The Politics of Framing and the Framing of Politics

We know how to frame from picture framing, and we also know the frame in which a picture is placed can influence how we see a picture. Well, virtually the same thing applies to politics. The way in which politics is framed can influence how we perceive politics. Social scientists have known about this for a long time. A simple example shows how framing works. Group 1 is told that crime is like a lurking predator which is increasing in number in neighborhoods. Group 2 is told that crime is like a virus infection which is increasing in number in neighborhoods. If crime is a predator, the natural response is to hunt it down. The first group accordingly opts for stronger law enforcement. On the other hand, if crime is a virus, the natural response is to attack it at the source.

Language shapes the way in which the respondents perceive the world. Next – and this is where things really get interesting – the respondents were asked why they had chosen either approach. All respondents said their choice was based solely on the crime figures. The wording of the information has thus become the filter through which the respondents perceive the facts, but they are unaware of this. They think that their opinions are based on objective numerical data. This has enormous implications.

The power of the framing can be seen in two ways. Firstly, a frame is a kind of filter through which people perceive the world – a communicative function. Secondly, a frame also provides the structure of a message aimed at activating a specific interpretation of the world – message framing. The second version is of interest to politicians.

When politicians and corporate media constantly employ a specific message frame, e.g. the Islamisation of Europe, Mexicans are murders and rapists, etc. – the frame may eventually become a filter that guides an audience’s interpretation of the world. To achieve that, politicians and corporate media employ a frame that most listeners will agree with almost immediately. It works best when it sets in motion specific, pre-planned train of thoughts.

When you have a good frame, your opponents will think twice before stepping into it. This is because they will be forced to discuss the issue on your terms if they do. Unfortunately, for them, a good frame might have another important feature: it is constructed in such a way that opponents are practically forced to step into it because it challenges their core values. The core assertion in political framing is, the stronger the frame, the more its opponents are put on the defensive.

I am not a Crook

Austrian language philosopher Wittgenstein might have been dead wrong. Language is not a simple game nor is it a neutral vehicle for conveying information. Instead, language is loaded with values. Framing makes it even worse. It gets still worse when you use the language of others. If you use your opponents’ language, you give their frame free airtime. The rule is, you should never step into someone else’s language frame. The rule is, never use “their” language. The second rule is, when we negate a frame, we evoke the frame. Tricky Dick learned this the hard way. When former US president Richard Nixon said I am not a crook, Nixon inadvertently confirmed what many rightly thought about him – the man is a crook. Many suspected, when there is smoke, there is fire.

Nixon got it deadly wrong. Subsequently, the American right-wing learned from it. Today, many agree with American cognitive linguist George Lakoff that the right is better at political framing that the left. In that, the right is supported by a very powerful entity – tabloid TV. Conservatives tend to talk about values, principles and personal experiences – not detailed, complicated and often confusing policies. The left talks policies, rational analysis, logic, facts, etc. The right tells a simple story that simple people can follow so that they can vote for a simple president, for example. Unfortunately for democracy, the votes of 10,000 simple people count ten-thousand times more than the vote of one person even when this person is Noam Chomsky.

Framing uses what Dutch political scientist Hans de Bruijn has called the 3P model: policy, underlying principles and personal experiences. He says, policy frames are about conveying information, which generally is a “cold” activity. By contrast, principle frames and personal experience frames are about establishing a relationship with the audience, which is a “warm” activity. Conservatives endlessly talk about values and principles – American values, etc. – as well as personal experiences. Bush outlined in great detail how he personally found God. It was a hoax, but it worked.

The advantage for conservatives is that principles and value frames are simple. The disadvantage for progressives is that policy frames are somewhat complicated. In the 19th century, Karl Marx got it right. Das Kapital is complicated, but his Communist Manifesto talks about principles. Decades later, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle might have done more than all policy analyses the left has ever conducted.

In other words, policy frames are often merely about conveying information which renders them much less powerful. Worse, without a master narrative regarding those principles, we would be left with a sense that politicians have opinions on everything while not really standing for anything. Conservatives are often held in high regard because people are made to believe that they know what they are dealing with. Conservatives pretend to have values and principle by which they stand behind while presenting themselves as heroes in the political game.

Victims, Villain and Heroes

This also allows conservatives to cast their opponents as villains while casting themselves as heroes defending the little people (e.g. the victims) against the corrupt elite. They do so even when they themselves belong to the political elite. Boris de Pfeffel Johnson represents the British elite (Eaton and Oxford) and Trump the US business elite. The victim-villain-hero model can be applied, for example, to the issue of taxation. Here conservatives and corporate media use this frame to present:

+ the state and progressives as high-taxing (villain);

+ ordinary Americans as preys (victims); and

+ conservatives protect the victims from the villains (heroes).

In that frame, the hero (conservatives) show compassion for the victims (tax-paying Americans) while condemning the villains (progressives). Three examples, Nazi propaganda, right-wing propaganda on global warming and taxation, show the application of the victim-villain-hero model:

The propagandistic application of the victim-villain-hero model transcends time and places. Today, the victim-villain-hero model can explain what occurred in Nazi Germany. Germany’s Nazis framed the Jews as the villain – an all-powerful enemy determined to exterminate the German Volk even though Jews represented barely 0.76% of Germany’s population in 1933. More recently, the workings of the victim-villain-hero model can be seen when conservative forces and corporate media camouflage the impact of global warming. In the case of global warming, the victims are presented as ordinary people suffering from unwarranted regulation and environmental taxes, fees, and charges. The villain is the environmental movement and green parties while the heroes are conservatives defending the average person against evil environmentalists.

The power of the victim-villain-hero frame works in every country on many issues from drug policies to immigration. Worse, the more anger a villain evokes, the less tolerant people are of politicians taking the side of a villain. Perhaps ever since George W Bush’s speechwriter Frank Luntz’s Words that Work, conservatives are acutely aware of the dictum, it is not what you say; it is what people hear that really counts. This, of course, is closely linked to what has become known as Dog Whistle Politics.

Finally, corporate media and conservatives have also learned two rhetorical tricks against progressives. The first is to point out the downsides of progressive ideas. This is what Maggie Thatcher had mastered; secondly, conservatives pick a specific example and present it as a real-life case to show the negatives of progressive policies. Ronald Reagan’s Cadillac driving, welfare queen, is a case in point. Such attacks on progressives rely heavily on connecting with values and principles.

Hijacking Progressive Ideas

Perhaps a third strategy used by conservatives is the hijacking of progressive ideas. Under this strategy, conservatives link their policies to progressive ideas and in that way seek to reach the hearts and minds of progressives making it more difficult for progressives to fight for their ideas successfully. Ronald Reagan, for example, used the progressive idea – democracy – to tell Gorbachev to tear down this wall in a plan to open up Russia for rampant neoliberal capitalism. Russia is still suffering the pathologies from that. Thankfully, Ronald Reagan’s speech is long forgotten so that his ideological successor Donald Trump can now build a wall. In short, by linking your policies to your opponent’s values, you can break their monopoly on those values.

On the upswing, progressives can use the same strategy in the policy area of global warming. Progressives can organize support for a clean environment and perhaps even prevent the impending environmental Armageddon. Progressive environmentalists can link their policies to right-wing values and principles like saving American parks, strengthening individualism, promoting the economy, social enterprises and innovation. On global warming, progressives have been sending their agenda for years.

Corporate media like Fox are keenly aware of the fact that in the political arena, what matters most is setting the agenda. As long as people talk about Corona, they don’t talk about the evil of factory farming, the invasion of animal habitats, and the pathologies of neoliberal capitalism. In the arena of agenda-setting, we find two kinds of politicians,

+ firstly, politically-oriented politicians who set specific agendas; and

+ secondly, policy-oriented politicians who focus on implementation.

When Trump and Johnson focus on Corona implementations, they divert attention away from the underlying causes of global pandemics while simultaneously are praised for the “hands-on” (an oxymoron for politicians) approach. Still, it is a double win.

Oxymorons and the Moral Dilemma

Conservatives have also been winning when applying an oxymoron uniting two contradictory ideas like Bush’s compassionate conservatism. On the progressive side of politics, we have seen the Green state premier, in Germany’s southern state of carmakers Mercedes-Benz and Porsche, talk about conservative environmentalism liquidating conservative fear-mongering that a left-wing Green state premier would mean the end of Germany’s car industry. US senator Santorum, meanwhile, speaks of big government conservatism showing that not all conservatives want to privatize everything. Finally, there is the former semi-socialist prime minister of Greece, Alexis Tsipras, who talks of realistic socialism. Is realistic socialism an oxymoron? No, many will say, socialism has always been realistic. For several reasons such political oxymorons are highly powerful:

+ firstly, they resolve – or pretend to resolve – contradictions highlighted by others;

+ secondly, they can hijack your opponent’s core values and principles;

+ thirdly, the owners of such oxymorons are hard to pin down; and

+ finally, they are highly innovative, and you can claim that your political opponent is still stuck in an old-fashioned mindset.

To conclude, many might argue that framing is immoral. And indeed, political framing obscures the truth. It is a gross violation of Habermas’ philosophical concept of communicative action. In the end, framing will lead to fact-free politics. When politicians use frames, perceptions become more important than reality. Finally, political framing oversimplifies reality. Remember, for every complex problem, there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.

On the downside is the following. If your opponent uses frames, you cannot avoid doing so yourself. If you don’t, you are no longer operating on a level playing field. There is a core moral dilemma: if you know that the world is in grave danger from global warming and that humanity has a moral responsibility to do something about it, but ignores the need to use effective frames to achieve your goals; you are not living up to your moral obligations.

The Art of Political Framing is published by Amsterdam University Press.

Thomas Klikauer’s latest book is on Germany’s AfD. His next book is on Media Capitalism.

Nadine Campbell is the founder of Abydos Academy