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CHAPTER 5: HOW FRAMING WORKS

Horn, Bernie Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Time for another quiz! When were these political slogans in vogue, and what were they all about?

Time’s up. American message framing is as old as American politics. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison practically invented the modern campaign at the turn of the nineteenth century. In 1800, they used negative campaigning to frame their old friend John Adams as a monarchist. Of course, they didn’t call it framing. There was no discussion of any science behind political persuasion. American politicians framed their arguments because they knew what worked. For example:

Answer 1. “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was the slogan of William Henry Harrison’s 1840 presidential campaign. In 1811, Harrison led the forces that defeated the Shawnee chief Tecumseh at the battle of Tippecanoe. So this slogan framed Harrison as a war hero—just like his venerated predecessor, Andrew Jackson. (John Tyler was Harrison’s vice president.)66

Answer 2. “Don’t swap horses in midstream” was a saying popularized by Abraham Lincoln during his campaign for reelection in 1864. What a great metaphor! The Civil War is presented as an obstacle that the country has to cross. Everyone in that era knew what it was like to cross a stream on horseback. If message framing was good enough for Honest Abe, it should be good enough for us.

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CHAPTER 11: TALKING ABOUT HOT-BUTTON ISSUES

Horn, Bernie Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Why do voters think we’re soft on hard issues? And why do they support most of our domestic policies in opinion polls but not necessarily at the polls on Election Day? It’s all in the way we talk. We don’t need to support military invasions, torture, wiretapping, or merciless sentencing laws. We don’t need to “triangulate” our domestic policies. But we do need to make it clear that our progressive policies will provide Americans with more freedom, opportunity, and security.

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Progressives lost the elections of 2002 and 2004 over the issue of security. Too many Americans thought that conservatives were for security and progressives were against. Subsequently, conservatives lost the election of 2006 in large part because they bungled the job of security.

You may think the threat posed by terrorism pales in comparison to other concerns—that far more Americans die from domestic gun violence or secondhand smoke or lack of affordable health care. But the media130 is focused on terrorism, and therefore most Americans consider it a supremely important issue. And of course, U.S. military involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is an overriding political issue.

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CHAPTER 3: THE WINNING MESSAGE

Horn, Bernie Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

“‘Poll-driven politics’ is the road to hell,” writes one blogger.

This is true. Polls must not determine progressive policy goals—we’ve got to pursue social justice whether or not it is popular. Polls must not determine what we believe as progressives—we’ve got to follow what’s inside our own souls. But good message framing does depend on good polling. We have to understand what our target audience is thinking in order to decide how to move them in our direction.

What are voters thinking when we say freedom, opportunity, and security? Pollster Celinda Lake tested this philosophy against others in two ways, as a slogan and in a longer description.

This first of these compared the statement, “Government should promote freedom, opportunity, and security for all Americans” to Al Gore’s “We need government to stand up for the people not the powerful,” the recently fashionable “Our government should promote the common good,” and John Edwards’ “Today there are two Americas. There is a working America whose needs are forgotten by the government and an America of wealthy special interests whose every wish is fulfilled by the government.” (Figure 3.1 summarizes the question and the key survey results. For more detailed results for this and many of the following figures, please see the Resource section in the back of the book.)32

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CHAPTER 4: TARGETING THE PERSUADABLES

Horn, Bernie Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Politics without targeting is like a fire hose without a nozzle. Yet advocates routinely point their spray of messages at the whole population. And then they are surprised when their political house burns down.

Any communications effort—from one person chatting with the neighbors to an entire presidential campaign—has limited resources. And any political decision—from the selection of a grant recipient to the election of a mayor—is made by a limited number of “deciders,” in the lingo of George W. Bush. For example, Bush received sixty-two million votes in 2004, representing just a little more than 20 percent of the U.S. population. Democratic candidates for the U.S. House received forty million votes in 2006, representing about 13 percent of Americans.

But the crucial audience is even smaller. In a general election, most voters are partisan Democrats and Republicans who can never be persuaded to support the other party’s candidate. Only a sliver of voters might vote for either party’s candidate—these are the persuadable voters. The proportion of persuadables is usually a bit larger in local elections, and larger still when you’re trying to galvanize support for an issue instead of a candidate.

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CHAPTER 8: TALKING ABOUT OUR PHILOSOPHY AND OURSELVES

Horn, Bernie Berrett-Koehler Publishers ePub

Republican pollster Frank Luntz tells us that “words can sometimes be used to confuse, but it’s up to the practitioners of the study of language to apply them for good and not for evil. It is just like fire; fire can heat your house or burn it down.” Luntz and other right-wing consultants have given conservatives the words that work—to burn down the house. Let’s talk now about words that progressives can use to warm the hearts of voters.

When asked what you stand for, say—confidently—”freedom, opportunity, and security for all.”

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I know this phrase might sound a bit clumsy to your ear right now. But it will gain popularity with repetition. Remember, the first few people who said death tax sounded like aliens from the planet Zorc. Repetition has made this bizarre and factually inaccurate term seem normal.104

To review, when you’re talking about an issue where government has no proper role, say freedom or use a word or phrase with a similar meaning, such as liberty, privacy, basic rights, or fundamental rights. When you discuss an issue where government should act as a referee, say opportunity or use similar terms, including equal opportunity, equality, justice, equal justice, fairness, or level playing field. When you argue about an issue where government should act as a protector, say security or use such terms as safety, protection, quality of life, health security, employment security, or retirement security.

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