes: social stereotypes, prototypes (typical case, ideals, nightmares, salient exemplars). Stereotypes are used in automatic reasoning and decision making.
For important domains of thought, like morality, religion and politics, it is commonplace for people to have two inconsistent frame systems that inhibit each other. When those frames apply to different issues and in different contexts, we speak of “bi-conceptuals.” When you can shift back and forth on an issue, you are bi-conceptual on that issue. That is, you can frame the issue in two ways, using inconsistent higher-level frame systems.
In politics, the high-level frames are moral frames. There are opposing conservative and progressive moral systems. Important political concepts are “contested,” overlapping in some classic cases, but diverging in content depending on the moral system. Thus, vital political concepts like life, freedom, responsibility, government, accountability, equality, fairness, empathy, property, security, and so on are contested.
A major goal of political framing is to get your version of contested concepts accepted by the voters. Messaging can then use these concepts and their language freely and effectively.
That is how framing works generally – independent of whether the frames are used in politics. In politics, bi-conceptual voters can shift back and forth on an issue, depending on how the issue is framed in terms of higher-level political systems.
Messages use words. The words activate frames. In political messages, you have a double intention: to get voters to think using your frames and to keep voters from thinking using the other side’s frames, which contradict yours.
Your message will be more effective if it fits existing high-level frames in the brains of voters, and less effective if it contradicts such high-level frames.
Political Messaging and Bi-Conceptual Voters
Your goal, with bi-conceptual voters, is to activate your system of political frames and inhibit the other side’s system of political frames. Your message should, therefore, fit your high-level frame system and it should not fit the other side’s high-level frame system. If it fits the other side’s high-level frame system, your message will be helping the other side, because it will tend to make voters think using their frame system.
Why Does Disaster Messaging Arise?
Suppose the other side has structured its messaging over a long period of time to consistently strengthen its high-level frames, prototypes and versions of contested concepts in the brains of voters. They can now do effective messaging by using those high-level, morally-based frames in messages that evoke the existing strong high-level frames.
Why Conservatives Consistently Win Messaging Battles
In the US, conservatives have set up an elaborate messaging system. It starts with an understanding of long-term framing and message experts who know how to use their existing long-term frame systems. Then, there are think tanks, with experts who understand the high-level frame system and how it applies to the full range of issues. There are training institutes that teach tens of thousands of conservatives a year to think and talk using these framing systems and their language and argument forms. There are regular gatherings to consolidate messaging and policy around a contemporary issue that fits the conservative moral system. There are booking agencies that book conservative spokespeople on TV, talk radio etc. There are lecture venues and booking agencies for conservative spokespeople. There are conservative media going on 24/7/365.
As a result, conservative language is heard constantly in many parts of the US. Conservative language automatically and unconsciously activates conservative frames and the high-level framing systems they are part of. As the language is heard over and over, the circuitry linking the language to conservative frames becomes stronger. Because the synapses in the neural circuits are stronger, they are easier to activate. As a result, conservative language tends to become the normal, preferred mainstream language for discussing current issues.
This messaging system has existed and has been extended and strengthened over many years. Democrats have a few of these elements, but they are relatively ineffective, since they tend to view messaging as short term and issue based, rather than longterm and morally based. Democrats tend not to understand how framing works and often confuse framing (which is deep, long term, systematic, morality based and conceptual) with messaging (which is shallow, short term, ad hoc, policy based and linguistic).
This situation puts Democrats at a messaging disadvantage relative to conservatives, which leads to conservative victories. Hence, the regular need for disaster messaging.
Polling and the Mainstream
When the Democrats are out-messaged, they call upon polling and focus groups to given an “empirical, evidential” account of public opinion and which language is preferred by the public. The “evidence” comes from polls and focus groups that test the normal mainstream language and logic, versus language and logic that is not mainstream. This is, naturally, conservative language and logic, because the conservative messaging system has systematically made it that way patiently over years. The pollsters, therefore, report that the mainstream of Americans prefer the conservative language and logic and the policies that go with them. The pollsters then suggest moving to the right to go to where the public is. They then construct and test messages that move enough to the right to satisfy the mainstream.They also construct “good arguments.” If the good arguments activate the conservative worldview, the conservative position will just get stronger in the brains of the voters.
When the Democrats use conservative language, they activate more than the conservative framing on the given issue. They also activate and strengthen the high-level, deep, conservative, moral frames. This tends to make voters more conservative overall – and leads them to choose the real conservative position on the given issue, rather than the sort of conservative version provided by the democrats.
Disaster framing is a disaster.
There are bi-conceptuals of many kinds – you can have partly conservative, partly progressive views on many issues and people vary considerably. There is no general ideology of the center. The myth that there is a single center is an artifact of current polling practices.
Here’s how this works. When you pick a given issue and poll on the most common mainstream language, it will be favored by both full conservatives and bi-conceptuals who happen to be conservative on that issue. Those bi-conceptuals may identify as “democrats” or “liberal-leaning” or “independents.” With suitable framing, those bi-conceptuals should shift on the issue, while the true conservatives will not.
Do They Form a Center?
That is an empirical question, but they do not appear to. Change the issue and a new issue-specific center may appear, person-by-person.
Such polling is rarely done, so claims about a single center – or a single left-to-right spectrum – should not be believed.
The Importance of Bi-Conceptuals
Pollsters tend not to test for bi-conceptuals. They are not just undecideds or independents or mere swing voters. They are voters who have both relatively strong progressive and conservative high-level moral systems and apply them in different contexts to different issues. There are usually a significant number – in the US my guess is around 20 percent ± 3. They often determine elections. If they are given only conservative messaging, that messaging will activate their conservative frame system. If they are given progressive messages often enough over a reasonably long period, there is a good chance that their progressive moral system will be activated and strengthened.
The directly contradicts the traditional view of mainstream pollsters. As a result, it has not been tested empirically on a large scale, though there is one solid result.
Don’t move to the right. Start thinking longer term. Build as much of a communications system as possible. Design long-term framing for your own high-level, moral system and basic policy domains. Fit your immediate messaging needs to the long-term frames. Carry on both kinds of messaging in parallel.
Design polling to study bi-conceptuals through value-based frame shifting. Always use batteries of questions.
How Conservatives Change Policies Without Winning Elections
How do conservative Republicans have a large effect on policy even when they are largely out of office? Their communication system is never out of office. That allows a conservative minority to stonewall and resist and gain popular approval for it. Their communications system intimidates Democrats into disaster messaging and policy shifts to the right. The Republicans don’t have to move the country in a conservative direction by holding office. Their communications system can get the Democrats to move the country to the right by forcing disaster messaging upon them.
The Example of Immigration
The most recent example of disaster framing is reported on in an important Politico article by Carrie Budoff Brown,”Dems Tough New Immigration Pitch.” It’s an excellent piece and I will be quoting liberally from it.
Brown reports that Democrats have taken “an enforcement-first, law-and-order, limited-compassion pitch that now defines the party’s approach to the issue.” Democratic leaders are now following the advice of pollsters Stan Greenberg, Celinda Lake and Guy Molyneux and strategist/focus-group dialer Drew Westen: Talk like Republicans.
“The 12 million people who unlawfully reside the country? Call them ‘illegal immigrants,’ not ‘undocumented workers,’ the pollsters say.” The pollster team was organized by John Podesta of the Center for American Progress.
“When [voters] hear ‘undocumented worker,’ they hear a liberal euphemism, it sounds to them like liberal code,” said Westen, a political consultant who has helped Sharry hone the message through dial testing. “I am often joking with leaders of progressive organizations and members of Congress, ‘If the language appears fine to you, it is probably best not to use it. You are an activist and by definition, you are out of the mainstream.'”
And craft a policy with lots of Republican elements. Here is what President Obama, following the pollsters’ advice, said at a Cinco de Mayo celebration at the White House:
“The way to fix our broken immigration system is through common-sense, comprehensive immigration reform. That means responsibility from government to secure our borders, something we have done and will continue to do. It means responsibility from businesses that break the law by undermining American workers and exploiting undocumented workers – they’ve got to be held accountable. It means responsibility from people who are living here illegally. They’ve got to admit that they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty and learn English and get right before the law – and then get in line and earn their citizenship.”
Conservative Republican elements are being communicated here: Use force against the illegals (“secure our borders”); get tough (“held accountable”); personal, not social, “responsibility”; criminals (“living here illegally”); be punitive (“admit they broke the law and pay taxes and pay a penalty”); English only (“learn English”); they’re getting free handouts (“earn their citizenship.”).
Put aside for a moment the substance of the policy and notice that these are conservative Republican themes that fit a conservative Republican view of the world. Democrats, starting with the president, are using the language that activates the conservative Republican view of the world. Why? As Brown reports:
“We lost control of the message in the 2007 debate,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant rights group that worked with Center for American Progress founder John Podesta on the messaging overhaul.
“We were on the inside fighting off amendments and the other side was jacking up their opponents and getting Rush and Hannity and O’Reilly on fire about this. We needed to do a much better job on communications.”
But the biggest factor came from Greenberg’s polls: the threat that Democrats could lose “swing districts” in elections, but could win them with this message. So, the Democrats not only adopted the message, but much of the largely conservative policy that went with it.
A major feature, however, is that the illegals would be legalized while on the path to citizenship. The conservative response is obvious: It’s just amnesty warmed over. The Democrats are still soft on “illegals” – a term now embraced by Democrats who follow Westen’s recommendation.
With the administration’s lawsuit against the recent Arizona anti-immigrant law, you can bet that the Republicans will use that lawsuit to pin “soft on illegals” on Democratic candidates. And the administration’s new “tough” right-wing rhetoric will only help support the Republicans.
Repetition Over the Long Term
The only way progressives can avoid the disaster of disaster messaging is by regularly saying what they believe, in an effective messaging system – out loud, over and over, with the idea of changing how the public thinks and talks over the long haul.
Here is an uncompromising example of a possible op-ed:
End a Bad Law: 287(g)
Bad laws, laws that hurt far more than they help, should be eliminated. Section 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act (INA) is a bad law. Here’s why.
Almost all immigrants who entered the US without papers are honest, hard-working, decent people, who have often risked their lives to come the America. They do essential work, mostly for low wages, work that makes the lifestyles of most Americans possible: cleaning homes, caring for children and the elderly, gardening, cooking in restaurants, working on farms, doing odd jobs, working on construction. They deserve our gratitude. They are America’s mainstays, good guys. There are 12 million of them in America, helping us all live better every day.
A small number, as in any population, are bad guys: occasional murderers, human traffickers, drug dealers, gang members and thieves. They need to be captured and convicted.
But 287(g) mostly harasses, jails, harms and deports the good guys and, in doing so, mostly lets the bad guys escape.
The 287(g) program allows local police and jailers to act as deportation agents with ultimate power over the lives of the good guys, who are assumed to be guilty until proven innocent. Their very entry into the US without papers constitutes sufficient “guilt” to justify their mistreatment and deportation.
The 287(g) program promotes a form of racial profiling – 287(g) is immoral, an affront to the human rights that define what America is about.
The 287(g) program is also ineffective in getting the bad guys, partly because it uses so many resources on going after the good guys.
As Alex DiBranco reports, the Department of Homeland Security’s Office of the Inspector General (OIG) found that 287(g) is poorly managed, ineffectively organized and arbitrarily implemented from place to place; ignores or actually provides false information to the public; fails to focus on noncitizens who pose a safety threat; gives shoddy training; lacks oversight; and has not terminated those local partners who have clearly violated the terms of the agreement – local law enforcement officials running amok in hunting down harmless undocumented immigrants. The 287(g) program also deters undocumented immigrants who witness a crime from coming forward and encourages racial profiling in which Latinos are “guilty until proven innocent.”
The 287(g) program should be ended and replaced by a law that protects the good guys and pays serious attention to catching the bad guys. It is not just ineffective; it is downright immoral.
Almost every day, I get a request from somewhere in the US – or various other countries – to help some group do disaster messaging. It’s sad. Reframing rarely works with disaster messaging.
To work, long-term, progressive messaging must be sincere and direct, must reflect progressive moral values and must be repeated. Progressive framing is about saying what you believe, telling the truth and activating the progressive worldview already present in the minds of those who are partly conservative and partly progressive.
Framing is, of course, about policy, more than about messaging. What you say should go hand in hand with what you think and do.
And, of course, the best messaging requires an excellent communications system, or it won’t be heard. Progressives have the money to build such a system. The question is whether they understand the desperate need for such a system and whether they have the will to build it.