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Conservative Framing


John in Sacramento reminded me of something yesterday in the comments.  I have been meaning to talk about this Lakoff essay, but just haven't had time to get to it.  But this week, as we have pondered the mess that is FEMA, the chaos in Iraq, and the failures of the rubber stamp Republican Congress to provide oversight of the White House or, even in truth, itself, the framing that Lakoff provides with regard to conservative philosophy ought to be examined more closely.

And it is this portion of the essay that hits the nail right on the frame:

Perhaps the biggest irony of the Bush-is-incompetent frame is that these "failures" — Iraq, Katrina and the budget deficit — have been successes in terms of advancing the conservative agenda.

One of the goals of Conservatives is to keep people from relying on the federal government. Under Bush, FEMA was reorganized to no longer be a first responder in major natural disasters, but to provide support for local agencies. This led to the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina. Now citizens, as well as local and state governments, have become distrustful of the federal government's capacity to help ordinary citizens. Though Bush's popularity may have suffered, enhancing the perception of federal government as inept turned out to be a conservative victory.

Conservatives also strive to get rid of protective agencies and social programs. The deficit Bush created through irresponsible tax cuts and a costly war in Iraq will require drastic budget cuts to remedy. Those cuts, conservatives know, won't come from military spending, particularly when they raise the constant specter of war. Instead, the cuts will be from what Conservatives have begun to call "non-military, discretionary spending;" that is, the programs that contribute to the common good like the FDA, EPA, FCC, FEMA, OSHA and the NLRB. Yet another success for the conservative agenda. Both Iraq and Katrina have enriched the coffers of the conservative corporate elite, thus further advancing the conservative agenda.

Halliburton, Lockhead Martin and US oil companies have enjoyed huge profit margins in the last six years. Taking Iraq's oil production off-line in the face of rising international demand meant prices would rise, making the oil inventories of Exxon and other firms that much more valuable, leading to record profits. The destruction wrought by Katrina and Iraq meant billions in reconstruction contracts. The war in Iraq (and the war in Afghanistan) meant billions in military equipment contracts. Was there any doubt where those contracts would go? Chalk up another success for Bush's conservative agenda.

Bush also used Katrina as an opportunity to suspend the environmental and labor protection laws that Conservatives despise so much. In the wake of Katrina, environmental standards for oil refineries were temporarily suspended to increase production. Labor laws are being thwarted to drive down the cost of reconstruction efforts. So, amidst these "disasters," Conservatives win again.

Where most Americans see failure in Iraq — George Miller recently called Iraq a "blunder of historic proportions" — conservative militarists are seeing many successes. Conservatives stress the importance of our military — our national pride and worth is expressed through its power and influence. Permanent bases are being constructed as planned in Iraq, and America has shown the rest of the world that we can and will preemptively strike with little provocation. They succeeded in a mobilization of our military forces based on ideological pretenses to impact foreign policy. The war has struck fear in other nations with a hostile show of American power. The conservatives have succeeded in strengthening what they perceive to be the locus of the national interest — military power.

This is the foundation on which conversations about the Bush Administration and the Republican-controlled Congress ought to rest — and ought to have rested all along — in terms of understanding and, especially, in terms of attacking it at the root.

And it is in that context that I refer back to a post that Digby did back in 2004, during the throes of the last Presidential election, discussing doing the framing properly — in the context of a prior Lakoff frame regarding the question of national security considerations in the Bush v. Kerry context:

From a tactical communications standpoint, it is very important for the left to acknowledge that Lakoff is telling us that our current method of framing ourselves is as flawed as the way the other side frames us. (Indeed, I’ve just argued that the master himself has made a major error.) But, even if I agreed with his framework, it would still not be useful to merely parrot it and assume that it is a good tactical framework merely because Lakoff himself is a progressive. The point of all this is to frame issues in such a way as to persuade the undecideds and apathetic and at least some members of the opposition to agree with our side of the argument. That means we have to stop preaching to the choir all the time.

And framing alone is not enough. We also have to take into account certain realities about how people arrive at political decisions these days. It’s my observation that they rely on simplistic symbolism and image more than they have in the past, mostly because of the pervasiveness of the shallow celebrity culture and television's position as the epicenter of the American community. (I’ll elaborate on that in a later post.)

As Lakoff says in the article:

In the strict father model, the big thing is discipline and moral authority, and punishment for those who do something wrong. That comes out very clearly in the Bush administration's foreign and domestic policy. With Schwarzenegger, it's in his movies: most of the characters that he plays exemplify that moral system. He didn't have to say a word! He just had to stand up there, and he represents Mr. Discipline. He knows what's right and wrong, and he's going to take it to the people. He's not going to ask permission, or have a discussion, he's going to do what needs to be done, using force and authority. His very persona represents what conservatives are about.

I think this is right on the money. Schwarzenegger’s campaign rested solely on his scripted action-hero persona. In fact, this may be the first election in which all pretense of substance was completely abandoned in favor of purely manufactured Hollywood symbolism. The “crisis” that precipitated the recall wasn’t real, the ensuing voter “anger” wasn’t real and the winning candidate wasn’t real. The entire narrative was scripted as a loose form reality TV show in which the drama was pushed and prodded by the “producers” even though the outcome wasn’t preordained. It was “real” in the same way that “Survivor” is real.

As Lakoff rightly points out, this stuff is important and the Democrats are just not getting with the program. The other side is doing it with a tremendous amount of sophistication and almost unlimited financial backing. California is the most populated state in the nation and if it can happen here, a Democratic state, it can happen nationally. In fact, in many ways, election 2000 was an early version.

Meanwhile, many on our side seem to believe that there is something distasteful about framing issues and using symbolism and metaphor to win elections as if being unable to govern honestly is the natural consequence of using these communication techniques. This is wrong.  (emphasis mine)

If I could, I would make certain that every Democratic official read Digby every day.  This is so spot on.  One only need look to the Reagan era as to how important the symbolism and the framing could be in terms of overlay with the actual substantive discussions that are also needed.  No one is suggesting that the illusory replace the substantive.  But it is worth understanding in this age of ADD and TIVO-ing to get through commercial breaks that much more quickly that the American attention span is limited. 

And, as a result, any messaging that is done using only part of the tools at our fingertips is a lost opportunity.  It would be stupid to say otherwise, frankly, and Democrats — from elected officials through to the talking heads who claim to speak for them (and us) in the punditry need to wake up and realize that in this age of sound bites, every idiotic thing that dribbles out of their mouths, every bad hair day, every poor wardrobe choice, every missed opportunity to tell the story as we want it to be told is just a moment which fumbles the ball into the hands of the other side.  We cannot afford to make those sorts of errors any longer — the Wurlitzer has been working this since the days of Reagan, and it is past time that we caught up to modern communications 101.

Which leads me to a recent news conference that Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi gave and a particular response of hers to a reporter question which I thought deserved a read:

Q: Madame Speaker, a two-parter. One, do you support the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group – all of the recommendations? And can you respond to the study group's recommendation — especially your former colleague, Leon Panetta — that this going forward has to be a strong bipartisan effort? Is that possible when your colleague, Senator Reid, has already promised vigorous oversight, including going back into pre -war intelligence issues at the outset of the new Congress?

Ms. Pelosi. I think that it's not only possible, it is absolutely necessary for Congress to exercise its oversight over the executive branch. It is our constitutional responsibility and when our men and women are in harm's way, that responsibility is heightened.

I haven't read the entire Iraq Study Group report. We just received the book this morning. But it was interesting to me that they did support a recommendation from Democrats in the House and the Senate. We've written to the President on more than one occasion to say the mission in Iraq must be changed from combat to training. And that's one of the first recommendations of the group. That would then lead to a responsible redeployment of our troops out of Iraq. Certainly, their initiatives on diplomacy are ones that we advocated in our letters to the President as well, to give some responsibility to reach out in a diplomatic way to countries in the region and beyond, to build more stability in Iraq.

I have to read the entire book to get down to the details, but I liked how they began. They began by saying we must transition our troops out of Iraq. We begin by changing the mission. Democrats have been saying that all along.

The bipartisanship is essential. Senator Reid has called for House and Senate, Democrats and Republicans, to come together to consider the Iraq Study Group's proposal as well as other positive ideas that are out there about how we end the war in Iraq, bring our troops home safely and soon. One of the provisions they presented was changing the atmosphere domestically within Iraq and saying that if the Iraqi government does not live up to certain standards, that our support would be reduced. And we certainly subscribe to that.

But, again, we have to read the whole book. It's one of many of several, thoughtful proposals, that are put out there.

I joined the President in supporting the effort, and I'll look forward to seeing how they support us back in a bipartisan communication with the President from the Congress on Iraq. First and foremost, I salute the Iraq Study Group, for agreeing that the present Bush policy in Iraq has been a failure. And then everything sprang from that.

I think this is an excellent example of framing the argument about President Bush and the ISG with respect to the Democratic approach on this — and staying on message as to where the fault ought to be apportioned for this mess on the doorstep of the Bush Administration and the Republicans who have failed, for years now, to provide appropriate oversight. I think this was very well done, but I'd love to hear what you all think. Frankly, having a Democratic leader stay on message and throw in a pointed jab with a smile on her face is such a welcome change, I'm just happy to be able to share it.

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Christy Hardin Smith

Christy Hardin Smith

Christy is a "recovering" attorney, who earned her undergraduate degree at Smith College, in American Studies and Government, concentrating in American Foreign Policy. She then went on to graduate studies at the University of Pennsylvania in the field of political science and international relations/security studies, before attending law school at the College of Law at West Virginia University, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review. Christy was a partner in her own firm for several years, where she practiced in a number of areas including criminal defense, child abuse and neglect representation, domestic law, civil litigation, and she was an attorney for a small municipality, before switching hats to become a state prosecutor. Christy has extensive trial experience, and has worked for years both in and out of the court system to improve the lives of at risk children.

Email: reddhedd AT firedoglake DOT com