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The Vision Thing

Ideas on framing messages.

by James Leroy Wilson
February 24, 2005

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George Lakoff wrote a year ago of the effectiveness of conservatives who are able to “frame” debates in language of their choosing. So that, for example, Bush’s “tax relief” plan forces progressives into the language of criticizing “tax relief” instead of criticizing, say, tax breaks for the rich, or bigger deficits. Bush’s political mastery lies in this rhetoric. As Lakoff notes, conservatives had a 35-year history of building up well-funded think tanks and political organizations. So, I would guess, replacing the “estate tax” with “death tax” wasn’t spontaneous; conservative scholars and activists were working on “framing” the debate to their advantage for a long time. They researched not only the issue itself, but also how to “frame” the message. Privatizing Social Security is talked about within the frame of the Ownership Society.

Moreover, Lakoff wrote about the differences in outlook between conservatives and progressives. Their political views reflect their views of the family; conservatives prefer the “strict father” model, and progressives the “nurturing parent” model.

It’s a persuasive point. I’ve written often about how values are essentially religious in nature, and so that separating religion from politics is logically impossible even when we are formally non-sectarian. The War on Poverty was waged because it framed stamping out the evil as a crusade, like War on Slavery, War on the Nazis. “Social Security” provides a more sweeping and positive image than, say, “Federal Pensions.” Images and ethical values form in people’s minds when they hear some words instead of others.

An example of a progressive frame is the “Single Payer” health system, which implies efficiency, as opposed to “Socialized Medicine,” for which people may think of long waiting lists and communism. The Left is more and more calling itself progressive so as to steer clear of the word liberal. Better to see Theodore Roosevelt in your “frame” than Michael Dukakis.

Certainly, the libertarian perspective, which has neither a “strict father” nor “nurturing mother” view of government, has a lot to learn in framing its message. The “Welfare-Warfare State,” the “Insane War on Drugs,” “Taxation is Theft,” and “the Prison-Industrial Complex,” are short and accurate, but too abstract. And most Americans apparently do not believe that we are creeping toward a Fascist Police State at home and an Empire abroad. Meanwhile, conservatives are better able to advance tax issues with phrases like “the Marriage Penalty.” This is particularly effective, for within that frame is the idea that “liberals” invented it and support it.

In his second Inaugural address, President Bush laid out a vision for the world and America’s leadership in it. I didn’t agree with a word of it. But he did provide of vision, of a world of freedom and democracy. And it resonates with those who credit America with defeating Hitler and for the fall of the Berlin Wall. Neither are true, at least not wholly true, but that’s not really the point. If we think of “frames” as “picture frames” then we need vision to determine the frame and the picture within it. The power of rhetoric is not the words themselves, but the thoughts, pictures, and values that are evoked in our minds when we hear them. The most powerful rhetoric is the product of a clear vision.

What is the libertarian vision? Here at point A, what do I envision as point B?

To say I envision a society of limited government is certainly true. To say I envision a society in which both individuals and government respect our rights life, liberty, and property is also true. But its too narrow. From the perspective of justice, a free society is good in and of itself. But the true vision is for the kind of society that liberty brings.

I envision a society of peace, prosperity, and social tolerance. These are the “blessings of liberty.”

A good portion of libertarian literature does, I believe, try to advance this positive vision. And we do not want to be dishonest or Orwellian in how we turn our phrases. But we don’t have to be overly precise or rationalistic either. We can appeal to passions, to our values of right and wrong. After all, a social vision is more than what government does, it encompasses everything.

It’s not easy. The purpose of framing the debate is to force opponents to accept your terms and then be forced to defend the opposite position. For example, the medical marijuana issue might be coined the War on the Sick. The War on Drugs could be re-christened the War on Minorities. Concealed carry laws must be framed within the right to self-defense, like being opposed to muggings and rapes.

Not all frames have worked, or done any good. It is absurd for anyone to support Corporate Welfare, but it isn’t going away. Neither is America’s World Police, or its Messianic foreign policy. “I believe the rich ought to support themselves.” “I think other countries ought to govern themselves.”

This is just the beginning of my thinking on the subject. The primary thing is to know your vision. Perhaps, hopefully, the rest will sort itself out.

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