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Frame It! Creating Progressive Frameworks

- by Igor Volsky

Speaking with Tim Russert on NBC's Meet the Press, incoming Democratic Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid conceded that with just 45 seats in the Senate (including independent James Jeffords of Vermont) his party will "have to work toward the middle."

But if progressives learned anything from the 2004 Election, it's that to move towards the middle would "alienate their base and… activate the other side's models in the swing voters, thus helping the other side."

In the quote above, cognitive scientist and linguist George Lakoff was referring to the two separate world models that distinguish conservatives from progressives.

According to Lakoff, all conservative causes have their roots in a Puritan "strict-father family model." Their world is a Hobbian-like universe of good and evil and moral absolutes. The role of the strong father is to protect and discipline his wife and children from the dangers of society. Children are properly disciplined once they begin to pursue their self interest, without question or concern for others. The world is a dark place, and only the strong survive.

Thus, it follows that laws and institutions which impede a person's pursuit of personal gratification and success must be abolished, along with government programs that provide help to the undisciplined. On the national stage, the government is seen as the strict father whose sole function is to support and protect only those citizens that are self reliant and prosperous. Government regulations are mere impediments to the pursuit of self.

To that end, environmental regulations, corporate supervision, social welfare programs, and even abortions must all be abolished since they reward and give to the undisciplined that which they have not earned. Taxes take wealth away from the prosperous and transfer it to the poor, who deserve their poverty and punishment since they are not sufficiently disciplined for the pursuit selfishness.

Abortion, a woman's right to choose, only serves to undermine the authority of the father/government, as does the opinion of lesser nations who dare contradict the established ruling doctrines.

On the contrary, the progressive family model, based on empathy and responsibility is that of two nurturant and responsible parents who believe that their children are innately good but are always capable of becoming better. "Responsibility implies protection, competence, education, hard work and social connectedness; empathy requires freedom, fairness and honesty, two-way communication, [and] a fulfilled life and restitution," Lakoff writes. Thus, it is the job of the government to protect the population, preserve democracy and promote fairness for all. Environmental regulations, corporate supervision and social welfare programs are all necessary to maintain personal responsibility and accountability and to ensure respect for fellow human beings and for mother earth.

Taxes serve as a membership fee for living in America and finance the infrastructure of our democracy. Since the wealthy receive most from the benefits of membership, (i.e. drugs developed with public money are given to pharmaceutical companies for patent and private profit, companies hire scientists trained under government grants etc…) they should pay higher dues. Globally, the nurturant family worldview dictates that America must include other nations in the decision-making process of issues which hold world ramifications.

Yet conservatives have been more successful at using their framework to shape public opinion. Frames are connotations that are part of what scientists call "cognitive unconscious", inaccessible to the conscious mind, but influential in the decision making process. Lakoff gives the example of "tax relief," a prominent phrase in conservative ideology.

The word "relief" conjures up a framework in which there is a victim, villain, hero and a crime. The crime is taxation (what they call the distribution of wealth from rich to poor), the victim is the taxpayer, the villain is the liberal bureaucracy and the hero is the conservative who cuts taxes.

Since voters are able to identify with this fairy-tale like framework, they vote in its favor. Realistically however, taxes are disproportionately cut for those in the upper income brackets and the tax burden is shifted towards the middle class. But by then, the framework has served its purpose.

While conservatives and progressives have their respective world views, the 25-30% of American swing voters alternate between the two frameworks. During a political campaign, each party tries to sway more voters towards its side. Conservatives are far more compelling: they speak about issues with the moral fervency that attracts voters; and voters identify with it. Meanwhile, progressives often lack a common theme or link between their policies and thus they fail to incite enough passion to increase their votes.

Unfortunately, this point is lost on today's Democratic Party. Reid and the others believe that by placating to the Republicans on moral issues, they will be able to win votes economically, with raw statistics and facts. But voters think in frames and the facts that don't fit their framework are disregarded. Progressives need to find a common theme, a framework, and imbue it with enough morality and righteousness as to convince voters that their own morality is progressive, not conservative. Only then will Democrats be able to bond with those voters who vote their identity, not their interest.

Progressive Democrats need to clearly communicate their policies not change their policies. The former will take great adjustment and self inspection; the latter is erroneously seen as a quick fix. Henry Reid seems content on working on the latter. He's a follower, not a leader.

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Igor Volsky is an undergraduate at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, NY and the host of Political Thought, a public affairs program airing every Friday from 4-6 p.m. on WMAR Marist Radio, 1630 AM or at He can be contacted at

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