Obama and Reframing the Economic Debate

As the Obama campaign kicked into high gear this week, both campaigns are going to bludgeon the electorate with catchphrases and slogans from now until November. Viewed individually, this rhetoric may not seem all that powerful. But when rhetoric succeeds in shifting the frame of a debate, it not only furthers the candidate’s cause, but places the opposition in an inescapable hole. Conservatives have long held an advantage in framing debates, but progressives have fought back and now, with wide-spread coverage of the economic struggles of the European Union, have an opportunity to take the offensive on the critical issue of the economy by transplanting the term “austerity” its home in the European Union to the United States presidential election.

Berkeley linguist George Lakoff writes about the importance of framing in his book Don’t Think of an Elephant! Lakoff argues that, while all voters are unique and fall within a sliding scale, the conservative and liberal poles of this scale are defined by distinct worldviews that come before actual policy preferences and correspond to the basic human philosophy of child rearing (though Lakoff is quick to point out that a person might raise their own child differently than they would think politically). The “conservative” voter observes the world from the perspective of a “strict father” — observing “evil” threats everywhere and believing that people must be disciplined through harsh, but fair treatment to enter the world and make it on their own — while the “progressive” voters approach the world as “nurturing parents” — stressing teachable moments and responsibility to transition people into the world as strong members of a support network founded upon mutual respect.

For a simple example, Lakoff cites the image of the “trial lawyer.” The term dominates the field of policy debate on so-called tort reform. Conservatives deride “trial lawyers” and liberals defend “trial lawyers.” But nobody likes “lawyers” in the abstract and the term “trial lawyer” invokes the most generic possible definition of “lawyer.” By accepting the term set by conservatives, liberals are always already behind the 8-Ball when defending the bar. Liberals support this constituency because the federal government lacks the resources and often the conviction to protect individuals from violations of environmental, health and public safety laws. Lakoff suggests adopting the term “public defense lawyers,” a term that conveys its name the purpose of this group and inherently distinguishes the group from the generic brand of “lawyer” that the public may not accept.

This election presents an opportunity to take the offensive on the economy. Republicans traditionally enjoy the upper hand on economic issues, despite the fact that Republicans have presided over the last two recessions. Republicans have built this goodwill on economic issues by talking about tax cuts and rolling back regulation as creating a “pro-growth environment.” They have won the framing debate that Republican policies represent “growth.”

Obama has gotten some traction by shifting the language to “fairness,” a term that polls show resonates with the electorate this cycle, but this is not a response. “Growth” and “fairness” do not fall within the same continuum. Focusing on “fairness” implicitly cedes “growth” to the Republicans while posing an alternative value. Despite the efforts of some progressive thinkers to explain that growth and fairness are compatible, the fact that articles written by progressives to progressive audiences are needed to overcome this divide proves that “fairness” remains outside the “growth” debate.

This is also the importance of increasing awareness of the struggles in the European Union. If the word “austerity” is whole-heartedly adopted by the Obama campaign, it has a chance of coopting the Republican frame. The European Union is demonstrating that “austerity” is the opposite of growth. As Lakoff would suggest, Obama running headlong into using the term “growth” would adopt the frame of the Republicans and place Democrats at a disadvantage when decades of rhetoric have made “growth” synonymous with Republican policies. But “austerity” redefines those conservative policies as “non-growth” without using the word “growth.” Tying the Paul Ryan budget to the concept of “austerity” and painting this election as a choice between the austerity crippling the European Union and its opposite would be a boon for Obama who could recapture the high ground on economic issues.

Leave a Reply