Republicans "Deceive"—Democrats "Repackage" —Or Is It Vice Versa?

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Everyone tries to put their best foot forward and persuade other people to like them. This common human social strategy is clearly magnified when it comes to politics.

http://blog.mlive.com/kzgazette/2008/02/large_ObamaMcCain.jpg

So I was amused when I came across an article this morning in the New York Times which explained how many Democrats are "repackaging" their policy statements in line with the "Message Handbook for Progressives From Left to the Center" by Emory University psychologist Drew Westen. As the Times describes it:

Dr. Westen's advice can be heard when Alisha Thomas Morgan, running for re-election to the Georgia House in a conservative suburb of Atlanta, uses the word "leadership" in place of "government" and speaks about the middle class instead of the poor.

Or when Andrew Gillum, a city commissioner in Tallahassee, Fla., who is fighting a ballot initiative against same-sex marriage, tells members of his predominantly black church of the human desire for dignity and respect instead of lecturing them on the evils of discrimination.

Democrats of higher office who have heard Dr. Westen have also shifted their rhetoric, as when Senator Mary L. Landrieu of Louisiana, fending off a Republican challenger, not only says that "health care is a right for every citizen" but pointedly adds, "Particularly citizens who are working hard every day."…

Instead of using euphemisms like "pro-choice" and "reproductive health," his handbook suggests, liberal candidates might insist that it is un-American for the government to tell men and women when to start a family or what religious beliefs to follow, arguments that test well in focus groups with conservatives and independents. On illegal immigration, he recommends, candidates who have said their plan would "allow" immigrants to become citizens should instead say they will "require" it.

"The idea," Dr. Westen said, "is to start to rebrand progressives using language that's as evocative as the language of the other side, and stop using phrases that just turn people off."

The handbook does not offer a script so much as a menu of options, each of which was poll-tested against conservative arguments. On economics, for example, one message begins with "I want to see the words 'Made in America' again." Another reads, "We need leaders who don't just talk about family values but actually value families."

This kind of rhetorical framing is all very well and to be expected in political discourse. But when Republicans do it, some Democrats denounce it as deceptive. Take for example, the 2005 Times article on "The Framing Wars" which features University of California Berkeley linguist George Lakoff's views on Republican issue framing: 

According to Lakoff, Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds. Take one of his favorite examples, the phrase "tax relief." It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them. It fits into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time, enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives. If Democrats start to talk about their own "tax relief" plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.

Lakoff informed his political theories by studying the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helped Newt Gingrich formulate the Contract With America in 1994. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception. His private memos, many of which fell into the hands of Democrats, explain why. In one recent memo, titled "The 14 Words Never to Use," Luntz urged conservatives to restrict themselves to phrases from what he calls, grandly, the "New American Lexicon." Thus, a smart Republican, in Luntz's view, never advocates "drilling for oil"; he prefers "exploring for energy." He should never criticize the "government," which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack "Washington," with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. "We should never use the word outsourcing," Luntz wrote, "because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas."

In Lakoff's view, not only does Luntz's language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be "activated" by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.

So Democrats merely "reframe", while Republcans practice "deception" and "twist the facts." Or is that way of putting matters just another "reframing"? Or maybe it's a "deception"?  My own "framing" of political discourse is: be extremely skeptical of anything that a person running for office tells you.

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  1. …and speaks about the middle class instead of the poor.

    Yeah, I noticed that the term “middle class” seemed to be in greater use this year than previous years.

  2. It’s plainly hypocritical for Drew Western to use different terminology than George Lakoff.

    Cuz…um…they’re both named George, and presumably Democrats, so…uh…

  3. It’s about time that the Democrats got it. I’ve had a friend (Democrat) who has been complaining about this for years.

  4. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception.

    I consider Luntz to be a deceiver because, in addition to his theoretical work, he makes a living by providing “focus groups of undecided voters” to cable news networks, after screening and preselecting participants to make sure that the “focus group” results will convey whatever message the GOP establishment wants conveyed.

    If you set up Potemkin focus groups for a living I consider you a deceiver.

  5. Didn’t Hayek say something about destroying words with phrases like, “social justice”? Which actually means wealth redistribution.

  6. “Who am I supposed to vote for? Am I supposed to vote for the…the Democrat who’s going to blast me in the ass or the Republican who’s blasting my ass?”

    “You see, politics is all just one big ass-blast.”

  7. …after screening and preselecting participants to make sure that the “focus group” results will convey whatever message the GOP establishment wants conveyed.

    Got link? It wouldn’t exactly shock me, but that’s a pretty bold claim.

  8. Tim,

    Hayek was also concerned with the coercive effects that picking winners and losers by government action has on a society. That’s part of the bread and butter of government action these days.

  9. What I tend to see is that repackaging on the left is more conscious and deliberate. As it’s coming from academia, they actually have a theory to government the whole thing and academics to write papers on how to repackage most effectively.

    On the right, it comes about in a more haphazard way. For some people it’s an act of rebelling against either a deliberate framing or unconscious media bias by inverting the perceived prevailing view. (I.e. as in ‘pro-life’ vs. abortion rights). Or else occasionally a direct expression of how something actually feels (i.e. “tax releif”).

    The right doesn’t have a team of academics out there debating how reframing should occur. Someone (Rush Limbaugh, a blogger, whatever) just comes up with a term that counter-frames the issue in a way that highlights the preexisting framing and others pick up on it and spread it.

    I think this is probably where the percetion that Democrats are ‘slippery’ while Republicans deceptive comes from. One side is just more sloppy about it, does less fact checking, and isn’t as careful to make sure their repackaging is strictly true, because they don’t have a legion of professionals doing it for them.

  10. Government spending is nothing but drugs and people who pervey it nothing but drug dealers. Come on, don’t you want the government to pay for your health insurance? Isn’t that fair? Don’t you want the government to pay for your presciption drugs or take care of your retirement income? Of course what the dealer doesn’t tell you is that they money you get was stolen from someone who earned it and when you take the money you give him control over how you spend it.

  11. DEMAND KURV!

    Sorry, it’s been awhile.

  12. So, two different authors, from two different newspapers, in two different cities, in two different years, describe similiar practices from the two parties differently. Now, if you cited multiple examples of the same author doing this, you would have a point. Right now, you are reaching. Especially since the Republican party is violating an example in the 2005 article-using the term “drilling for oil” is now common by both Republicans (drill baby drill) and Democrats (increasing domestic drilling was a bullet point during Obama’s infomercial last night). That is, the 2005 article is obsolete, and the fact you had to go back that far shows how far a reach you are making.

  13. more arguments in favor of mandatory rhetoric training from birth. not that it would or perhaps should happen, but it would help if everyone was on the same basic page concerning the basics of argumentation.

    lakoff just kind of goes off the deep end in presuming the “frames” aren’t rhetorical and logical packages that many people respond to but have some kind of seemingly independent existence. i don’t think that’s what he actually means, but that’s how it comes across. constructing double-binds is otherwise an excellent technique in making people see things as you want them to see them.

  14. “What I tend to see is that repackaging on the left is more conscious and deliberate.”

    that’s just silly. it’s how people sell things!

  15. Thank you, Epi. You have now exceeded your allotment of Sunny in Philly references.

  16. John,

    An attempt at reframing?

    Not too effective.

    Lakoff’s points are valid to a degree…but the reframing happens on both sides. I don’t think Lakoff disputes that, btw, he just happens to the think the Left reframes things to make them “more accurate” or “more valid.” This is probably because they are framing things in a way that fits his framing of reality.

    The research done on the validity of the “facts” that the left and right hold in their heads is pretty interesting. Lots of misinformation is swallowed by both camps.

  17. dhex,

    Great idea.

    I think schools should offer classes in “Media Skills,” to teach the kids to recognize what’s going on when they see an ad.

  18. Thank you, Epi. You have now exceeded your allotment of Sunny in Philly references.

    Give him a break – he’s just excited for tonight’s episode.
    And I still have my full allotment left, so don’t get your hopes up

  19. The right doesn’t have a team of academics out there debating how reframing should occur.

    Dr. Newt Gingrich is an academic.
    Alan Greenspan?
    Henry Kissinger?
    CATO institute

    Yadda yadda.
    No shortage of professionals on either side of the fence.

  20. joe,

    I think schools should offer classes in “Media Skills,” to teach the kids to recognize what’s going on when they see an ad.

    The framing in schools for this idea is usually “Critical Thinking Skills.”

    It is the core of most curricula.

  21. i wasn’t aware that academics have magical powers.

    DO NOT LOOK BEHIND THE TENURED CURTAIN!

  22. Thank you, Epi. You have now exceeded your allotment of Sunny in Philly references.

    You can’t stop me, dude!

    “When Dennis Reynolds was a counselor at Camp Cumberland, he was sent home for the statutory rape of a teenage camper. A vote for Dennis Reynolds is a vote for underage rape. Dennis Reynolds, baby rapist. Don’t let him rape you, Philadelphia.”

    Give him a break – he’s just excited for tonight’s episode.

    Oh yeah.

  23. yeah on the media skills thing i had that stuff in middle and high school way back when. food vendors makes their food look nicer than it is in real life; makeup is applied; claims are stretched in ways that seem shady; etc.

    all useful, if elementary stuff.

  24. The framing in schools for this idea is usually “Critical Thinking Skills.”

    It is the core of most curricula.

    HAHAHA – oh, that’s rich

  25. So Democrats merely “reframe”, while Republcans practice “deception” and “twist the facts.” Or is that way of putting matters just another “reframing”? Or maybe it’s a “deception”?

    That’s Politics Bitch!

  26. NM,

    I’m talking about grade school.

  27. I’ve thought for a long time that the Rs were better than Ds in elections simply because they did a better job of controlling the language used in public discourse. Now, apparently, the Ds have figured it out.

  28. Oh my goodness, what have we here?

    SIV | October 16, 2008, 11:31pm | #

    Joe the Plumber was known before the debate.
    He was all over the ‘net as Obama tipped his hand in answering his question.Obama wasn’t at his own house in Chicago or some tony neighborhood in San Francisco or Manhattan. He was in a working class subdivision of Toledo, Ohio and he tells some blue collar guy in a dirty T-shirt asking about Obama’s tax policy that he intends to SPREAD HIS WEALTH AROUND. I’m not even gonna touch the racial angle.

    BDB | October 16, 2008, 11:33pm | #

    There’s a racial angle? WTF? On what planet?

    BDB | October 16, 2008, 11:38pm | #

    Srssly, there’s a racial angle? O rly? REALLY? Cause I’m not seeing it. Is this one of those “dog whistles” they talk about?

    joe | October 16, 2008, 11:49pm | #

    I’m always accused of being overly-sensitive about racial issues, but it never occured to me that there was a racial angle.

    SIV, you need to get yourself one of those fancy new bags. The ones that keep the cats inside.

    Elemenope | October 17, 2008, 12:40am | #

    And what’s this about a racial angle?

    SIV | October 17, 2008, 1:00am | #

    Welfare has a racial angle.

    Obama in a presumably predominately white working class neighborhood telling a potentially undecided working class swing State voter he intends to spread the citizen’s “wealth” around.
    Obama was using the codewords the wrong way.

    Those darn Democrats, alway imagining a racial angle in straighforward policy criticism! The Republicans would never do that.

  29. The framing in schools for this idea is usually “Critical Thinking Skills.”

    It is the core of most curricula.

    I haven’t laughed that hard in a long time!

  30. This is a really good point. Obama is a complete master at using deceptive terms, he is a lawyer after all. Take his “tax cuts” for example – which are not a reduction in rates but a flat check to people who pay no federal income taxes. He’s taking a republican talking point and morphing it into something entirely different. Or he’ll rebut the counter before it can be said – “it’s not that I’m trying to punish your success” even though that’s exactly what higher marginal tax rates do. His ability to deceive is incredible.

  31. Pretending income taxes are the only taxes people pay is pretty good way to frame the issue.

    If you think people are too stupid to read their paychecks.

  32. Dr. Newt Gingrich is an academic.
    Alan Greenspan?
    Henry Kissinger?
    CATO institute

    Yadda yadda.
    No shortage of professionals on either side of the fence.

    CATO is and always has been libertarian…simply because republicans barrow from them time to time and the dems do not does not reflect badly on CATO but reflects badly on the dems.

    If you want to run around accusing strict libertarian organizations of being right wing then i suggest you go fuck yourself.

  33. Perjury!?! You’re arresting me for perjury?!

    I’ll have you know I was “reframing” the evidence.

  34. “In Lakoff’s view, not only does Luntz’s language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains.”

    This assumes that the average voter has enough brains to reprogram…

  35. So is reframing the new spinning?

  36. Is the expression “the racial angle” itself a frame of some kind?

    Oh noes, I’m meta-ing, I’m meta-ing! What a world, what a world!

  37. not that there’s much critical thinking instruction going on in schools, but if you’re using teachers to train kids to recognize spin or whatever, you’ll just have them get trained in the teacher’s counterspin. thinking critically isn’t really something you can teach effectively in a classroom, unless you have an exceptionally socratic teaching staff.

    a good opportunity to reread politics and the english language.

  38. So is reframing the new spinning?

    Opportunity Bulbs!

  39. Everyone tries to put their best foot forward and persuade other people to like them.

    Not me.

  40. NM

    Dr. Newt Gingrich is an academic.
    Alan Greenspan?
    Henry Kissinger?
    CATO institute

    Which side of the fence you putting CATO on?

  41. Ignore my last post, joshua said it better. Including the last phrase.

  42. The other side.

  43. Not me.

    That’s true, you just keep telling us about your car.

    I grew out of that in my twenties. 😉

  44. Ron,

    Have you noticed that there have been a whole bunch of works published by folks from the Left side of things about this “framing” and “reframing” business?

    I recall one by Dr. Jeffrey Feldman that was in a NYT Book review, where the reviewer did not even bother reading the book.

    Seems plenty of others too besides what have already been mentioned. Didn’t James Carvelle and another guy write one last year or so?

  45. Ravac,

    But my car ROCKS! Or, at least it will when I get done rebuilding it . . .

  46. This just seems to be indicative of a general shift towards populism in recent years. Both parties are trying it, and the Democrats are better at it.

  47. Guy Montag | October 30, 2008, 1:43pm | #
    Ravac,

    But my car ROCKS! Or, at least it will when I get done rebuilding it . . .

    Of course, by the time you are done with that you will have to slap a GM label on it.

  48. Kwix,

    You are an evil little person . . .

  49. “It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them.”

    Um, we ARE being oppressed by taxes and need to be liberated from them. In other words, Lakoff likes taxes. Am I framing that correctly?

  50. Guess what, the Kochtopus’ favorite candidate took Weston’s advice (see the second ‘require’).

  51. CATO was probably a bad call by NM. The point is still valid. Replace CATO with AEI or Heritage and you have the same point.

  52. This just seems to be indicative of a general shift towards populism in recent years. Both parties are trying it, and the Democrats are better at it.

    Well, they are better at it because they have the academics who make a professional study of rhetoric and social sciences on their side. Which is my point.

    There are conservative academics. There just aren’t as many and they aren’t as good at it, and they don’t have as much influence over the Republican party. (Because a lot of them are saner than most of it.)

    Also, the left has quite a long tradition of manipulating the language to serve a political agenda. That’s kind of why Orwell put all that stuff about ‘doublespeak’ in ‘1984’. To the extent that Republicans have been doing it in recent years, it’s because the neoconservatives brought that shit over from their Troskyite roots.

  53. Pretending income taxes are the only taxes people pay is pretty good way to frame the issue.

    Pretending that a check written to someone is a tax cut is a pretty deceptive way to describe writing a check.

    If the Big O wants to cut FICA taxes on the first $X,000 dollars, why doesn’t he do so? Why is he writing checks instead of actually, you know, cutting taxes?

    Because he doesn’t really want to cut taxes, that’s why.

  54. Here’s the difference: When Republicans reframe the issues, Reason calls them deceptive, but when Democrats reframe the issues, most Reason editors declare their love for Obama. Oh, and when Barr speaks plainly, without reframing, Reason treats him like dirt.

  55. But my car ROCKS! Or, at least it will when I get done rebuilding it . . .

    You need a hot french exchange student who has a lifelong dream of seeing the Brooklyn Dodgers to help you.

  56. “Also, the left has quite a long tradition of manipulating the language to serve a political agenda. ”

    you just described every political movement, ever.

    the obvious example – the whole “estate tax v. death tax” thing. both are intended to be manipulative, persuasive terms.

    seriously, who doesn’t frame arguments and language in order to convince people of their points?

  57. joshua corning | October 30, 2008, 12:56pm |

    CATO is and always has been libertarian…simply because republicans barrow from them time to time and the dems do not does not reflect badly on CATO but reflects badly on the dems.

    So you agree with me that CATO is an academic organization that the right uses to frame issues. Glad we can agree on this simple characterization.

    If you want to run around accusing strict libertarian organizations of being right wing then i suggest you go fuck yourself.

    If we split the spectrum left to right based on belief in big vs. small government, I think we can call CATO right of center on that axis. I don’t think that frames them as “right wing” and I certainly didn’t intend to frame them as “conservative” if that what has your panties in a wad.

    Disagreements?

  58. Mo,

    No. CATO was a more fun choice, clearly.

    But thanks for the support.

    ;^)

  59. To be even more specific.

    Joshua Corning is angry that I have pointed out that the Republicans use Libertarian academics to frame issues.

    Not even right vs. left here.
    Republican vs. Democratic…which side of the fence uses CATO?

    Joshua agrees with me.

  60. I have nothing of value to add but let us all please remember that Cato is not an acronym. So it’s not CATO.

  61. Totale is correct. Cato refers to the Roman name, and is not an acronym.

    I’ve never figured out which Cato the institute is named after. Neither of them deserve it, really. The elder Cato was a brutal slaveholder who wrote pamphlets advising other slaveholders to kill their old slaves in the name of thriftiness, and the younger Cato was a corrupt hack who was part of a conspiracy to pack the courts against his political enemies – a conspiracy that led directly to Caesar’s putsch and the death of the Republic.

  62. The Cato letter with the most current events relevance?

    http://classicliberal.tripod.com/cato/letter004.html

    But national credit can never be supported by lending money without security, or drawing in other people to do so; by raising stocks and commodities by artifice and fraud, to unnatural and imaginary values; and consequently, delivering up helpless women and orphans, with the ignorant and unwary, but industrious subject, to be devoured by pick-pockets and stock-jobbers; a sort of vermin that are bred and nourished in the corruption of the state.

  63. People write CATO because of NATO.

    “This campaign in the next couple weeks is about one thing. It’s a referendum on socialism,” Todd Akin (R-MO) 10/20/08.

    So. How’s that going?

  64. dhex: Everyone reframes issues, to an extent, but for certain parts of the left, it became a science that is explicitly tied up with the notion of “changing the world” by changing the language. It’s not just a matter of persuading people, it’s about social engineering. It goes a lot deeper than typical political spin.

    The communists invented reeducation camps. They used propaganda extensively to try to change basic values.

    Remember that “free love” was supposed to undermine the “bourgeois” institution of marriage.

    There’s a significant contingent for whom there’s no objective truth – everything in society is an illusion which determines our social relations. For those people, reframing is not just a means of persuasion, it becomes a moral imperative. You don’t argue, you change the water the fish swim in and they become different because their “reality” is different.

  65. Remember that “free love” was supposed to undermine the “bourgeois” institution of marriage. >/i>

    Technically, that is not only correct, but exactly correct, still a little context is in order. The concept of free love came out of communes built on voluntary associations in the late eighteenth century . They may have had influence on the later socialist, but Marxist in particular found these ‘Utopian’ types to be embarrassingly decadent forerunners to their own ‘scientific’ approaches to socialism.

    One of the major differences between Conservatives and Libertarians is this very point concerning bourgeois morality and its applicability to law and there is historical reason for this as Libertarianism owes its foundation work to some of the propagators of these early movements. In libertarian parlance, as long as a contract is made between consenting adults, the state is obligated to honor it, no matter what we may feel on a personal level though the contract in question may not conform to our own bourgeois sensibilities.

  66. Ah, so the Cato Institute is harking back to some British guys who used the pseudonym Cato, and not directly to Cato himself. I did not know that.

  67. Fluffy,

    Often takes an outsider to see the forest for the trees…or something.

    Haven’t all the libertarians read Cato’s letters?

    Or is it only us moderate centrists?

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