FRAMING: A BRIEF INTRODUCTION
You think with your brain. Every thought you have is physical — an activation of neural circuits. At least hundreds of thousands of such circuits are fixed in your brain — learned all through life. Most of your thought — an estimated 98% — is unconscious, effortless, uncontrolled, and automatic. Many of these neural circuits have the form of “frames,” which structure our understanding of everyday life. A hospital frame, for example, contains elements for doctors, patients, nurses, operating rooms, emergency rooms, and so on, as well as the kinds of things that typically happen in hospitals. Everything else is outside the frame — igloos, elephants, baseball games, and so forth.
Frames are structured in a hierarchy. To understand a kitchen, you have to understand food preparation and eating. In politics, the highest frames are moral frames. The reason is that all politics is moral: political leaders propose policies because they are right — not because they are wrong or don’t matter. All policies, therefore, have a moral basis.
American politics is based on two different, and opposed, moralities — conservative and progressive. Every basic political concept — freedom, equality, fairness, prosperity — is contested. That is, there are two different versions of each concept, determined by conservative versus progressive moral systems. Freedom for progressives may mean slavery for conservatives, and vice versa.
Every word is defined with respect to one or more frames. When you hear the word, the frame is activated in your brain. And the more often the frame is activated, the stronger it gets. When it gets strong enough, the frame will define your “common sense.” Common sense is simply the collection of fixed frames that you use to understand what you experience and what your hear. You automatically, effortlessly, and unconsciously reason with those frames that have become your common sense. The brain just works this way. Conservative and progressive common sense frames are very different and often lead to opposite conclusions.
As a result, words used in politics are not neutral. They evoke frames that define your brand of political common sense. For example, consider “tax relief.” The Relief Frame contains an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, a reliever who can take the affliction away, and an intervener who may try to stop the reliever. The word “relief” activates this frame, and when “tax” is added, we get the metaphor that taxation is an affliction, with the inference that eliminating taxes brings relief from harm and continuing or imposing taxes continues or imposes a harmful affliction. Since relief is always positive and afflictions are always negative, there is no way to see taxes in a positive light in this frame. In short, “tax relief” is conservative language that evokes the conservative moral system. And every time you hear it or use it, it strengthens the circuitry for that moral system in your brain.
Logic and facts are of no help where such frames are involved. The frames are defining what you can understand. If the facts don’t fit the frames, they will be ignored. If you use conservative language, it will strengthen conservative frames. And if you argue against conservative frames, you are nonetheless activating those frames and helping conservatives.
A great many people are conservative on some issues and progressive on others. That means that they have both conservative and progressive moral systems in their brains, applying to different issues. How is this possible? Because of a phenomenon called mutual inhibition. Two neural circuits that are contradictory inhibit each other; that is, when one is turned on, the other is turned off. This applies to “moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters.” How should you communicate with such voters? Should you use your language or your opponent’s language? The answer is obvious. Use your language because it will strengthen your moral system in their brains. If you use your opponent’s language, you will strengthen your opponent’s moral system in their brains. Conservative candidates are trained not to use the language of the left. But progressives often make the mistake of “moving to the right” as if that will get moderates, independents, and swing voters to support them and their policies. This is self-destructive. It is shooting yourself in the foot. And at the same time you are failing to do your part in the democratic process by failing to offer people alternative, progressive ideas to consider.
These considerations lead to certain guidelines:
- Don’t repeat conservative language or ideas, even when arguing against them.
- If you think you have a language problem, you really have an idea problem.
- All politics is moral, and morality trumps policy. Talk about the moral bases of your policy positions openly and regularly.
- Facts have no meaning outside of frames, metaphors, and moral narratives. Always discuss facts within moral frames, because people do not reason outside of those moral frames.
- Conservatives have defined the central political frames; progressives must redefine them. The Little Blue Book shows you how.
- “Moderates,” “independents,” and “swing voters” will use conservative moral frames on some issues and progressive moral frames on others. Reinforce the morality they share with you by using YOUR moral language, not the language of conservatives.
- The great ideas — freedom, fairness, democracy, prosperity — each come in two versions, progressive and conservative. So when you talk about those ideas, make sure you are talking about YOUR version.
- Repetition strengthens frames. Repeat your own moral frames over and over, every hour of every day of every year.