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Framing, That’s the Name of the Game

As opposed to Beach Blanket Bingo. (See Frankie and Annette, if you missed the reference. :). Ah, the happy days of innocence).

I am sure that we are all aware of the concept of “framing,” as applied to rhetoric, or political arguments. I know that in law school, it was something that professors often talked about. Of course you had to know the law, but that was not enough, if you lost to the other side in the battle of framing.

Very few legal cases are slam-dunks, that is why they go to trial or higher courts. The key is the ability to make the argument about something where you have the higher ground or upper hand “Gentlepersons of the jury, this case is about the right of individuals to be free to make choices on their own.” “This matter will test whether the government has the right to try to protect citizens, with regard to their actions or the actions or others.”

Both sound very reasonable, in the abstract, but of course they invoke totally opposite sides of a particular issue. The goal is to convince the judicial decision maker, judge or jury; or even voter, if it is an election, that the specific case does indeed stand for the general principle that you say it does, and which you are pretty sure that the audience agrees with in general. Convince them that “what the case is really about” is what you say it is, and you probably win.

It is not as simple as that, of course, but it certainly is behind most legal arguments. It may seem manipulative, and it often is. It is unfortunately how one tries to convince people of things. Advertising is not just about whether some implement works, it is often about what cachet it might give you, whether your neighbors will be envious, what it says about you as a buyer and a user.

It is often said that a good marketer can get people to buy anything, and that is probably true, albeit rather depressing. But if you buy a Chevy or a Ford because of the marketing, you are probably not too badly off, they both work well enough. The problem is when people are convicted or freed, or win or lose on major damages, because of how effective the attorney was in framing what the case was about.

I well remember a ballot measure in California a few decades ago, which was a Proposition to raise the tax on buying a pack of cigarettes. A vast majority of Californians were in favor of doing that. But the tobacco industry spent about $90 million, an immense sum then, to fight the Proposition. What they did was to argue that “They” were trying to tell you what to do, trying to control your lives. “There they go again,” went the ads. “They will tell you what to eat, what to smoke, where you can go. They are taking away your freedoms.”

I don’t remember the specific language of the ads, but that was the import of them. And somehow they framed this in such a way that the tide shifted, and the Proposition was defeated by about 2% when it had once led by 20% or so. This once again showed the power of big money and clever ads to somehow convince people to do the thing they really did not want to do.

California is pretty much an anti-tobacco state, but trying to protect people from the toxic effects of secondhand smoke, as well as saving would-be smokers, suddenly got overshadowed by the argument about “freedom.” People always want freedom, as an abstract concept, and few like to be “told what to do” by the government. Voila. What about the other side of it? That side, as usual, had virtually no money to even begin to combat the funds used by Big Tobacco. “The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Children.”

We know that there are billions spent on marketing, and it is a pernicious business, trying to get people to buy your stupid product so you can roll in the dollars. It is even worse when those billions are used to convince (brainwash?) people to vote for your candidate or support your issue. And it is often the same people behind all of it. And most people do not have the time or the savvy to realize how they are being played.

A classic example now is the mask issue. For me, and for many others, the issue is simple: Does the “State” have the right and ability to try to protect the citizenry by mandating vaccinations and the wearing of masks in public places? The other side ignores those precedents, and contends that the government has no right to tell people how to live their lives, it is a personal choice.

Now, of course most people believe in choice, and freedom to decide. So if the Right can convince (brainwash?) enough people into thinking that this is what the issue is about, many will back their side of it. Hit the right buttons, and you can win the argument.

That is exactly what is done in political campaigns. Republicans, the party of the wealthy and of big business, obviously do this far more and “better” than Democrats. Watch the ads, and the campaign speeches, and it is easy to deduce what the buzzwords and the buttons are. Republicans literally spend billions of dollars to study, and run computer models on; and poll, and test, to determine what words people react positively or negatively to. They do this so effectively, that they convince many voters to vote for a candidate or the party which is for many things that they don’t want, and against things that they do.

It is always a shocking thing to see how the general polls show that most people are for this, or against that, which should vastly favor Democrats, but then this goes though some kind of “black box,” and comes out to where they vote for the people who are counter to their own views and desires. Democrats win big in polls with regard to whether abortion should be legal, but it is about to be effectively illegal. Polls showed that 85% or so were against the massive tax cuts to the upper .5% and to corporations, back in 2017, and yet they sailed right through, because they had elected people who were for it.

People want action on climate change, but elect Republicans who will never do a thing. They believe that there should be some action to curb assault weapons, but elect those who will stop any of it. It goes on, as if we are living in a world of distorted mirrors which have thrown back a false reflection, and everyone reacts to the reflection, not the original image.

Now, some of this is due to our flawed electoral system: the power of small states and rural districts; the effect of radical gerrymandering. But that doesn’t nearly account for all of it. People are literally being manipulated to vote against their own personal interests, and their own sense of values, because they have reacted to how the powerful monied interests have framed the issue and decision.

Gore Vidal once mused about how amazing it was that the “powerful elite class” had managed for centuries to convince people to keep them in power. At the time, and looked at it from an overview, it is rather remarkable. Once they did it through force of arms. But then they simply found ways to misdirect people so that they kept making them even more powerful, and making themselves less so–but of course they are told that they are making good decisions, keep it up. They’ve got their tools in the media to keep pounding home that reassuring message, and emphasizing how the way the elites framed the elections was the right one.

Oh, we can and must blame the populace, the voters, too. We are now in an Age where so much data is disseminated, that powerful interests can inundate people with false information, utter lies, propaganda, incitement. We were actually better off when we were more isolated in towns, and information was usually confined to the local newspaper, which might have been biased, but often tried to uphold journalistic principles. And the half-hours of nightly news on the three major networks were actually pretty fair and informative. What we’ve got now, as we all know, are 24-hour “news” networks, no Fairness Doctrine,; wall to wall propaganda, all fed based on computer algorithms which are intended to control perceptions and opinions.

I am almost about to agree with the Mad Prophet Howard Beale of “Network,” who shouted to people to turn off their televisions. I didn’t love that movie when it came out, but Paddy Chayefsky was a humanistic genius who caught it exactly right. But not enough listened; and those that did, did not have enough power to beat the corporations. Reagan’s creators got rid of the Fairness Doctrine right away, and one of them, Roger Ailes, ran with the effects of that terrible action.

We are not going to convince people to turn off their TVs. And not being informed at all is not necessarily a good thing–though one wonders whether it might be preferable to being relentlessly misinformed. What I think would be useful is to inform people of the nature of “framing,” how they are being manipulated by commercial interests into literally giving away their own agency and money to them. I would be happy to contribute to funding a series like that, or maybe one very powerful movie which might wake some people up.

It helps all of us, to at least some degree, to be aware of how framing so strongly influences the daily narratives we are given. I just wrote about the “economic crisis” we are told Biden has caused, or is ineffectively dealing with, which very likely is not a crisis at all, but an improving economy with some concomitant problems to deal with, but far from some kind of disaster.

But continuing to say it is a crisis, and making it look as if Biden is flailing around trying to somehow deal with it, is not only absolutely wrong and unfair, it creates its own self-perpetuating narrative, and a framing that he can’t escape from, at least until the news is so positive as to at least force the media to complain about something else that the Republicans hand them. If this were framed as a remarkable economic recovery with some expected bumps, Biden would probably be sitting at 52% instead of 41%

And always be aware of the insidious but pretty easily discernible program the Right Wing and the corporations try to run with regard to all issues. A) This is the thing that we want or don’t want. (That is the part they don’t tell us). B). These are the big problems, just look at all the pictures we show you: people fleeing Afghanistan; thousands surging at the border; customers at stores sadly looking at empty shelves and things they can’t afford. C) This is why they are all the Democrats’ fault. D) This is what we must do to solve these problems. Elect Republicans. Be against all Democratic programs and officeholders. Hate them as enemies of freedom and liberty and the America Way. E) Give us the thing we want.

Awareness of the mind game they are playing, is an essential part of developing a resistance to it. Democrats realizing that they are in a war against an immense propaganda machine which is filled with mined consumer and voter data, and employs the most sophisticated thought control techniques, is imperative. Republicans and their corporate allies and controllers, are running an hourly propaganda campaign which would have shocked even George Orwell, though perhaps not the brilliant and prescient science fiction writer Philip K. Dick, whom we so much need right now.

Democrats need to become much better at issue framing. And unfortunately enough, what we think should be the value system people should have, many do not have. We need to figure out what matters to people,and insofar as we can provide it without significantly compromising our own most important values, try to frame the issues in those terms. And try to convince people that most of these issues are not ‘free rolls,” where you can vote the wrong way ,and get it back the next time. Some of these may be irrevocable. Some may already be, and I will never forgive the people who in 2015 and 2016 didn’t care to realize that. But some of it can be saved. We could even reverse the general outlawing of abortion though a Congressional Act, if we had enough votes there.

What is at stake is a crucial part of the framing, Somehow convincing enough voters that we are heading for the abyss unless we vote to save ourselves, may be the most essential framing of all.