Monday, May 02, 2005

Kos (from Across the Pond) on Framing

Markos Moulitsas (a.k.a. Kos of DailyKos.com fame) is writing for The Guardian this week, comparing the British campaign to those in the U.S. Yesterday, he made the case that Labour has an advantage over the Conservatives because they've won the "framing wars." The essay itself is simplistic and sloppy, while the basic argument misunderstands how the electorate approaches election choices.

Kos, like so many American progressives, has fallen for George Lakoff's notion that if Democrats just expressed their positions in a more appealing way, they'd win more often. As such, Kos says that "key" among the factors "fuelling the rise of the American right" is Conservatives' control of the political language. "[T]here has been no greater framing success in the last 30 years," writes Kos, "than the GOP's demonization of taxation and the social services those taxes buy." This vastly overstates the case. Poll after poll suggests that people would rather spend money on a clean environment, education, and deficit reduction, than get a tax cut.

Tony Blair certainly has won the framing battle in the U.K. But, according to Kos, this is "probably his chief legacy." Blair's victory in this all-important fight, he continues, "can provide the philosophical foundation for a long lasting Labour majority." In Kos's hands, a frame has apparently become more than a rhetorical device - it's now an entire philosophy. But he has the cart before the horse. Frames derive from worldviews, they don't constitute them. This mistake is precisely the kind progressives make when they obsess about framing.

Kos acknowledges that "Democrats have been able to ride specific issues to the presidency," like Carter did in the wake of Watergate in 1976. The implication is that the Democrats lack anything more durable. But, strangely, he includes 1992 as an example of the Dems' use of specific issues, arguing that "Clinton wielded the economy as his secret weapon." This captures nicely the silliness of the "frames shall set you free" school of thought.

Leave aside the fact that "the economy" is not a specific issue and that it wasn't - and never is - a "secret" weapon (remember, "It's the economy, stupid"?). Democrats best hand has always been the basket of issues called "the economy." It's why they were the majority party from the 1930s to the late 1960s. But, similarly, the Republicans have an advantage on national security (and cultural issues). Currently, we live in a time when security is crucial to the calculus of the average voter (and, because so many feel insecure, cultural issues become more salient). In that environment, Republicans will always have the upper hand. There's not much Democrats can do but try to be credible on defense and culture, change the subject to economics, and wait for times to change.

Frames aren't irrelevant and smart political actors give some thought to them. But frames aren't the whole ball of wax either. Until progressives learn something about how the electorate really operates, they're in for a long period of frustration.

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