gaining traction in the framing wars

The New York Times Magazine yesterday had a good piece on the framing of political debates and how the Democrats, having come very late to the realization that “story telling” and “product packaging” really matter, are finally starting to make some real discernable headway. While I’ve read Lakoff and appreciate his theories concerning the war of ideas, and how sophisticated consumer behavior models have to be incorporated into any winning political strategy, the utopian in me always struggles with the cold, analytical nature of it. I know I’m wrong, but I can’t help but think, even in the wake of Kerry’s defeat, that a well-reasoned argument could still win over the Rovian spelunking, via focus group, into the depths of the reptilian mind of American voters… Politics, it seems to me, just becomes product marketing when you buy into that world-view, but it’s hard to argue with the results, especially as our side’s now getting competent at it. While it pisses me off that we have to stoop to such levels, I’m glad to hear that it’s working. Here’s one example, taken from the article:

In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations, paid for by a coalition of liberal advocacy groups. He was looking for a story — a frame — for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives. Democratic politicians assumed that voters saw the filibuster fight primarily as a campaign to stop radically conservative judges, as they themselves did. But to their surprise, Garin found that making the case on ideological grounds — that is, that the filibuster prevented the appointment of judges who would roll back civil rights — was the least effective approach. When, however, you told voters that the filibuster had been around for over 200 years, that Republicans were ”changing rules in the middle of the game” and dismantling the ”checks and balances” that protected us against one-party rule, almost half the voters strongly agreed, and 7 out of 10 were basically persuaded. It became, for them, an issue of fairness.

Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make this case. He heard voters call the majority party ”arrogant.” They said they feared ”abuse of power.” This phrase struck Garin. He realized many people had already developed deep suspicions about Republicans in Washington. Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter, who was Kerry’s spokeswoman last year, to put together a campaign-style ”war room” on the filibuster. Cutter set up a strategy group, which included senior Senate aides, Garin, the pollster Mark Mellman and Jim Margolis, one of the party’s top ad makers. She used Garin’s research to create a series of talking points intended to cast the filibuster as an American birthright every bit as central to the Republic as Fourth of July fireworks. The talking points began like this: ”Republicans are waging an unprecedented power grab. They are changing the rules in the middle of the game and attacking our historic system of checks and balances.” They concluded, ”Democrats are committed to fighting this abuse of power.”

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  1. Jim
    Posted July 18, 2005 at 11:54 pm | Permalink

    Mark, Mark, Mark. Does Lakoff ever write anything about “sophisticated consumer behavior models”? He’s a linguist, not a marketing guy.

    Your problem is that you want to believe that humans are rational. You’ll stop being so disappointed in us if you accept that we’re not.

  2. Posted July 20, 2005 at 3:32 pm | Permalink

    I felt let down by the article. I posted on it at if you want to check it out.

    Seems to Bai is just asserting a truism, not really providing real insight. Take it from a lawyer: you can place a crappy argument in a brilliant frame, but nobody’s gonna be any more convinced. People are smarter than that, and as mentioned by Jim, irrational about a lot of things.

    Framing is a rhetorical technique that can increase the persuasive value of your argument, but only if you start out with a good argument. It can’t turn water into wine or tin into gold.

  3. Jim
    Posted July 20, 2005 at 4:24 pm | Permalink

    I liked the Bai article. Among other things, he does a nice job of pointing out that while Lakoff maintains that framing is about developing ideas, and not just manipulating language, his critics think that he is only presenting advertising techniques gussied up as academic theory. I tend to agree with Lakoff, but it appears that others at this virtual water cooler (Mark, Trusty, Dirtgrain?) think that Lakoff’s just an Orwellian word twister like Luntz.

    (BTW Trusty, just took a first look at your blog. I’ve admired your house before; it’s nice to know who owns it!)

  4. mark
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 12:30 am | Permalink

    The subtlety of the difference is lost on me, Jim… Maybe I need to read Lakoff again, and perhaps this time pay closer attention to what he’s actually saying. Right now, as you suggested in your comment, I do see him as an “Orwellian word twister” and a Progressive counterpart to Luntz. I’m sure there’s more to it than that, but, when I look at his theories in practice, I don’t see that much of a difference

  5. Jim
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 9:01 am | Permalink

    Maybe there isn’t much difference in practice between Lakoffian framing and Luntzian test marketing, but I would just make the point that for Lakoff, framing is about ideas, not just words. For an example, I’ll pick on Kerry. When Kerry failed to articulate a clear position on the Iraq war, his problem was not that he had great ideas but couldn’t put them into words, his problem was that he had bad ideas. He had not figured out a clear position on that issue. Lakoff writes that when we have good ideas, words come easily. Framing, as defined by Lakoff, consists not only in choosing words, but in developing ideas.

    Lakoff gets the term “framing” from cognitive science where it has a technical meaning; unfortunately, for the lay person “framing” suggests simply “packaging.” Perhaps framing needs to be reframed!

  6. Posted July 21, 2005 at 11:47 am | Permalink

    Why thank you, Jim!

    I would agree with your point on ideas vs. words. Trouble is, ‘least from my perspective, that most methods of putting together persuasive arguments are about ideas and not just words. Consequently, Lakoff has just one theory that is similar, in my view, to most theories of rhetoric and persuasion.

    For example, many debaters try to anticipate the responses to their arguments, their responses to the responses, and so on. In this manner, they feel they can determine who will end up with the ultimate dead end.

    Some think that the listener to an argument incorporates the information purely based on personal experience. If you’re talking to an old person, invoke the Depression. If you’re talking to a young mother, relate it to childbirth or caring for a baby. If you’re talking to a farmer, relate it to the seasonal cycle or to planting and raising crops. Frame it in something they’ll understand, so to speak.

    Some people get into total hoodoo voodoo stuff like mirroring and such, opining that if you are engaged with the listener on a subconscious level, they are more likely to be persuaded, no matter what you’re saying.

    I just think that people are far more complex than all of that. People don’t always hear what you say. They even less frequently listen to it. People use mental shortcuts to decide what to believe when they get confused or overloaded, which happens a lot. People have biases (good and bad) that taint the message. People don’t have access to all the facts. People get invested in positions for various reasons that may have nothing to do with the positions. I think the best way to persuade is to be honest, articulate, and generous in our presentation.

    One of my biggest worries is that there are arguments that can’t be won, no matter how right they may be. I’m not convinced that Dems are picking all their battles and arguments as wisely as they should. Which is why we are getting hammered.

  7. Jim
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    I would agree that Lakoff’s practical advice is not anything very new, but he is right when he says that Democrats often wrongly expect to win because we are right and the other side is wrong. People don’t assess political arguments and decide who to vote for on the basis of some purely rational calculus; as Trusty writes, “mental shortcuts” play a large role in decision making. That’s just the way human beings are–people who can’t use such mental shortcuts (such as “trusting one’s gut”) in their everyday lives are paralyzed by indecision. We need to recognize that fact and act accordingly.

  8. mark
    Posted July 21, 2005 at 8:26 pm | Permalink

    If you haven’t seen the episode of Frontline entitled, “The Persuaders”, you should see it. It’s available on-line and I’ve linked to it before… That’s where I picked up the term “reptilian brain.” It’s similar to what you’re talking about here when you mention “mental shortcuts.”

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