Over the past twenty years, conservatives have generally trounced progressives at the game of message framing. The right wing identifies specific political goals and then its spokespeople conscientiously repeat poll-tested language—over and over—to shape the debate.
And how do we progressives respond? We often accept the right-wing narratives, even repeating their frames.
For example, as the radical right tries to delegitimize the media and other mainstream American institutions, we repeat their language—like “fake news,” “deep state,” and “drain the swamp.” This violates one of George Lakoff’s best-known principles of debate: “Do not use their language” because “[w]hen we negate a frame, we evoke the frame.”
Rule #1: Don’t repeat the right-wing’s language
Don’t say “job creators.” That’s a gimmick to ennoble the rich. The American economy as a whole creates jobs when average people have money to spend.
Don’t say “union boss.” That’s an oxymoron, and a cynical ploy to suggest that up is down. Union leaders represent working people; bosses represent the company owners.
Don’t say “tax reform.” Conservatives are not interested in reform—the current proposals are nothing like “reforms” that happened decades ago. The current laws and proposals are tax breaks for the rich at the expense of all the rest of us. The Trump tax law was a massive giveaway to the wealthiest people in the world—including himself.
Don’t say “tax relief.” Taxes are not an affliction that need to be relieved. And conservatives are not even attempting anything that might substantially benefit average people.
Don’t say “free markets.” In the United States, markets are not and never were “free.” Every commercial transaction is controlled by a web of laws and regulations, most of which benefit the wealthy against small businesses and consumers. Our goal is a “fair market” not a “free” one.
Don’t say “death tax.” This is a poll-tested tactic to combine two unpopular words and drive down favorability for estate and inheritance taxes. The federal estate tax applies to less than one-half of one percent of Americans. Only the super-rich pay any of it. When the estate tax is lowered to benefit them, all the rest of us have to make up the difference.
Don’t say “illegal aliens.” You knew that, of course. No one is “illegal” and the only “aliens” are beings from outer space. But don’t say undocumented either, it doesn’t poll well. You can say “unauthorized” or just be positive about aspiring Americans.
Don’t say “tort reform.” What the right wing has been doing is no reform. It is a cruel shifting of costs from the rich corporations that cause harms to the innocent victims. What we’re fighting for is “civil justice.”
Don’t say “the religious right.” Average Americans hear that as a positive—“religious” plus they’re “right.” You can call them the right wing, extremists, or the radical right.
Don’t say “right to life.” You knew that too. But don’t say “life” at all when talking about abortion rights. Those folks are anti-abortion; they oppose the constitutional right to abortion.
Rule #2: Don’t use passive language
Passive language makes it sound like no one is responsible. But people cause things to happen and you need to say so. Just a few examples:
Don’t say: The climate is changing—or—worldwide temperatures are rising. Say: Over 97 percent of climate scientists agree that humans are causing climate change. We know how to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and implement clean energy solutions but giant energy companies are standing in the way.
Don’t say: 5,000 employees lost their jobs at Walmart. Say: Corporate executives at Walmart fired 5,000 loyal hardworking employees just to increase profits for the owners.
Don’t say: 100 demonstrators were arrested. Say: At the direction of the Mayor, police illegally arrested 100 peaceful demonstrators.
Don’t say: The new law ends health insurance for 50,000 people. Say: The right wing governor and legislature took away health care coverage from 50,000 working families in our state.
Don’t say: 100,000 citizens were prevented from voting because they had no photo ID. Say: The right wing governor and legislature took away the right to vote from 100,000 law-abiding, taxpaying citizens, many of them seniors and veterans.
Rule #3: Have a proactive plan for your argument
This is what our messaging book, Voicing Our Values, is all about. It provides arguments on a very wide variety of issues that frame the debate in a way that gives an advantage to progressives. You should re-read the book!