As we Democrats turn our attention towards Congress' return from summer break and our upcoming battles with the dangerous power grabs, obfuscations, and excesses of the Bush Administration and a Republican Party become ultra-conservative and quasi-theocratic, it's important to look at the successes Democrats have had recently in preserving some semblance of governmental sanity, in no small part because of DISCIPLINE in the Party's ranks.
Note that: Discipline. Discipline, not "framing." Heard of framing?
Ostensibly, framing was the subject of Matt Bai's article in July in The New York Times Magazine, "Framing Wars." But the article really was about Party discipline and the value of compelling ideas.
"Framing" is a notion popularized within Democratic ranks by George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant.
Exactly what it means to 'frame' issues seems to depend on which Democrat you are talking to, but everyone agrees that it has to do with choosing the language to define a debate and...with fitting individual issues into the contexts of broader story lines.
Aspects of Lakoff's academic ideas strike me as shockingly commonsensical, with examples of them throughout history (i.e., the basic concept isn't original). Applied to politics, Bai describes the basic ideas this way:
The most compelling part of Lakoff's hypothesis is the notion that in order to reach voters, all the individual issues of a political debate must be tied together by some larger frame that feels familiar to us. Lakoff suggests that voters respond to grand metaphors...as opposed to specific arguments, and that specific arguments only resonate if they reinforce some grander metaphor.
Another commonsensical Lakoff idea: voters (read: people) aren't rational actors who make their decisions based entirely (or even ultimately) on facts.
Other aspects of Lakoff's thinking leave me cold, and I gloss over them here. According to Lakoff,
[M]etaphors [are] actually embedded in the recesses of the mind, giving the brain a way to process abstract ideas. In other words, a bad relationship reminds you on an unconscious level of a cul-de-sac, because both are leading nowhere. This results from what might be called a "love as journey" frame in the neural pathways of your brain--that is, you are more likely to relate to the story of, say, a breakup if it is described to you with the imagery of a journey.
Bai writes about how after a lot of Democratic leaders had read Lakoff's book, Democrats started winning battles on Capital Hill, including the Social Security and filibuster fights. And the "new" ideas the Democrats followed that led them to victory: FOCUS GROUPS and DISCIPLINE. (Gasp!) These things are anything but new. Here's your shockingly innovative focus grouping and discipline:
In January, Geoff Garin conducted a confidential poll on judicial nominations.... He was looking for a story -- a frame -- for the filibuster that would persuade voters that it should be preserved, and he tested four possible narratives.
Garin then convened focus groups and listened for clues about how to make [the] case [for the winning narrative]. He heard voters call the majority party "arrogant." They said they feared "abuse of power....." Garin shared his polling with a group of Democratic senators that included Harry Reid, the minority leader. Reid, in turn, assigned Stephanie Cutter...to put together a campaign-style " war room " on the filibuster.... She used Garin's research to create a series of talking points.
As they would later with the filibuster fight and with the Supreme Court, Senate Democrats, under [Sen. Harry] Reid's direction, set up a war room and a strategy group [during the Social Security fight.]... In addition to keeping members focused on their talking points,...senators and congressmen [were stopped] from offering compromise plans that might drive a wedge into the caucus...."The minute we introduce a plan, we have to solve the problem" is how one senior Democratic aide explained it to me. "We are the minority party. It's not our job to fix things."
Bai lays it out this way:
In the end, the success of the [Democrats'] effort...may have had something to do with language or metaphor, but it probably had more to do with the elusive virtue of party discipline. Pelosi explained it to me this way: for years, the party's leaders had tried to get restless Democrats to stay "on message," to stop freelancing their own rogue proposals and to continue reading from the designated talking points even after it got excruciatingly boring to do so. Consultants like Garin and Margolis had been saying the same thing, but Democratic congressmen, skeptical of the in-crowd of D.C. strategists, had begun to tune them out. "Listening to people inside Washington did not produce any victories," Pelosi said.
Or, as Bai put it in a grossly caricature-laden :
"[O]utsiders" [like Lakoff] had what Reid and Pelosi and their legion of highly paid consultants did not: the patina of scientific credibility. Culturally, this made perfect sense. If you wanted Republican lawmakers to buy into a program, you brought in a guy like Frank Luntz, an unapologetically partisan pollster who dressed like the head of the College Republicans. If you wanted Democrats to pay attention, who better to do the job than an egghead from Berkeley with an armful of impenetrable journal studies on the workings of the brain?
But neither framing nor discipline substitute for ideas. Bia:
The larger question--too large, perhaps, for most Democrats to want to consider at the moment--is whether they can do more with language and narrative than simply snipe at Bush's latest initiative or sink his nominees.
[It simply may be the case that] Democrats are still unwilling to put their more concrete convictions about the country into words, either because they don't know what those convictions are or because they lack confidence in the notion that voters can be persuaded to embrace them. Either way, this is where the power of language meets its outer limit. The right words can frame an argument, but they will never stand in its place. (My emphases throughout)
I also encourage you to read the fantastic summary of Bai's article by Brendan Nyhan, formerly of Spinsanity, on Brendan's blog.