How Do You Say ‘Economic Security’?

By Theodore R. Marmor and Jerry L. Mashaw
The New York Times, September 23, 2011

In the face of nothing but bad economic news, Americans often take heart in remembering that we have been here before — during the Great Depression, when conditions were far worse than they are today — and we survived.

But there is a crucial difference between then and now: the words that our political leaders use to talk about our problems have changed. Where politicians once drew on a morally resonant language of people, family and shared social concern, they now deploy the cold technical idiom of budgetary accounting.

This is more than a superficial difference in rhetoric. It threatens to deprive us of the intellectual resources needed to address today’s problems.

In 1934, the government was us. We had shared circumstances, shared risks and shared obligations. Today the government is the other — not an institution for the achievement of our common goals, but an alien presence that stands between us and the realization of individual ambitions. Programs of social insurance have become “entitlements,” a word apparently meant to signify not a collectively provided and cherished basis for family-income security, but a sinister threat to our national well-being.

Over the last 50 years we seem to have lost the words — and with them the ideas — to frame our situation appropriately.

Can we talk about this? Maybe not.

(Theodore R. Marmor is a professor emeritus of public policy, and Jerry L. Mashaw is a professor of law, both at Yale.)


The Use of 9/11 to Consolidate Conservative Power: Intimidation via Framing

By George Lakoff
Huff Post Politics, September 10, 2011

From 9/11 on, the American people have been subject to conservative intimidation by framing. I’ve now written five books explaining how framing works in the brain and what citizens could do about it — Moral Politics, Don’t Think of an Elephant, Whose Freedom?, Thinking Points, and The Political Mind. The books were based on results from the cognitive and brain sciences on how reason about social and political issues really works — primarily in terms of morally-based frames, metaphors, and narratives, and only secondarily, if at all, in terms of policy, facts, and logic.

But since the 2008 election, conservative intimidation of the electorate via framing has come back big time, with no adequate Democratic defense against it. With a Democratic president in office, Democrats, both citizens and office-holders, turned their attention to policy and logical, fact-based arguments for the policies. In response to the president’s health care policies, conservatives attacked on the moral front, choosing two moral values from their value system: freedom (“government takeover”) and life (“death panels”). Knowing well that morality trumps lists of policy details, lists of facts, and logic, conservatives won that framing encounter, and have kept winning. Why? Because people, using their real reason, normally think unconsciously in terms of morally based systems of frames, metaphors, and narratives.

Since the 2008 election, America has returned to post-9/11 conservative intimidation by framing. The intimidation does not use violence. It uses media. When conservatives, using their moral system, are able to frame the main values that define public discourse, the media follows suit, because that is how “mainstream” public discourse has been defined. The media, encountering more conservative language, picks up on that language and uses it. Since conservative language evokes conservative frames and values, which are carried with it, the media (liberal or not) winds up helping conservatives. Even arguing against conservatives, liberal pundits in the media first quote what they say. Liberals in the media help the conservatives by quoting their language, even to argue against it.

In the post-2008 return to 9/11 style intimidation by framing, conservatives have been winning. They have protected banks from financial regulation, health insurance companies from government insurance, and corporations from serious environmental regulation. They have successfully attacked the very idea of the public — public education, employees, unions, parks, housing, and safety nets.

Here’s how public intimidation by framing works.

The mechanism of intimidation is framing, not just the use of words or slogans, but rather the changing of what voters take as right as a matter of principle. Framing is much more than mere language or messaging. A frame is a conceptual structure used to think with. Frames come in hierarchies. At the top of the hierarchies are moral frames. All politics is moral. Politicians support policies because they are right, not wrong. The problem is that there is more than one conception of what is moral. Moreover, voters tend to vote their morality, since it is what defines their identity. Poor conservatives vote against their material interests, but for their moral identity.

All language activates frames in the brain. Conservative language activates conservative frames, which activate conservative moral worldviews in the brains of those who hear the language. The more those frames are activated, the stronger the conservative moral views get in people’s brains.

When Democrats are intimidated into using conservative language, they help conservatives, even if they are arguing against them. Here’s why. The main voters you want to affect are the bi-conceptuals, those who are conservative on some issues and progressive on others; that is, those who have both conservative and progressive moral worldviews, but on different issues. They are sometimes misnamed as “the center,” “independents,” or “moderates.” But they do not have any single overriding worldview. Instead they have two. Given the way brains work, the activation of one worldview will inhibit the other worldview. The more one is activated, the stronger it gets and the weaker the opposite one gets. The worldview that is most activated by the public discourse they hear will most likely govern how they will vote. What activates one worldview versus another? Framing. Conservative language activates conservative frames, which activate conservative worldviews. If Democrats use conservative language, even to argue against it, they are just helping conservatives.

To a large extent, Democrats don’t understand this. They think that language is neutral and that reason works by logic. If you just tell people the facts and reason logically, everyone should be convinced. But they aren’t, because language works by framing and by brain mechanisms. Framing is just the normal way people think and talk. Conservatives tend to understand this. They avoid using liberal language. They frame issues very carefully to fit their goals. Democrats need to do the same — avoid using conservative frames and instead frame the issues with their own values.

The conservative consolidation of power violates this most basic of democratic principles. It replaces social and personal responsibility with personal responsibility alone. It approves of the government over our lives by corporations for their own profit, and hence sees government by, of and for the people as immoral and to be eliminated.

The good news is that it doesn’t have to be that way. It is possible for Democrats to learn how frames, narratives, and brains really work. It is possible to take moral stands, with all policies backed up by a single moral vision. It is possible to awaken and strengthen the progressive worldview already present in swing voters who are partly progressive as partly conservative (called “independents,” “moderates,” and “the center”). It is possible for Democrats to say what they believe and win, without giving in to intimidation tactics.

Words. Language. Framing. Egalitarianism? How do you frame that? Is that an American concept? Is that a defining value of democracy? Do our citizens believe that we should strive to ensure that all people have equal rights and opportunities? Or is this a left-wing conspiracy that deprives people of the realization of their individual ambitions? Is it then really just about freedom?

Whatever label you use, the right has gained control of the framing, and framing controls cognitive function. Cognition does not require logic. Those who have been watching the Republican debates have been able to witness cognitive activity that is almost totally devoid of logic, yet the candidates have been well versed on framing. It is the moral worldview of freedom from government that prevails, while dismissing the logic of the great benefits that we receive as a people joining together to establish and operate our own government. This worldview allows them to dismiss the obvious logic of an improved Medicare program that would cover everyone.

We do need to recapture the framing from the conservative ideologues who would destroy as much government functioning as they can. Why they would is beyond the capacity of many of us to understand, but then we are looking for logic where it may not exist.

Do we need to reframe the problems and their potential solutions from a liberal, progressive, Democratic, politically polarized position? Or can we use framing with which the great majority of us can identify? Would framing supporting economic security for everyone work? That’s a moral worldview that is also logical.

Can we talk about this?