In his book Don’t Think of an Elephant, Professor George Lakoff provides the most basic principle of framing: “Do not use their language. Their language picks out a frame—and it won’t be the frame you want.”
Right wing groups spend millions of dollars on message framing. They commission polls, dial groups and focus groups to test words and phrases, and distribute their poll-tested advice to candidates, interest groups and activists. Then right wingers persistently repeat that language, e.g., activist judges, class warfare, death tax, job creators, personal injury lawyer, pro-life, tax relief, union boss, and values voter.
Listen for the right-wing framing and do not repeat those phrases. Throughout this book, we suggest progressive language to substitute. But in addition, go beyond the words and reframe the ideas; change the debate to something larger or more crucial where progressives hold the advantage.
For example, right wingers want to talk about “border security,” asserting that it’s an emergency. Instead of pointing out the truth, that the number of so-called “migrants” is far below the record pace set during the George W. Bush Administration, argue that the real problem is that we need a comprehensive reform of the federal immigration system—which Americans agree with but our opponents won’t even acknowledge.
When conservatives bring up yet another measure to lower taxes for wealthy special interest groups, don’t limit the debate to that narrow legislation. Instead, point out the need to reign in a wide range of unfair subsidies and tax breaks enjoyed by the rich and powerful—a subject where Americans overwhelmingly side with us.
When the oil and gas industry pushes for more and bigger pipelines, don’t allow the discussion to be limited to a simplistic question of yes or no. Climate change is real; we can and must address it now. For our children and grandchildren and the future security of our nation, we need to focus on developing renewable energy. These are arguments that cannot be effectively denied.
The easiest and best way to reframe our opponents’ arguments is by introducing proactive legislation at the federal, state and local levels, which address the same issues as the right-wing talking points. The answer to supposed voter fraud is a comprehensive progressive bill to make voting both secure and more accessible. The response to gun violence is not everyone walking around armed, but our own bill that keeps guns out of the wrong hands. The solution to high prescription drug prices is not “the market,” but our own innovative legislation.
In short, progressives need to drive bold, proactive agendas in states and localities, especially in the ones controlled by conservatives, because that’s the best way to reframe the debate. Don’t fight on our opponents’ chosen grounds. Both legislatively and linguistically, the best defense is a good offense.