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How the Left Should Frame Issues

Harper's team is expert at word games.

Murray Dobbin 6 Feb

Murray Dobbin writes his State of the Nation column twice monthly for The Tyee. You can find previous ones here.

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Media speaks his language

A strange disconnect tells the story of the last 20 years of Canadian politics. It's the disconnect between Canadian values (those who object to this term have my permission to running screaming from the room) and the governments they end up with.

The old saw that people deserve the governments they get does not apply here. Many in-depth surveys suggest that Canadians still hold firmly to their views that governments have an activist role to play in their lives and the lives of communities. These are decidedly progressive values. Yet we now have as prime minister one of the most reactionary and radically right-wing politicians ever to hold office.

This profound contradiction is between values and expectations. Canadians still believe in the principle that government is a force for good. It's just that they no longer believe that it can be, or will be.

This is a huge victory for those like Stephen Harper who believe in the motto of his former employer, the National Citizens Coalition: "More freedom through less government." The right did not have to change people's values. They just had to change people's expectations. And they did it through a stunningly successful seizure of the language of public discourse.

In other words, they framed the issues.

And their opponents fought the battle of ideas on a field designed by and for their adversaries.

Teflon frames

There are many examples but some of the most powerful phrases will evoke memories of past battles: there is no alternative; we are going to hit the debt wall; government is inefficient; public employees are "bureaucrats" -- privileged, over paid, under worked and lazy.

The art and science of strategic frame analysis -- issue framing -- is relatively new in Canada, though the concept of framing is not. The right has been framing its issues carefully for years while the left has been oddly complacent about re-framing issues from their perspective.

That complacency has cost civil society groups dearly. And it has cost Canadians even more in eroded social programs, and the growing gap between rich and poor.

Framing refers to the strategic construction of messages in order that they connect with people's deeply held world views and assumptions. It starts from the point we all know from experience - that people are rarely persuaded by just facts and numbers no matter how compelling they might be. Framing theory suggests the construction of a message involves a complex combination of words, numbers, stories, metaphors and messengers that support the message, and take account of the particular context within which the message is delivered.

A strong frame will actually reject facts that don't fit the frame. The way that budget deficits have been framed is a good example. There are many very sound arguments suggesting that deficits can play a very positive role in managing an economy and smoothing out ups and downs in economic growth. But the notion that deficits are totally unacceptable with respect to government spending is so entrenched that it is the equivalent of the Teflon frame: all competing facts and arguments just bounce off it.

Elephant power

American linguist George Lakoff is the best-known framing expert on the left. His now famous book Don't Think of an Elephant coaches progressives on how to reframe issues captured by the right.

The title refers to what Lakoff suggests is the key to understanding framing: that you cannot negate an operating frame. In fact, each time you negate the frame, you actually evoke it. If you tell people not to think of an elephant it is virtually impossible for them NOT to think of one.

The classic example of failing to negate a frame was provided by Richard Nixon when he famously declared "I am not a crook." From that instant on, this is precisely how the vast majority of Americans viewed their president. A short time later he resigned.

Issue framing has taken on such importance in American politics that the New York Times referred to its as "framing wars" between the Democrats and the Republicans. Lakoff works closely with the Democrats, and the Republicans have their own brilliant language guru, Frank Luntz.

In 1997 he distributed a 160-page report titled "The Language of the 21st Century," which he said was his "most serious effort to put together an effective, comprehensive national communications strategy."

It quickly became the Republican play-book bible.

Harper's fave frames

Luntz's ideas started showing up more obviously in Canada just weeks after Stephen Harper won the 2006 election -- and just after, Luntz came to Canada and visited the new prime minister. That's when we started hearing the key Harper ministers repetition of term "tax relief," a staple of Luntz's framing. Why this phrase? Because it automatically evokes the image of an affliction that needs relief. Those who offer to help with the affliction are the good guys, and those who deny that relief are cast as people who don't care about ordinary folk.

You can't negate the "tax relief" frame any more than you can command people not to think of an elephant. So, instead of trying to talk against tax relief, Lakoff would argue that you need to re-frame the issue with your values in mind -- and talk about "fair tax reform." That new frame evokes a whole different set of attitudes, and doesn't reinforce the notion that taxes are a burden. It implies that taxes are needed and also connects with people's existing conviction that the wealthy don't pay their fair share.

Other re-framing ideas include talking about taxes as the price we pay for a civilized society, taxes as an investment in our children's future, or the price of admission to a desirable club -- one of the best countries in the world to live in.

"Sometimes," says Frank Luntz, "it's not what you say that matters but what you don't say."

His advice to Republicans: never say "government." Say "Washington." Why? Because people actually like their local government but they don't trust Washington. Never say "globalization." Say "the free market economy," because globalization is scary, too big and beyond people's control. Never say "drilling for oil." Say "exploring for energy." Never say "undocumented workers." Say "illegal aliens."

Re-framing to win

The right in Canada, Harper in particular, will be honing this communications methodology as we come up to the next election. Indeed the Clean Air Act is just one example. So, can we turn the tables on the right and begin to frame and re-frame issues so that they connect with Canadians' values?

Absolutely. Here's a start:

Never say "Medicare crisis." Say the "corporate threat to Medicare." Why? Because the privateers want people to think there's a crisis so they will acquiesce to a radical solution: privatization.

Never say "private care." Instead say "for-profit care."

Never say "defence spending." Say "war spending." Because the huge increases in that department are exclusively for making war.

Don't say "child care." Instead say "early childhood learning." Because the right tries to frame daycare as undermining the family, and warehousing children.

Never refer to the Clean Air Act. Call it what it is, the Dirty Oil Act.

Never, ever say "free trade agreement." Instead, say "investors' rights agreement."

Never say Tories. Say "the Harper Conservatives." Because the former reminds people of the politically moderate Red Tories who are long gone.

Similarly, never say "the Conservative government." Say "the Harper government."

Never say "decentralization." Instead, say "the erosion of universal social programs."

Two can play the framing game. It's about time those who care about the country got serious about winning.

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