Monday, 4 February 2008

In the frame

What links the epic face-off between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama with today’s Guardian report that a new counter-terrorism phrasebook has been drawn up by a Home Office research unit “to advise civil servants on how to talk to Muslim communities about the nature of the terror threat”?

They are both striking examples of attempts to frame politics and political debate.

Framing is about giving people a way to think about political issues. This is usually done by using a model or structure or question. A strong frame enables you to push your best issues to the fore and help people to see the political choices in your terms. This way, it should help you to deliver a compelling narrative.

The American linguist George Lakoff showed how, in his first term, George W. Bush used the “tax relief” frame to great effect.
“It got picked up by the newspapers as if it were a neutral term, which it is not. First, you have the frame for "relief." For there to be relief, there has to be an affliction, an afflicted party, somebody who administers the relief, and an act in which you are relieved of the affliction. The reliever is the hero, and anybody who tries to stop them is the bad guy intent on keeping the affliction going. So, add "tax" to "relief" and you get a metaphor that taxation is an affliction, and anybody against relieving this affliction is a villain.”
In British politics, “investing in public services” has worked well as a frame for both Labour and in 1997 and 2001, the Liberal Democrats. You don’t “spend”; you “invest”. So, as the Conservatives learned the hard way in 2001 and 2005, if you want to spend less, you want to invest less in the services that voters use. One of Tony Blair’s favourite frames, not used by his successor, was “choice” in public services. Another was “the war”, “the clash” between the west and “Islamic extremism”. The Guardian has a table that explains what is heard when these phrases are used: that terrorists are soldiers fighting for cause; that extremism is the fault of Islam; and that homogeneous groups are involved in the “battle”. If ministers follow the phrasebook, they will abandon one of the government’s core narratives.

Over the pond, Senator Clinton is trying to frame hers as the candidacy of policy substance and Senator Obama’s as the candidacy of rhetoric. The left-leaning blog Buzzflash argues that Senator Obama and not Senator Clinton is the best candidate to both deliver the framing of progressive ideas and to change the public mindset. Whilst I have written admiringly of Senator Obama’s ability to present a powerful narrative for his candidacy, it is not (yet) clear to me that he is framing policies that are inherently progressive. As he must do at this point, he is framing himself: the candidate of change, of post-boomer era culture war politics and the embodiment of a sense of optimism about America’s future. That’s quite different to framing issues or policies.

And while we’re on the subject: have you spotted any Liberal Democrat frames lately?

1 comment:

GoodLiberal said...

It was Frank Luntz who came up with the phrase 'tax relief', if I am not mistaken, as well as many of the other well-worn phrases from the Contract with America. Although he was friends with Dave Cameron at Oxford and a Republican, he did pioneer dial groups and have quite a lot to teach us about the 'words that work'. Reframing the Estate tax as 'the Death tax' is also another Luntz classic.