The administration’s decision to adopt the Right’s “Obamacare” frame for the Affordable Care Act (ACA) has been incomprehensible for a long time. But now it is becoming mortally dangerous.(1) And not just for Obama and the Democrats—for all the sick people who suddenly can get care now via the ACA, care the Right wants to snatch away. As analysts George Lakoff and Robert Reich have noted, the Right has set up a complete framing campaign to destroy the Affordable Care Act; they want to use it to take the Senate in 2014, and the presidency in 2016.(2) But we progressives and liberals still don’t have enough of the powerful counter-frames we need—the simple, easily understood catch phrases and storytelling metaphors that can effectively counter the Right’s attack frames.
So what “American truth bites” do we need on this subject? Well, for starters, the administration should immediately change the title of their “This is Obamacare” informational website, www.thisisobamacare.com.While the info on it is good and the graphics lively, they’ve already lost by using that title. A recent Democracy Nowshow demonstrated that people like the “Affordable Care Act,” but hate “Obamacare:” too many Americans don’t realize they are one and the same.(3) I’m not going to suggest an alternative domain name here; some opponent reading this would quickly buy it up, but any fool could do better than “This is Obamacare!” So President Obama, hurry up and change it right now, and fire whoever told you to use it.
But what about the rest of us? First of all, we need a very simple phrase to say something positive about what the ACA was designed to be: it’s a RESCUE. It’s PATIENT PROTECTION, that phrase having been part of the original title of the law. It’s supposed to rescue sick Americans and protect them from the abuses of a rogue industry, one that actually denied them health care. The ACA’s goal is to get all Americans the medical care they need in order to be productive citizens. (See 4 for answers re objections to these statements.) The law is designed to reduce the exorbitant cost and backwards medical process unique to this country. And there is some good news about this subject already. Paul Krugman has just reported that health care costs are starting to fall, and health care providers are behaving in a more productive and sensible manner.(5)
In states where the governors agreed to set up state-based ACA insurance exchanges, things are going well.(6) People are signing up easily and are deeply grateful. So say: SOME STATES MAKE AFFORDABLE CARE WORK JUST FINE. It also means that in those states the whole population will be healthier, and that should lead to a better state economy too. HEALTH LEADS TO WEALTH, because HEALTH GROWS ECONOMIC ENERGY. A recent study compared the economies of Minnesota (thriving) and Wisconsin (lagging). It shows that slashing jobs and benefits, throwing people out of work, starving poor children by cutting their food, and the whole rest of the Right’s agenda is actually bad for a state’s economy.(7)
Now, as my regular readers know, I always recommend starting positive in a framing fight, sandwiching the negative in the middle, then going positive to finish up. So now for the negatives: what is the Right doing? SABOTAGE. Why? Because they are IN THE PAY OF CORRUPT [INSURANCE] CORPORATIONS. Those are the folks who want to get their profit-rich, abusive system back, making money by refusing to help sick people and children get health care. The Right’s “Obamacare” attack is just a HEALTH CARE SHUTDOWN TRICK. They try to dupe ordinary Americans hooked by the idea that ‘Obamacare” is about taking their money and freedom, instead of what the ACA really intends to do. That’s where the Right’s new “redistribution” framing ploy comes in too, but there is real doubt even in DC about whether this will work in a country where everyone knows that the 99% have already lost their money to the 1%. (8) So say: NOW THE 1% WANT TO TAKE OUR HEALTH CARE TOO!
So much for the negatives. Now it’s time to circle back to the positives. Say: THE AFFORDABLE CARE LAW PROTECTS US WHEN WE’RE SICK.(9) Or: THE AFFORDABLE CARE LAW RESCUES SICK AMERICANS. Or: SOME STATES ARE MAKING THE AFFORDABLE CARE LAW WORK JUST FINE. And add: GOOD HEALTH LEADS TO WEALTH!
Even if the actual workings of the law over time prove that the insurance companies managed to fully sabotage it internally, it must still stand as a witness to what America’s best intentions for health care reform are. If we succeed in reframing “Obamacare,” that American dream will continue to generate real political power for the idea of sane health care, no matter what health insurance company mischief turns up. When and if it does, just call it by its right name: betraying America.
Susan C. Strong, Ph.D., is the Founder and Executive Director of The Metaphor Project, http://www.metaphorproject.org, and author of our new book, Move Our Message: How to Get America’s Ear. The Metaphor Project has been helping progressives mainstream their messages since 1997. Follow Susan on Twitter @SusanCStrong.
- Using the opposition’s frame without tweaking it significantly enough to give people the feeling that it is something really different and opposed has been scientifically proven to be a losing strategy. George Lakoff wrote an entire book, Don’t Think of an Elephant¸ to teach Democrats, liberals, and progressives about this fact. Why this knowledge hasn’t penetrated the White House enough by now is hard to understand. Re tweaking a word or phrase enough to make a strongly felt difference in meaning, here are a few examples from my own work with The Metaphor Project: l. During the Iraq War, we countered “stay the course” with “course change.” 2. During the 2010 congressional debate over the financial regulation bill, we countered the known negatives of the word “regulation,” with the word “rules,” as in everyone should “play by the [same] rules” (The Right uses the word “regulation” to imply “hurts business, costs jobs etc.”) It doesn’t matter a bit for the process of swaying public opinion that the bill was actually about “regulations.” It was also really about “rules.” What matters is the story the words tell on the stump, online, and in the media. That’s where you win or lose.
- Lakoff’s piece is available at: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/4339256?utm_source=Alert-blogger&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=Email%2BNotifications;
Reich’s is at: http://readersupportednews.org/opinion2/272-39/20576-three-obamacare-truths-that-the-republicans-ignore
- Although several analysts have suggested that the ACA is full of traps for the people and outs for the health insurance industry, (http://www.truth-out.org/opinion/item/19692-obamacare-the-biggest-insurance-scam-in-history?tmpl=component&print=1 andhttp://paulcraigroberts.org/2013/02/03/obamacare-a-primer/), the stated values and goals of the Act have huge political power for the future. If people really can’t or don’t get what the Act promises, pressure will mount for a real solution that does give them what they need. Already, in Vermont, which is one of the states that have set up a state-based exchange, the model is more like a Medicare extension, or as some call it, a “single payer” system. (See http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/11/24/1258135/-Obama-just-launched-single-payer-in-America?detail=email for details.) We need to understand that this health care fight is a long haul, given the enormous power of the health insurance industry. It’s one that should never have been set up as a profit-earning business, because everyone needs health care sooner or later. That’s not the way any other insurance business works; for fire insurance to work, only a few houses must burn down, not everybody’s!
- See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/29/opinion/krugman-obamacares-secret-success.html
- See http://www.nytimes.com/2013/10/09/us/politics/uninsured-find-more-success-via-health-exchanges-run-by-states.html?_r=0
- See the last paragraphs in:http://www.nytimes.com/2013/11/24/us/dont-dare-call-the-health-law-redistribution.html?ref=todayspaper
- Calling the ACA an “Act” might suggest to some that it is still in play. Calling it a Law” reminds everyone that it is the law.