Framing

One of the things that interests me is why conservatives don’t support universal health care, after all, it is in their best personal interests.  However, as linguist George Lakoff points out, “People do not necessarily vote in their self-interest.  They vote their identity.  They vote their values.  They vote for who they identify with.”[1]  Consequently, because they identify with the Republican Party, conservatives vote Republican even though the Party has repeatedly failed to give them the things that may be important to them such as an end to abortion.[2]

Getting people to believe that their values coincide with a political party’s ideology takes work and Republicans appear to be better at it than Democrats.  In part, that’s because most liberals tend to be left of center politically, whereas the Democratic Party is a centralist party that leans left on some issues.  Joe Biden’s position on incremental changes to the Affordable Care Act is an example of a centralist position that alienates liberals who support universal health care.  To quote George Lakoff again, “Liberal and progressive candidates tend to follow their polls and decide that they have to become more “centralist” by moving to the right.  The conservatives do not move at all to the left, and yet they win!”[3] 

While it is true that conservatives have stronger allegiance to the Republican Party than liberals have to the Democratic Party, Republicans are also better at messaging, particularly framing.  Framing as it is used in politics is the use of language to place issues and events within a desired meaning that supports your position.  Following are some techniques used to frame issues:

  • Metaphor: To frame a conceptual idea through comparison to something else.
  • Stories (myths, legends): To frame a topic via narrative in a vivid and memorable way.
  • Tradition (rituals, ceremonies): Cultural mores that imbue significance in the mundane, closely tied to artifacts.
  • Slogan, jargon, catchphrase: To frame an object with a catchy phrase to make it more memorable and relate-able.
  • Artifact: Objects with intrinsic symbolic value – a visual/cultural phenomenon that holds more meaning than the object itself.
  • Contrast: To describe an object in terms of what it is not.
  • Spin: to present a concept in such a ways as to convey a value judgement (positive or negative) that might not be immediately apparent; to create an inherent bias by definition.[4]

While these are the techniques, it is important to keep in mind that framing is a means to an end.  For the Republican Party, the political ends[5] typically involve smaller government (except defense), lower taxes (especially for the rich), gerrymandering and voter suppression to enhance opportunities for Republicans to win office, and support of issues that are popular with their voter base, such as ending abortion, opposition to homosexuality, and gun rights without responsibility.  An example of framing when addressing one of these issues is the phrase “tax relief”.  The word relief connotes that something is onerous and should be corrected.  Therefore, low taxes will absolve Americans of their tax burden (another way of framing taxes), regardless of the fact that taxes pay for many things that are in voters best self-interest such as public safety (police and fire departments), public health (clean water and sanitation to prevent disease), and public education (universal and available to all regardless of income).  

Other examples of framing that work for Republicans include: (1) climate change is a hoax, (2) pro-life, (3) compassionate conservatism, (4) no child left behind, (5) the war on drugs, (5) tort reform, (6) socialized medicine and free health care, (7) war on terrorism, (8) law and order, (9) religious freedom, (10) all lives matter, (11) gun control, and (12) make America great again.  All of these words, phrases, and slogans concisely connote a political position.  For example, “gun control” implies that someone or something (read Democratic politicians) want to curtail or repeal your right to own a gun.  “Free health care” suggests that hard working Americans will end up paying for the medical care of freeloaders who will take advantage of universal health care.  Pro-life conservatism suggests that liberals must hold the opposite stance, i.e. they are pro-abortion.  And “law and order” suggests that liberals support the opposite, i.e. anarchy or, at a minimum, are weak on crime (itself a frame).   

Democrats have three problems with framing.  First, they tend to get caught up in using Republican frames, which puts them in the position of defending their positions.  That’s why I try to use alternative frames, such as “anti-abortion” and “gun violence prevention” to describe the liberal position on these issues.  For example, given the physiological, emotional, and psychological stresses of having an abortion, liberals are anything but pro-abortion.  That’s why liberals support programs to reduce the need for abortion, such as sex education, family planning, and access to contraception.  In comparison, Republican policies are pro-abortion because they defund these programs, such as withdrawing funding of Planned Parenthood.  

Second, Democrats are not as good at framing as Republicans.  For example, “gay rights” suggests to many that gays should have more rights than heterosexuals.  Similarly, “Black Lives Matter” is understood by the majority of white Americans as Black lives are more valuable than the lives of white people.  The slogan was never meant to mean that, rather to point out that institutional racism affects Blacks in ways white Americans have not encountered.  Nonetheless, the conservative media and Republican politicians have been successful in making it a pejorative phrase for white conservative America.

A similar poor use of framing is the term “defunding” as part of the discussion on addressing systemic racism in law enforcement.  Having worked most of my life in the public sector, defunding means cutting an agency’s budget or even closing down the agency completely.  This suggests to many Americans that liberals oppose the police and the need for public safety.  In reality, however, most critics of systemic racism are calling for “reallocation” not defunding, i.e., moving budgeted funds into other programs and activities to address the unmet needs in a community that police are asked to fulfill (and which they often don’t have the skills to perform, such as deescalating someone with schizophrenia who is agitated).  For example, money can be shifted to mental health, social service, job training, and community-based policing.[6] 

Third, Republicans use framing to support goals and strategies.  For example, “climate change is a hoax” has been, for decades, the frame used to buttress the petroleum industry’s subterfuge that burning coal, oil, and gasoline has no impact on the environment.  It has taken a well-organized campaign, using these frames, to convince Americans that climate change is a hoax, not only in the face of the data, but also in the face of their own, personal experiences with extreme weather events.  Nonetheless, this strategy and its supporting frames has been so successful, that even now a third of Americans still don’t believe in climate change and many conservatives who do believe climate change is real don’t believe it is caused by human activity.[7]

As someone who has studied how the political parties spin issues, I find myself admiring Republicans for their framing skills and, at times, cringing in how Democrats attempt to message their issues.  Democrats have supported universal health care for nearly a century and yet they have botched communicating the benefits UHC will provide Americans.  President Clinton failed miserably when he attempted to introduce universal health care legislation in the 1990s, in part because Republicans and their allies were so much better at messaging.  Similarly, after passing the Affordable Care Act, Democrats shied away from the legislation, whereas Republicans used it as a rallying cry to repeal and replace it (even though they had nothing better to replace it with). 

When I came up with the slogan for this website – “The health of a nation is dependent on the health of its people” – I had framing in mind.  I thought, ‘who could disagree with that?’  But the response to COVID19 has me wondering.  Millions of Americans, particularly Trump supporters, refuse to wear masks and in doing so they endanger the health of their families, friends, and coworkers.  They appear to be unconcerned about the welfare of others, i.e., lack empathy, which is a foundation of moral development.  Consequently, even with framing and even though it is in their best self-interest, universal health care is a hard sell.


[1] Lakoff, George (2004).  Don’t Think of An Elephant!  Chelsea Green Publishing. Vermont. p. 19.

[2] As I have stated many times in my blogs, repealing Roe v Wade will not end abortion.

[3] Lakoff. Ibid. p. 20.

[4] https://masscommtheory.com/theory-overviews/framing-theory/

[5] The personal ends for Republicans are power and money, particularly money as materialism is at the heart of their personal politics.

[6] Community policing is a philosophy that promotes organizational strategies that support the systematic use of partnerships and problem-solving techniques to proactively address the immediate conditions that give rise to public safety issues such as crime, social disorder, and fear of crime.  Source: https://cops.usdoj.gov/RIC/Publications/cops-p157-pub.pdf 

[7] As I noted in my 5/31/20 article, it is easy to provide evidence to debunk bad ideas, but difficult to get people to part with their erroneous beliefs.

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