What is message framing, anyway?

Posted on August 27, 2019

Good question! Let’s start with a little quiz specially crafted for history buffs. When were these political slogans in vogue, and what were they about?

(1) Tippecanoe and Tyler Too

(2) Don’t swap horses in midstream

(3) Crown of thorns . . . Cross of gold

(4) Speak softly and carry a big stick

(5) Do Nothing Congress

Time’s up. American message framing is as old as American politics. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison practically invented the modern campaign at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1800, they used negative campaigning to frame their old friend John Adams as a monarchist. Of course, they didn’t call it framing. There was no discussion of any science behind political persuasion. American politicians framed their arguments because they knew what worked. For example:

Answer 1. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the slogan of William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential campaign. In 1811, Harrison led the forces that defeated the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe. So, this slogan framed Harrison as a war hero—just like his venerated predecessor, Andrew Jackson. (John Tyler was Harrison’s vice president.)

Answer 2. “Don’t swap horses in midstream” was a saying popularized by Abraham Lincoln during his campaign for reelection in 1864. What a great metaphor! The Civil War is presented as an obstacle that the country has to cross. Everyone in that era knew what it was like to cross a stream on horseback. If message framing was good enough for Honest Abe, it should be good enough for us.

Answer 3. At the Democratic National Convention of 1896, William Jennings Bryan delivered an electrifying speech, which concluded, You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.” Bryan turned an otherwise mundane issue of monetary policy (“free silver”) into a religious crusade.

Answer 4. “Speak softly and carry a big stick” was Theodore Roosevelt’s 1901 slogan justifying military intervention in the Western Hemisphere. It was a very effective way to argue that military might could be quiet and benevolent.

Answer 5. In 1948, Harry Truman was considered a long shot against New York governor Tom Dewey. The tide turned when Truman ignored Dewey’s moderate policies and thundered against the much more conservative, Republican-controlled Congress. Attacking the “Do Nothing Congress” allowed Truman to change the topic of debate and “give ’em hell.”

Here’s one more: “Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité.”

You knew that, of course. It’s French for “Liberty, Equality, Brotherhood,” a slogan that was shouted by Robespierre in 1790, repeated throughout the French Revolution, revived during the Revolution of 1848, and written into the modern Constitution of France. It’s one of the mightiest rallying cries in all of political history—and it’s a frame, comprised of just three fundamental values.

So what is “framing?”

I don’t want to be a scold, but some of you misuse the word “framing.”  Some confuse the idea of framing with simply making a political argument—for example, “Let’s reframe the minimum wage as a matter of fairness.” Others overstress its complexity, making framing into something that seems beyond the capability of grassroots activists. George Lakoff does that by suggesting that “every word, like elephant, evokes a frame.” Makes you afraid to open your mouth, doesn’t it?

So let me try to simplify the concept—reframe framing, if you will.

Your interpretation of any picture, and your reaction to it, depends on where your attention is directed—what’s in the frame, and what’s outside. Focus on one part and you’re reminded of one picture, story, or stereotype in your head; focus on another part and you think a different thought and draw a different conclusion.

When Ronald Reagan talked about “welfare queens,” he was taking the huge and complicated picture of social services and placing a frame around the small percentage of people who defraud the system. Widen the frame and you’ll see millions of Americans who need and deserve help, as well as the social conditions that contribute to poverty. The picture’s also different when the Reagan frame encloses an African American—it frames welfare as being “about” race and cues up people’s biases. (As you probably know, most beneficiaries are white.)

Similarly, when George W. Bush fought to abolish the estate tax, he verbally limited the picture to a family with a modest income who owned a small farm passed down from generation to generation. But that is just a tiny corner of the issue (and not a very truthful piece at that). Widen the frame and you’ll see all the richest people in America who were the real beneficiaries of the Bush legislation.

Frames are very efficient. A single word can evoke a highly specific picture in our heads. Change that word and the picture changes too, at times dramatically. The youngster who dashes into a burning house to save the family cat can be framed as brave or foolhardy. The old man who won’t contribute to a charity can be framed as thrifty or miserly. Or, more important for our purposes, a public policy—obtaining very personal data without court authority—can be framed as protecting security or trampling freedom.

What defines partisans is their insistence on clinging tightly to their frames. Progressives look on poverty, crime, homelessness, or lack of health insurance and see societal problems requiring government solutions. Conservatives look at them and see individuals’ problems that they should solve themselves. Progressives look at payday lending, high-interest mortgages, or deregulated monopolies and see a scam. Conservatives look at them and see free enterprise.

What defines persuadables is their willingness to see both the progressive and conservative sides and accept either one. This is true whether they’re deciding on a candidate or an issue. That’s why it’s so important for us to frame issues in a way that those persuadables can see that we are on their side.