Conservatives have always been good at framing political debates. They, and their party, the GOP, recognized long ago that facts have little sway in the way people embrace a political morality or in the way they vote. Frame a debate in the right way, and the argument is won before it is even joined by the opposition.
The most classic example of this is the abortion debate. In 1973, in the wake of the Roe v. Wade decision, anti-abortion advocates took up the mantle of being ‘pro-life,’ immediately painting a picture in the mind’s eye of anyone opposing them as ‘anti-life’ or ‘pro-death,’ or worse, as being in favor of dead babies. No one likes dead babies. The opposition settled on the term ‘pro-choice,’ but that does nothing to stop the association the mind makes of the term ‘life’ with its polar opposite, ‘death.’ This puts abortion rights advocates at an immediate disadvantage, because a visceral reaction against abortion is created the moment a person hears the words ‘pro-life’ that has to be overcome in order to embrace an opposing stance. The abortion rights people also made a strategic error in picking up ‘pro-choice’ as their mantle. The term is similar to ‘pro-life,’ so when a person hears ‘pro-choice’ they immediately think of the pro-life movement, and the mind once again makes the association with death, even if it’s only on an unconscious level. One may not have noticed it, but their brain did. It’s pure folly to respond to a frame. It only validates the frame. Once must come up with a new frame, even if it’s as simple a process as refusing to refer to the opposite side’s frame in press releases, speeches, press conferences, etc. But a good starting point is not making reference to the damn thing with your own slogan.
‘Pro-life’ also stops facts dead in their tracks, as the term ‘pro-life’ appeals to emotion rather than reason, making facts and statistics coldly antiseptic and almost cruel. How can one justify death with statistics, especially the death of babies, the ultimate embodiment of human innocence? That’s just not right. One simple choice of terms has managed to helm this debate for forty years, and it’s working. It’s brilliant, really, in its simplicity and its effectiveness.
It can be argued that the use of persistent and homogenous frames by conservatives, adhering to strict messages, has been the driving factor in there being no coherent liberal movement in this country, as the Democrats have been forced to move to the right as the only effective way to partially neutralize such attacks. I think they’ve waded into the minefield, never managing to seize the debate for more than brief periods, still stuck with the idea that reasoned responses mean anything.
Reason? Please. That’s never been how this country works. Anyone who has ever seen a western film knows that. Reason requires thought. Emotion presents easy answers immediately. Most of the country being ignorant of the complexities of reasoned thought, which were only introduced to me and so many others during higher education, how can one expect most people to know they’re being sold on sound bites? Hell, sound bites are our stock and trade.
The newest frame emanating from the right is the term ‘job creator,’ used to describe any person in a high-income bracket or any business that takes in a large amount of revenue. According to the long-discredited quack theory of trickle-down economics, keeping taxes and regulation as low as possible on the rich and on business will lead to greater investment in the economy, greater revenues for the federal government, and greater rates of employment. First thrust into the public eye by the Reagan presidential campaigns, this poppycock was given the beautiful moniker of ‘voodoo economics’ by then-presidential candidate George H.W. Bush before he accepted the nomination as Reagan’s running mate.
For thirty years voodoo economics has been the guiding principle of conservatism and the Republican Party, and the passage of time has turned the idea into such unbreakable orthodoxy that the country now teeters on the edge of default because of it. But it has never, ever, proven to be a workable idea. Never has increasing the revenue of the haves increased the revenue of the have-nots. Instead, the persistence of voodoo economics has increased levels of income disparity not scene since the roaring twenties, right before the Great Depression. The response to that horror was FDR and the New Deal. Tidings of things to come, maybe? I, for one, would prefer the pain of that long decade to be avoided, but it’s hard to argue that the greatest decades in American history, economically, anyway, began during the next war and continued after. That was when liberals were picking up the pieces the conservatives had left in their wake with their hands off approach to the problems of the country. Those problems were so severe that there was a very real chance that capitalism in America would collapse, overcome by a revolution kin to those that had swept post-war Europe in the 1920s. In fact, the greatest gains by the largest percentages of the American population in terms of income equality and standard of living were made while corporations and the rich were forced by law to share the spoils. Can anybody say this situation, this glorious awakening of American might and income equality that was the 1950s, was not worth enacting policies that were the exact opposite of voodoo economics?
But lately, back in the 21st century, the debate had begun to turn. The Obama administration and the Democratic Party had been making inroads in placing a large amount of the blame for the state of the economy on the failure of the rich and of corporations to share the spoils of their successes, and share the pain that is roiling so much of the nation. Profits rise, wages stagnate, jobs continue to disappear. How is so much money being generated, and so few reap the benefits? There’s something to this, it must be said. Facts had begun to creep into the debate, threatening the GOP’s paymasters.
Enter the debate on the debt ceiling. Three things need to happen regarding the debt and the deficit. One: the debt ceiling must be raised. This will prevent the country from going into default, which would send the economy into a tailspin that we do not want to even contemplate. Two: government spending needs to be reduced. This is cold reality for liberals, because they know the cuts will come from entitlements and discretionary spending that does not involve defense spending, but this area of the debate is over and done. Nothing can be done about it. An unavoidable conservative victory, hopefully offset by the next condition. Three: government revenues need to be increased by raising taxes, preferably by reversing the tax cuts for the rich passed last year and closing corporate tax loopholes that allow the most profitable businesses in the country to owe negative taxes every March 15. This is the condition that sticks in the GOP’s craw. So many of them have entered office and invested their political careers in the idea of low taxes for the wealthy and the embrace of voodoo economics that they find they just cannot compromise. They can’t approve of any debt and deficit reduction plan that eats into the coffers of the winners of this torrid economy.
This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with conservative ideology. They hold that it is morally indefensible to take money from the most successful citizens and companies and redirect it to those less fortunate in the form of entitlements or jobs spending. They consider such a process to be rewarding deadbeats for being bad people, the old spectre of the welfare mom (always a black woman in their tale) collecting her check and having babies every year to collect some more of that government cheese. It’s total bunk, but it’s another frame that worked so well that it pressed President Clinton to sign welfare reform into law in the 90s despite the howls from the left (I can’t sit here and pretend that welfare reform was a disaster, it was not, but some of the frames used in the debate by the GOP were disgusting in every way; racist in base fashion).
Remember, according to conservative ideology, the poor, the unfortunate, the down on their luck, the struggling middle class, even the terminally ill, deserve no help from the thieving government because they would not be in such dire straits had they had the fortitude and the drive to work hard enough and succeed like the rich, therefore negating any need for help. Those in hardship, those in the gutter, deserve to be there because they chose laziness and avarice over thrift and dedication to hard work.
Facts be damned is credo one in their camp, especially when a good frame makes facts meaningless. I might find myself among the roles of the unemployed at the end of the week, after having been employed by a single company for eight years. Eight years of my life I paid into a system that was designed to help me when things go sour, but the day I collect my first unemployment check, according to conservatives, I will be receiving a government handout, something I don’t deserve, never mind all the cash I paid into the system. This won’t be a handout, it will be collecting on an insurance policy, one I had hoped never to need, but one I had paid my dues on now for the better part of a decade. It is no fucking handout. I worked hard to make sure that when things went wrong, I wasn’t left with a few thousand bucks in my savings account and an eviction notice before Christmas. The 35% of my check that was jacked from my pay every month has to now come back to me in some form, instead of just flowing into bullshit I never held with in the first place, like wars and cops in full riot gear with M-4 rifles dangling from their chests. It’s my time to get some help, and you can be damned sure I’ll do my best to get back into the fight, get a job, get back to feeding the beast instead of taking the scraps that fall from its mouth. How am I a drain on the economy? The answer is, I’m not.
But back to job creators. The GOP had to come up with something new to counter the charges that they were protecting fat cats that needed no help, while actively placing the burden of debt and deficit reduction on those least able to bear it. Enter the new frame. Instead of the rich, instead of the soulless corporation, we now have the job creators. The successful need all the money they have taken in over the past few years despite the recession, because they are the ones that can invest that money back into the economy and create jobs. The fact these mythical benefactors have not done so does not matter. Imagine how much worse the economy would be if these investors, these people bathed in the graceful light of the entrepreneurial spirit, suddenly had their hard-won assets seized by an out of control federal government. They would hold nothing but wrath for those who stole their ability to grow, and respond by freezing their engagement in the economy, hiring no one, making no new investments, crushed by the idea that their own government is at war with their success.
That’s right. By calling these individuals and businesses job creators, any legislation, or any proposal that would impose a higher tax burden on them, even one they can clearly handle without the same deleterious effects placed on regular Americans, is immediately associated in the mind with the idea of job killing. The facts of the situation do not matter, just like with the pro-life lobby. Job creators they are, which means that the opposite side embraces job killing policies. This is still a new frame, so we won’t know how effective it will be until the next election cycle really gets going. But what it lays out is that the job creators don’t like job killing polices, so those policies must be opposed at every step. It’s the same thought process that spawned the pro-life brand.
Were that it were true, but it’s not. Instead, those at the top, individuals and corporations, are hoarding, and worse, continuing the process of moving once untouchable operations overseas as cheap labor finds itself suddenly with top-flight education.
There is no incentive for any business or individual to do the right thing by the brotherhood of man if larger margins can be made doing dickish things. We, the public at large, had begun seeing the light on this once Obama began winning the debt debate, and that is why the term ‘job creators’ is now a talking point the GOP and conservative movements have been working into all of the debates and all the press conferences in the last few months. But don’t be fooled, it’s just voodoo economics repackaged. It didn’t work in the 1980s, when income disparity began to tick up once again, and it certainly hasn’t worked now, when the tax burden on high income earners and corporations is at its lowest point since Eisenhower was president. And as for everyone else, the majority of the people, those feeling the pain not only in their tax bills but in cuts to services, infrastructure development, and long term security? Well, fuck them. Who do they think they work for?
Addendum — For further reading on the cognitive science behind frames and political morality, I recommend reading two books by George Lakoff, a cognitive linguist who teaches at Berkeley. Moral Politics: What Conservatives Know that Liberals Don’t is an exploration of how our moral beliefs fit in with out political beliefs. It’s a fascinating read and changed the way I think of politics irreversibly. The second book is Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate, a little book that can be read through in a few hours. Taken together, these books will help a person better define what they believe, and why they believe it as it relates to their political values, valuable information if one ever finds themselves talking politics. These books aren’t just useful for liberals, either, even though Lakoff is a liberal. Moral Politics is an academic treatise that explores conservatism and liberalism equally until the end, when Lakoff chooses a side. Before then, it’s an enlightening look at the enemy’s state of mind that is valuable for all sides of the debate to read.