Frame the debate – or lose

Posted on February 23, 2022

On February 15, three members of the San Francisco School Board lost a recall election. Numerous pundits say this means that Democrats have gone too far to the left, or alternatively, they have become too “woke.” Whatever you want to conclude about these particular School Board members, that’s not the problem for Democrats nationally.

The problem is that right wingers have controlled and are controlling the political narrative. They have a strategy of flooding both broadcast and social media with continuous political attacks, crowding out more legitimate discourse. It doesn’t matter if Democrats or progressives have done something “wrong,” the right wing just misinterprets or invents claims to fit their spin. Progressives, Democrats and the mainstream media fall victim to this “flood the zone” strategy, repeating the charges and making wide-eyed rebuttals, as if anyone is listening to them.

The real solution is for progressives to stop focusing so much on right wing lies and aggressively pitch their own political narratives. We need to frame the debate.

To explain, let’s review what we mean by message framing. In politics, message framing usually refers to the words we use for persuasion on individual issues. For example: Say “climate change” instead of “global warming.” Say “civil justice” instead of “tort reform.” Say “hardworking Americans” instead of “the poor.” Say “our society” or “our community” instead of “the government.” Say “fair markets” instead of “free markets.” (For hundreds more, see Voicing Our Values, PLI’s messaging handbook.)

But it is equally important to frame entire political campaigns or election seasons. An election is really not won on issues – it is won by convincing Americans that the election is “about” something broad and rather vague. Looking just at presidential campaigns, because we all know about those, 2020 was a straightforward referendum on Donald Trump; 2016 was about white people “taking back” the country after a black president; 2008 was about change and hope; 2004 was won by Bush’s attacks on Kerry as “weak” in the midst of the war on terror; 2000 was the “compassionate conservative,” and so forth. There’s been no decisive “issue” for decades.

Perhaps you’re old enough to remember the 1992 Clinton campaign when the frame was “it’s the economy, stupid.” It’s the question that mattered. If, by voting, Americans were deciding “who’s best on the economy,” then Bill Clinton was the obvious answer. If voters thought their ballots were answering another question, like “who’s best on foreign policy,” Bush would have been the answer.

What is the question that frames 2022? That’s the most important thing. If national leaders, state leaders or individual candidates could decide that frame, then they could introduce legislation, hold hearings, give speeches, use paid and earned media to say and do things that emphasize the real choice in 2022.

One possibility was suggested by Hillary Clinton a few days ago at the New York Democratic Party Convention:

Don’t let the extremes of any or either side throw us off course. Focus on the solutions that matter to voters. Not the slogans that only matter on Twitter…

Republicans will claim they’re on the side of parents and family values, but they will do nothing for actual parents or families. Nothing on child care, nothing on paid leave, nothing to help working moms and dads get by and get ahead.

They’ll ban books but do nothing about guns. They’ll make it harder for people to vote but easier for big corporations to bust unions. They’ll let polluters trash our environment and let Donald Trump trash our democracy.

The question is, who’s going to deliver real solutions for voters? Our side has practical programs. You can mention a few that have been adopted and others that we’re fighting for. In contrast, conservatives offer nothing. Remember, they didn’t even adopt a platform at the 2020 GOP National Convention, something they’ve done every four years since 1856. Conservatives have got nothing to say except a collection of lies and absurdities.

(Of course, such a message doesn’t work if our side continues to belittle our leaders’ own accomplishments.)