Are today’s progressives bad at message framing?

Posted on August 19, 2014

Looking back, without expensive consultants or focus groups, liberals of the 60s and 70s brilliantly framed their federal programs as the Peace Corps, Head Start, Model Cities, Fair Housing, Equal Employment Opportunity, and the Clean Air Act. Nowadays, we often moan about the ineffective language that progressives use, but in fairness we’ve found success with frames like clean elections, environmental justice, living wage, smart growth, assault weapons, hate crimes, predatory lending, and racial profiling.

A problem, perhaps, is that much of the left doesn’t really understand “framing.” Here’s a simple way to think about it. We all know words that are universally understood to contain “cues” inside them, passing judgment on the activity described. For the same behavior, a person could be called “thrifty” or “a miser.” The same person could be called “brave” or “foolhardy.” The words we use tip off the audience whether to feel positively or negatively about that person or activity. Obviously, there are words we use in public policy where everyone gets the same “cue,” like freedom, responsibility, public safety, or clean water. But there are also words which bring to mind positive images in some people and negative images in others. “Government” is generally a positive or neutral word to progressives, but it is a negative word to people outside of our base. This is the simplest explanation for why we frame. When we persuade, we need to be aware of the way our audience feels about words and phrases—most especially when the audience gets a different “cue” from the language than we see inside our heads.


And whose heads are we trying to look into? Most Americans are in the Democratic or Republican base—they really cannot be persuaded. In the coming election, only about 20 percent can possibly choose between the parties, the rest are set in stone. So that is who we focus on in this type of work, the independents, who I prefer to call “persuadable voters” because some Democrats and Republicans remain persuadable and some people who call themselves independent are not really. (Framing to turn out our base vote is a different proposition.)

We need polling and focus group research to understand the persuadables. All too often, language that seems positive to those of us in the progressive base is perceived very poorly by the persuadables. For example, a couple years ago I wrote a proposed message that included the sentences “Extremism and obstructionism has turned Congress into a nearly-useless exercise” and “Americans are impatient with this hyper-partisan Congress; America can no longer afford to wait for its Members to come to their senses.” Considering what’s happened in Congress, that seemed like pretty mild language to me. In focus groups, persuadable voters were really turned off. They thought it was too negative. (Fortunately they loved the other sentences tested.)

The most important thing in message framing is to understand the biases and stereotypes that persuadable voters carry around in their heads. We cannot change their minds about these preconceptions. We can only win them over by finding points of agreement. That also means we need to avoid evoking the wrong bias that’s already stuck inside their heads. If we use words that describe our “soft” progressive ideals, like compassion and cooperation, it tends to trigger negative stereotypes; we’re weak, we’re too trusting of the undeserving, and we’re advocates of “kumbaya” politics. Yes, we favor what’s best for the “community”—we are also proud to favor mercy to offenders, generosity to the poor, and understanding of other cultures—but those values don’t help us defeat the right wing. That’s why we urge you to use strong progressive values like freedom, opportunity and security.