The Left Cannot Afford to Keep Neglecting the Language and Framing of Politics


Republicans have spent decades honing their words to say exactly the things that the population-at-large will find appealing. They have come up with phrases like “tax relief” that they use like a hammer against liberal efforts to talk about fair progressive tax reform where the wealthy actually pay taxes in proportion to the rewards their society affords them. According to linguist George Lakoff, the Right’s long-term investment in shaping the language that Americans use contrasts with those of the fairly disorganized progressive movement. Specifically, he argues that conservatives have been willing to fund right-wing infrastructure by giving money to think tanks that are quite productive at “framing” issues. They expend resources on cultivating pundits, conducting focus groups, building media outlets and otherwise finding ways to shape the debate. By contrast, he notes that as counterparts on the left, liberal think tanks dedicate practically none of their efforts to shaping the debate. Instead, donors to left-leaning think tanks have demanded that their money go directly to causes alone, not bothering to put any investment into an infrastructure of what might be called a liberal “voice.” And it shows. Lakoff rightly points out that when it comes to framing arguments about politics, conservatives have liberals on the defensive.

With their framing acumen, Republicans have become masters of twisting language around until its actual meaning becomes obscured and their words become ludicrous upon examination. This can be seen in their ridiculously named, “Right to Work” laws, provisions of which, of course, reduce the chances that an employee has rights at work while actually doing nothing to guarantee a “right to work.” All these laws do is allow freeloaders to benefit from unions without paying for privileges. Liberals have aptly countered with the somewhat snappy, “Right to Work for Less.” But it’s a defensive move.

As liberals continue to conduct postmortem analysis on the failed recall effort in Wisconsin, there have been many theories as to why the people opted to keep their smarmy governor. One of the prominent theories I have heard repeated is that the election was rigged, and that in fact, more people did vote to recall the governor than not. That would be nice, if it were true. I have no doubt whatsoever that conservatives would steal an election. I’ve seen “Hacking Democracy.” But,  I’ve spent too much time studying statistics and the fundamental accuracy of polls to discount the fact that they averaged a 6.8% lead for Walker going into the election, remarkably close to the actual result of Walker’s 6 .8% win over Barrett. This was true regardless of whether the poll was liberal or conservative in origin.

One of the most believable analysts critiquing Wisconsin’s election doesn’t seem to take into account pre-election polls and relies heavily on early reports by the television media that the election was close claiming that adjusted final exit polls were forced to match the election results. He does this without actually having the data, however. This also neglects the fact that this “too close to call” strategy keeps people watching their election coverage rather than turning off the TV. Who wants to keep watching coverage for a race that’s already been decided? They probably knew right away that Walker was ahead, and just strung people along with their “Gosh, gee, we think the exit polls show it is close.” Besides some outlets were straightforward early on and reported that 60% of voters were saying they were against recalls for anything that wasn’t official misconduct.

Unfortunately, there are indicators that show the problem in Wisconsin was actually arguably worse than altered election results, a problem that might at least have legal remedies. The people themselves were tampered with—brainwashed and bought with propaganda—to vote against their own best interests. The best example of this comes from the polls conducted prior to the vote and the exit polls, both of which showed that 29% of union members still voted for Walker. The results get more disheartening when looking at people who were not in unions themselves, but living in a union household, because 48% of them supported Walker.

These dismal outcomes have led to another theory of the Wisconsin recall election, that the Left has lost its appeal with working class Americans. Steve Horn argues that right wing populism has simply overwhelmed liberal movements, while Jeffrey Sommers, argues that working class people were empowered by the message that Walker was selling about how they as taxpayers were being liberated to “take charge of their government” against the special interests of the elite. Both men are essentially making the same argument; the ideas the right wing has packaged purposefully and carefully over the past few decades are attracting the masses, while liberal ideals have been left to languish. Both Horn and Sommers argue that the Left has lost touch with working class voters. That’s a big deal, because not only are the majority of people in this country working class with fully 63% fitting the social science definition, but survey research shows that Americans are actually identifying themselves as working class more often than they even say what was believed to be ubiquitous—middle class.

We on the Left can barely understand the absurd appeal of Republicans to working class Americans. The party of corporations and the very wealthy, a party that consistently kicks working people in the teeth with their policies, is winning the hearts and minds of workers where 50% of them (the Census tells us) make less than $26,000 a year. They should be racing away from the guaranteed increases in inequality the Republican Party represents. They should be rebelling against the policies that year after year make their personal situation worsen. As the saying goes, “Have you ever considered maybe union members are not overpaid, maybe you are just underpaid.” It seems that no, these individuals have not grasped the sources of their low wages, preferring to focus, as directed by the right wing, on their taxes, which are by most objective standards relatively low. We know this is particularly true from listening to the moaning and groaning of conservatives who insist on emphasizing that the bottom half doesn’t pay federal taxes, neglecting the other taxes they pay. Regardless, people are not hurting economically because of the government; they are hurting economically because of the way wages are structured.

The appeal of right wing populism boils down to exactly what Lakoff identified as the greatest weakness of the Left: framing the debate. The Right has been allowed to go for decades virtually unchecked by linguistic counter efforts on the Left. We smirk at the way the right wing crafts all of its talking points by focus group, neglecting all the while that it is working fantastically well. We are loathe to adopt the methods of the Right because they are often crass and manipulative. However, we can’t afford to continue to simply mock that which is undermining all of our efforts. It is time to follow Lakoff’s astute advice and begin to develop our own political and moral language to win the hearts and minds of Americans.

19 Replies to “The Left Cannot Afford to Keep Neglecting the Language and Framing of Politics”

  1. There is also the fact that Dissocialist propaganda is persuading people to vote as if they were what they wish they were, instead of what they factually are. Factually, they are downwardly mobile, and they have been so for at least three decades. Upward mobility has been considered a birthright for “ril uhMericuns” since the end of the Depression, and they are being told that the reason they are being left behind is that “others” have been given an unfair advantage over them: dark, furrin, female, un-Christian, gay, and unionized “others”. The obscenely privileged are held out as a status to which they could attain if only these inferior “others” had not been given an unfair head start over them.

    The problem with framing the actual facts is that it requires them to admit identity with these outgroups they have been taught to despise, and thereby acknoledge they are no longer the nutritious middle of a three-class society, but have been ground right into the lower crust. This is an injury to what Americans have been taught to pride themselves on for generations. That is why wising them up is dangerous, but not wising them up is disastrous. A start can be made, though, by simply publishing the words and deeds of right-wing figures: the self-enriching legislation of mostly Republican Congresscritters; Rott Mimney’s statement that he never ate a hamburger wrapped in paper; Momney’s sale of her heavily doped horse, incapacitated with navicular disease, as a contender for over a hundred thousand; Norquist’s demand that his Congresscritters “respect his authority”. Americans will far more easily understand how he treated his dog than that his cadre plan to treat us like dogs. That is how this must be approached.

  2. It might also be helpful if some people of the Left worked a little more at being inclusive instead of exclusive. The Right has the reputation of being closed-minded, hyper-partisan, knee-jerk automatons who immediately disparage anyone who doesn’t toe the party line du jour, and deservedly so. Sadly, however, there are people on the Left who are every bit as intolerant, rigid, exclusive, and self-righteous. Finding fault or even expressing concern with anything the President has said or done gets one labeled as “racist,” “ignorant,” someone who received all their talking points from Fox News, or simply “a right-wing troll.”

  3. The lack of cohesion is costly to the left. We come up with fanciful unrealistic names like Van Jones’ movement “Dream..whatever” (I can’t recall exact name) but there is nothing unifying about it, nothing with punch that people can rally around. As the article mentions there are professionals who do this for a living but they certainly aren’t being employed by the left.
    Even Obama’s campaign, it is lacking cohesiveness, it’s not ‘out in front’, it isn’t finding a way to make people angry enough that there is no way in h-e-l-l that the GOP should ever be left in charge again.
    We all know their two main tools are ‘hate’ and ‘religion’ and they use them well, it’s a road we will not and cannot go down, but we have to find some way to counteract and get in front of the giant machine that is Fox and the Religious Right and the GOP. Very difficult when you are dealing with a mostly uneducated malleable citizenry.
    I wish I had the answer.

  4. Ronald Reagan made the word liberal a dirty word. (a knee jerk liberal) The less informed republicans when getting into a discussion start shouting liberal, liberal, liberal and blaming everything on the liberal press or liberal this and liberal that. If legislation is passed that that individual didn’t like it’s always the ‘liberals’ that passed it. A democrat orator is needed to make conservative a word people would hesitate to use. When referring to the republicans or conservatives we should not use either of those words but use something like ‘retro’ instead.

  5. Walker was leading the pre-election polls – but how many were from right-wing pollsters who weighted Republican voters more heavily than Democrats?

    How come the media never released the unadjusted exit polls?

    How come the unadjusted state and national presidential exit polls from 1988-2008 showed the Democrats winning by 52-42% but only by 48-46% in the recorded vote?

    How come the final pre-election LV polls indicated that Obama would win by 53-45% (the recorded vote) when the unadjusted National Exit poll had him winning by 61-37% and the weighted aggregate of the unadsjusted statew exit polls had him winning by 58-40.5%?

    How come the final LV polls indicated that Bush led by 48-47%, but the unadjusted National Exit Poll indicated that Kerry won by 52-47%?

    How come the adjusted final 2004 National Exit Poll was forced to match the recorded vote by indicating there were 52.6 million returning Bush voters when he only had 50.5 million votes in 2000, 2.5 million died and 1-2 million stayed home? That is a 110% turnout of living 2000 Bush voters in 2004. Impossible.

    How come the final LV polls indicated that Bush would beat Al Gore, but the unadjusted aggregate of the state exit polls indicated that Gore won by 50.8-44.6%?

    No, the left cannot afford to continue to let the Republicans steal elections by conceding so quickly and ignore the elephant in the room: systemic election fraud.

    There is no question that Walker stole the election. The exit pollster’s MO never changes:

  6. Simple straight (well, forward) language:
    Stay The Course.

    Reelect The President. Bumper stickers reading “2012” with a cute logo don’t cut the ice.

  7. It gets scarier every day how much George Orwell was right. The right has been implementing Newspeak in front of our eyes. Soon all of us will be arrested for thoughtcrime. If our only solution to counter them is to implement our OWN Newspeak, then we lose either way. It’s still a battle worth fighting, though. We just stand to lose a heck of a lot more if we don’t fight back.

  8. Mr. Charnin, unlike you, I have no skill with statistics, and yet I have noticed the discrepency. In the beginning, when we were told exit polls before the vote was in, we’d hear that the exit pollsters had failed to take into account this or that. Then, before the 2008 election, they were preparing us for a flip job by saying a lot of voters may have lied about voting for Obama because they didn’t want to be called racist. Surprise! Obama won anyway. I believe the Rightists may be adjusting their methods (and Diebolds) accordingly.

    As long ago as 1998, it appeared Lt. Governor (and briefly, Governor) McKay had won the election for Governor of Florida. Suddenly, a bunch of “absentee ballots” turned up that tipped it to Jeb Bush. That, of course, is what enabled George W. to be elected two years later.

    I have no doubt we are looking at premeditation and malice aforethought…long aforethought.

  9. Great artice Deborah!

    Clearly the Liberals/Progressives have to get much better faster in framing issues and using catch phrases that clearly send a message., to win elections. Kumbaya is not going to cut it.

    A recent survey says that a large group of undecided voters have no particular preference in this election. Why aren’t more people outraged at the actions of Republicans. Have they been framed out or neutralized by Republican issue framing?

  10. I think it’s clear that we’re past Kumbaya. It’s necessary to describe, in simple, straightforward terms, the moral smegma on the Republican candidates and their backers. Do you want a dog-flogging school bully in the White House? A crooked horsetrader, who sold a doped, lame gelding for over a hundred grand, as First Lady? Sorry to take it to that level, but after three or so decades of deliberate helotization, that’s what most of our population understands.

  11. You have made an outstanding point!! The Democrats do not care how many white Christian heterosexuals they lose to the Republican side. It is as if the Democratic establishment steadfastly refuses to face the simple fact that this is the segment that most reliably votes in most elections. Until the Democrats admit that this strategy has been a fatal mistake, more and more of the nation will be lost to the far-right conservatives on the other side.

  12. The answer is very simple. The #1 issue should be income inequality, closely followed by empire building, global warming, and ridiculous military expenditures. The Democrats refuse to approach the election process tactically. In essence, they are throwing the game. Coming in second pays almost as much as winning, at least for the Democratic power brokers at the top. Most of us are among the 99%, but they have all too successfully divided and conquered us with religion, media, and money.

  13. This is an excellent post. While I don’t have the patience of some to research statistics and then throw them out expecting someone to buy an arguement based on mathematical logic, I do know a pig in a poke when I see one. And there lies the paradox. It’s not just the semi-literate, ignorant, rural republicans that have been totally brainwashed to mark that R column year after year no matter what, but educated, enlightened, urban middle class republicans also have done the same thing year after year, mostly out of habit without even looking at their candidates positions.

    These people have been conditioned to buy a pig in a poke. Not only that, but when you put out statistics showing beyond a doubt that they are cutting their own throat by marking that R column year after year, they believe that you are trying to sell them a pig in a poke. A lot of this is from the fallout of the culture wars. Militant atheism and uncomprimising gun control advocacy has given the republican spinmiesters the opening they needed to paint democrats as out of touch with “real American values.”

    Reversing this trend is possible but it won’t happen overnight. Nearly half of Americans still believe that God is a hairy old white man that lives in the sky. Fine. You won’t change that. Accept it. But ditch the militant atheism. Don’t give up on reasonable gun control but forget about repealing the 2nd Amendment. Call it what you will, people clinging to God and guns, but accept it instead of fighting it.

  14. What militant atheism? What Second Amendment repeal? There is really no serious advocacy of either, and in fact, center and center-left alike have been tiptoing around the Gahd-and-gun freaks, only to have the latter press and rant more ferociously than ever against these chimeras of their own making. The President is coming for their guns?

    This is my rifle
    This is my gun
    This one’s for fighting
    This one’s for fun

    Yeah, the black man in the White House is going to take their guns away, all right. He might even take the Big Gun away from their Gahd. You can’t do anything about an idée fixe like that, and it’s a disservice to sane consituents with legitimate needs to contort yourself trying.

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