Democrats, liberals, progressives, and radicals unite in frustration with the Right’s ability to capture the public mind with a few carefully selected words or phrases. As we all know, those words echo and re-echo through their top-to-bottom messaging machine. Their sound bites go from wordsmiths like Frank Luntz, to think tanks, to media outlets, to political figures, and on to astroturf groups like the Koch-funded Americans For Prosperity. Then those groups turn around and pressure political candidates with the slogans, and get free media for it too. While we on the Left are getting better at generating political pressure through social networking, we also need to get a whole lot better at counter-framing. What is counter-framing? It’s the technique of countering a Right wing sound bite with a better one of our own. There are three main methods for doing this. And I’ll add to that list a few warnings about slogan-forming traps the Left falls into on a regular basis.
Some Counter-framing Rules of Thumb
If their sound bite or phrase evokes a familiar American story, one that implies a commonly accepted set of moral or social values (among some quarters anyway), you can do one of two things:
- Come up with your own phrase or metaphor to evoke a different, but equally familiar American story, one that implies your set of moral values.
- You can tweak their phrase in a meaningful way, by changing it just enough to evoke a different but equally familiar American story. It should be one that implies a set of moral values that will carry your message. This technique is a bit riskier, because the tweak must create a genuinely different feel in the sound bite or slogan. Too close to the original and you are just helping the Right by reminding everyone of what they already said, not what you want to convey.
- The third method involves creating a dramatic new sound bite of your own, useful for calling attention to issues still outside public awareness.
Some Examples of These Counter-framing Tactics
In January 2010, just as the fight over financial reform was getting started, I could see the Right’s “regulations destroy business/jobs etc.” frame coming. I feared that Democrats especially would also start talking about “regulation,” in which case the fight would already be lost. So I sent out, blogged, and tweeted a “different, but equally familiar” counter frame: “Say ‘rules,’ not regulation.” Although some folks might have already been saying “rules” before this suggestion got out there, the use of “rules” instead of “regulation” went viral on our side after that. The story “rules” tells, of course, is about everybody “playing by the same rules,” even “playing by the rule of law.” It may start as a sports metaphor, but it’s one the Left can love, because of the moral values it implies.
A dramatic example of counter-framing a Right wing slogan by tweaking it comes from an earlier era. Back in the summer of 2006, the Right’s Iraq War mantra, “stay the course,” seemed stuck in everyone’s brains. We couldn’t seem to fight our way out of it, so to speak. One or two attempts by Democrats to launch a tweak of it about six months earlier had failed. But in the summer of 2006 we got lucky. Along with a large coalition of peace organizations that was getting ready to launch a fall campaign, I put out a web essay/blog that called for using the phrase “change course.” I also invited people to come up with their own versions of it. Many did, as that frame started to go viral as well. It suddenly spread like wildfire through the punditry, the press, and the politicians. In the end, it gave Petraeus cover to change his strategy in Iraq, from shooting Iraqi chieftains to paying them to help us, a better idea in the middle of a really bad idea of a war, anyway. This example also illustrates another principle of counter-framing: getting lucky with the moment you launch your tweaked phrase. A lot of factors combined to make the first week in July 2006 the right moment.
The third example, creating a dramatic new sound bite to call attention to an unfamiliar issue, comes from the world of GMO resistance back in 1992. That example is “frankenfood,” of course. By now it has not only gone viral, it has led to dozens of variations like frankenfish, frankenforests, frankenbugs, and the most recent one I’ve seen, “frankenapples,” for apples that won’t turn brown when you cut them. The original “frankenfood” was the creation of an angry English professor, Paul Lewis, writing a letter to the New York Times in 1992. As is often the way, in a moment of enraged inspiration, he combined “Franken” with ‘food” and the rest is history.
Some Warnings about Left Framing Traps
There are four big slogan framing traps the Left falls into on a regular basis.
- 1. Using the “x is not y” formula. Examples of this formula are “Corporations are not people,” and “Money is not speech.” First of all, modern cognitive science has shown that people seldom hear or take in the “not.” So what you are doing is actually reminding them that “corporations are people,” and “money is speech.” This is what Professor Lakoff meant when he wrote Don’t Think of an Elephant. Moreover, the “x is not y” formula is a dangerous void for two more reasons: a) it is negative and doesn’t suggest another idea or what to do instead, and b) it uses the verb to be, which is just an equals sign–no action, no life, no color, no effectiveness and no leadership either.
- Measly tweaks that just remind hearers of the original phrase. For a long time I have watched in horror as the Left repeats “Obamacare” over and over, perhaps rebelliously oblivious to the fact that the word actually calls up strong resistance in many Americans. More recently, some on the Left have been saying “Obama cares” instead. But just try saying that out loud at normal conversational speed. Can you tell the difference? No, you can’t. This is a measly tweak that does more harm than good. Much better is a new phrase out there now: “I love Obamacare.” (It’s stronger than ‘I like Obamacare.’) That format makes a clear change in the meaning.
- Turning a tin ear to the public sense of a word or phrase, and talking only to ourselves, in “Leftspeak.” My best example of this is “single payer.” Lately when people ask me about this phrase after I give a talk or do a workshop, my answer is simply “You mean ‘unmarried’ payer?” They get it when I say that; I don’t have to say anything more. Another much more dangerous example still in play is the phrase the ‘No on Proposition #32’ campaign in California is using: ‘Stop special exemptions.’ Every grass roots California Democrat I know is horrified by this slogan, because they know the general public won’t understand it. The stakes couldn’t be higher, because this proposition is in fact another union-busting move by big corporations. There is still time for the ‘No on 32’ people to come up with something better, and I certainly hope they do. (Try looking at the free American Framing resources on The Metaphor Project website, guys!)
- Believing that the words of a slogan or sound bite don’t matter, because the talking points will do all the heavy persuading. After so many years of being beaten by Right wing sound bites that evoke strong emotions, it’s amazing that anybody on the Left still holds this idea. But there’s abundant evidence that many do. Instead, if you are very, very lucky, your smart, emotionally effective Left sound bite will awaken rational curiosity in some Americans, and they will actually be open to hearing your talking points too. But as former President Clinton once said, “If they can’t say it in a phrase, we’re sunk.”
It’s time for all of us, Democrats, liberals, progressives, and yes, even radicals, to smarten up, get off our comfy Left couches, and create the truly dynamic American counter-frames we desperately need now.