The year was 1984, and President Ronald Reagan, already the oldest president in the nation’s history, was up for reelection. During his second debate against Democratic challenger Walter Mondale, a reporter queried him about a mounting concern that he was growing too senile to function effectively. His response, in part, was, “I want you to know that also I will not make age an issue of this campaign. I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” In addition to being a memorable one-liner, it was one of the most potent displays ever of framing, the fourth in our series of propaganda tools.
Framing is a psychological and sociological concept that has many applications and has been the subject of a great deal of research and experimentation. But in the public arena – particularly in current events and politics – it essentially means establishing guidelines that influence how the public perceives a particular topic – or even what topic the public perceives.
The Reagan quip (which probably was prepared in advance, but which he made sound off-the-cuff), in a single sentence, switched the frame from age to wit. And a few weeks later the voters decided, by a substantial margin, that they preferred a president who could turn a good punchline to one who wouldn’t fall asleep on the job.
It isn’t always so easy to establish a frame with a single sentence, but sometimes it’s done with only a word or two.
When politicians railed against the estate tax, most folks just yawned. When they re-christened it the “death tax”, they got a better response. After all, everyone dies, so the use of the term “death tax” implies that we’ll all be taxed on whatever we pass on to our heirs. In fact, the first 5 million or so you leave behind will not be subjected to federal estate tax. But Fox “News” had its viewers believing that when they kicked the bucket, President Clinton would send a truck to their house to confiscate half their stuff. The estate tax had been framed.
Privatizing Social Security? Fuhgeddabout it. But when you frame it as “personalizing accounts”, it becomes a bit more appealing. And mind you, these manipulative neologisms are often applied by the very people who sneer at “political correctness” for supposedly overdoing the euphemisms.
Americans also probably wouldn’t have been terribly gung-ho about an Operation to Invade and Occupy Iraq. But when it was framed as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” and part of “The War on Terror”, that was another matter. (The Bush Administration dropped an earlier label, Operation Iraqi Liberation, apparently because it became clear that its acronym might sound a bit too candid.) It became routine to frame supporters of that exercise as “pro-troop”, suggesting that the anti-war demonstrators were in fact protesting against the military itself.
Few words these days have the framing power, at least in the United States, of socialism, and variants thereof. Most Americans may not have a clue what socialism really is, but they know it’s the spawn of Darth Vader, because they’ve been told it is so many times. Thus, it was all but inevitable that those who wanted to thwart the Affordable Care Act would dub it “socialized medicine”, along with “government takeover” of medicine and “Obamacare“. The latter has long been used as a derogatory term by Obama’s political opponents to imply not only a government takeover but a takeover by one person. But in a very interesting recent development, the president’s own campaign has adopted the word, reframing a frame! Brilliant strategy if it works.
The “socialized medicine” motif is hardly new; it was conjured by Republicans in Washington in 1993 when President Clinton also attempted healthcare reform. In fact, they conducted a poll in which they asked respondents whether they approved of Clinton’s plan for “socialized medicine”. Not surprisingly, more than half said no, and this gave them ammo to shoot down the Clinton plan. Later, after the dust had settled, an independent polling organization queried people about specific provisions of the defeated bill without mentioning that its source was the Clinton administration (and of course without calling it “socialized”), and three-fourths of them approved. A word or two, included or omitted, can make all the difference in how the public perceives an issue.
The GOP poll was an example of a push poll, which often isn’t really a poll at all but an attempt to frame an issue by implanting a suggestion in the minds of individuals contacted. If you spend much time online, you’ve surely seen “polls” (ads) by right-wing groups (notably NewsMax) targeting President Obama with questions like “Do you believe Obama should be impeached ?” or “Is Obama the worst president ever?”
You’d have a hard time getting approval of a “Bill to Discriminate Against Gays” even in the Deep South. But a law that did just that, when packaged as the “Defense of Marriage Act”, was approved by Congress, and a “Marriage Protection Act” was voted into law even in ultra-blue California. Nobody can explain exactly how allowing more people to marry would threaten the “institution” of marriage with extinction. And how can you defend it by reducing its numbers and restricting it to those individuals (heterosexuals) who are far less likely to stay married? Quite often, the topic is framed as a debate over religious beliefs (which are prohibited by the Constitution from being the basis of law) rather than about marriage equality.
But large numbers of people are quite willing to overlook the absurdity of the proposition if it is expressed in resonant words. Some even believe that allowing gays to marry would open the door to marrying llamas or toasters. But hey, even that would result in more weddings, so how exactly would it be destroying marriage? How would your cousin tying the knot with his Corvette cause you to become less married? Is marriage a commodity in limited supply so that it needs to be rationed?
It’s a powerful testimony to the ability of ideology, expressed in the right language, to short-circuit the brain. It’s the power of framing at its finest.