by Susan C. Strong
These days every morning brings a new shock
to the republic, as Mr. Trump and the GOP drive Americans into bigger and
bigger traps. Trump's most outrageous caper yet, the federal shutdown over his
ignorant and ineffective steel wall, is just another case in point. But even if
Trump is ultimately impeached or decides to resign, retiring to rest on his
laurels as the biggest conman of all time, we are still in trouble today,
tomorrow and in 2020. What kind of trouble? Besides
still having a GOP senate and VP? I mean message framing trouble.
Of course, Democratic and progressive
slogans must convey our commitment to the best American values. But there
are all kinds of ways to do that and also to make a mess of doing that. So I'm going to suggest a special verbal strategy to apply and some slogan-forming pitfalls to avoid, starting right now. (Basic tools and resources for implementing
these suggestions can be found at Metaphorproject.org ).Because the Right has long been smarter and quicker about following the most effective framing rules, it often falls to the Left to try to try to counter framewhat they've already launched. What is counter-framing?It's the technique of countering a Right wing sound bite with a more effective "truth bite" of our own. There are three main methods for doing this. (In what follows I've supplied examples of successful versions from the past, and a suggestion or two we might use or tweak now.)
Some Counter-framing Rules of Thumb
If a GOP sound bite or phrase evokes a familiar American story, one that implies a commonly accepted set of moral or social values (among some quarters anyway), you can do one of three things:
- Come up with your own phrase or metaphor to evoke a
different, but equally familiar American story, one that implies your set
of moral values.
- You can tweak their phrase in a meaningful way, by
changing it just enough to evoke a different but equally familiar American
story. It should be one that implies a set of moral values that will carry
your message. This technique is a bit riskier, because the tweak must
create a genuinely different feel than the GOP sound bite. Too close to
the original and you are just helping the Right by reminding everyone of what they already said, not
what you want to convey.
- The third method involves creating a brand new combination of frames. This method is often used for calling attention to issues still outside much public awareness.
Some Counter-framing Rules of Thumb
1. Come up with your own phrase or metaphor to evoke a different, but equally familiar American story, one that implies your set of moral values.
My first example comes from January 2010.
Just as the fight over financial reform was getting started, I could see the
Right's "regulations destroy business/jobs etc." frame coming. I feared
that Democrats would also start talking about "regulation," in which case the
fight would be lost before it started. So I suggested a different, but
equally familiar counter frame: "rules." I said "Say 'rules,' not
regulation." Although some people might have already been saying "rules"
before this suggestion got out there, the use of "rules" instead of
"regulation" went viral on our side after that. The story "rules" tells, of course,
is about everybody "playing by the same rules," or "playing by the rule of
It may start as a sports metaphor, but it's one the Left can love, because of the moral values it implies. This frame
is still very powerful in 2019, especially since the GOP, Trump, and his swamp crawlers in the cabinet are working overtime to destroy all the rules that protect our health and safety. For example, you can say now: "Restore the rules that keep our #water(air, soil, etc.) sources clean! Stop #Trump's EPA giveaway
to #CorporatePolluters!" Americans are especially strong on things being clean.
2. You can tweak their phrases in a meaningful way, by changing them just enough to evoke a different but equally familiar American story.
A dramatic example of counter-framing a
Right wing slogan by tweaking it comes from the summer of
2006. At the time the Right's Iraq War mantra, "stay the course," seemed stuck
in everyone's brains. We couldn't seem to find our way out of it, so to speak.
One or two attempts by Democrats to launch a tweak of it about six months
earlier had failed. But in July of 2006 we got lucky. For a large coalition of
peace organizations that was getting ready to launch a fall campaign, I
suggested using the phrase "change course." I also invited
people to come up with their own versions
of it. Many did, when that frame started to go viral. It suddenly spread like wildfire through the punditry, the press, and the politicians. In the end, it gave General Petraeus cover to change his strategy in Iraq, from shooting Iraqi chieftains
to paying them to help us, a better idea, anyway, in the middle of a really bad war. This example also illustrates
another principle of counter-framing: getting lucky with the moment you launch your tweaked phrase. A lot of factors combined to make the first week in July, 2006 the right moment.
Right now this frame, change course, might
work for what Trump and the GOP need to do: change course! It's an example of a
metaphor that provides a name for a way out of the Trump trap we're all in
right now, including the President. To win, Trump needs to change course! How
about we make it easy for him to be smart, change course and save face? Of
course, saying no to mafia style hostage-taking shutdowns is essential. And
proposing 21st century alternatives to a steel wall is good. But Trump doesn't
pay attention to policy details. So how about we give him a kind of "wall
"that could look like an out to him: Say: "Mr. President:
Change course and win! Choose a HIGH TECH #SmartWALL" to spot ALL illegal
entries: by land,
air, or sea!"
3. The third method involves creating a new
sound bite of your own, by combining two familiar terms not
usually seen together. This is especially useful for framing issues unfamiliar to some parts of the American public.
To use this method, combine two words or
phrases that are already part of the American values lexicon, in a
completely new way. Some notable recent examples include the phrases "marriage equality" and "gun safety."
Marriage is still highly regarded in the U.S., and of course, equality is a fundamental American value, even if we don't make it happen very much in reality. The success of the "gun safety" example comes from applying the phrase to
broad issues of gun legislation, far, far beyond its original use in classes on handling gun operation safely. However, Americans prize safety about as much as cleanliness. And the phrase framed gun reform legislation in a much more effective way than by calling it "gun control."
(Americans don't like 'control'!.) The real beauty of it was that all responsible gun owners understand the safety idea and could accept it because it was already part of their world.
So what type of new phrasing could we create
to help us out right now? Here's one that applies: "Mr.President, stop
#TrainWreckShutdowns! Keep America on track!" Recently many
people have used the "train wreck" image
about our recent shutdown in long sentences. But phrasing it as a single, succinct phrase combined with the familiar
"on track" political metaphor makes the "train wreck"a lot more literal. The combination raises the energy of both images. We could also say: "Congress, stop #TrainWreckShutdowns! Keep America on track!" as Mitch
McConnell and other legislators are reported to be considering bipartisan legislation to keep the government funded,
no matter what. Encouraging them all to make it happen seems like a really good idea.
What can you invent? Put it out there on social media to see if it flies! But do pay attention to the following tips!
Some Warnings about typical Left Framing Traps
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