Like blueprints for a construction job, "plans" for government projects are not the riveting stuff of public presentations or discussion. Like blueprints, plans are for engineers. What interests the public is the model of the finished project—the three-dimensional representation of the building itself.
All political debate exists on three levels: values (top), issues (middle), and policy (bottom). Progressives love to talk on the bottom two levels because they seem more "real" and concrete. Policy and issues are where the facts are. You can put policy onto paper and make an issue a web page heading. Values are tougher to figure out.
Like a master mechanic pulling up the hood and demonstrating how the engine works, our own Jeffrey Feldman has authored a work all progressives should read as they venture into the world of persuasive political discourse. Through painstaking analysis of 15 famous presidential speeches, Feldman leads readers through the intricacies of designing a message that ignites the enthusiasm and resonates with the core belief systems of listeners. This process is more than hitting upon emotional keywords and marketable bytes; it is about conveying the value system of progressivism that underlies our shared worldview.
In the book’s introduction by George Lakoff, the master of framing explains:
Framing is about one’s moral worldview, core values, and underlying principles. Such "deep frames" are largely unconscious and all too often unspoken in progressive discourse. But they are what politics is fundamentally about. Messages, to be successful, depend on deep framing, but are specific communications—say, about particular policies or programs or events.
Political framing is therefore about the big picture, about values and principles. If they are communicated, the surface messages are easier to get across.
Feldman takes apart speeches that range in time from George Washington’s first inaugural address to George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address. Each speech receives a full treatment chapter that looks at the underlying frame and how it shapes – or assumes – an implicit worldview. The author then offers separate suggestions to politicians, activists and citizens on how to harness the power of framing on display in each to begin what he rightly calls "the important work of rooting their day-to-day efforts in the long tradition of American words and ideas."
Progressives are often uncomfortable with the idea of being calculated about the speech they choose to use, preferring to believe that spontaneity is the purest form of authenticity. There is sometimes a resistance to paying close attention to how they use words, to crafting a message, to consciously embedding their arguments in thought-out metaphors. This resistance is understandable as we wrestle with daily with the results of manipulation and spin coming from the other side of the political aisle, but Feldman seeks to ease that discomfort by clearly delineating the difference between spin and framing:
... framing the debate is never just about the wrapper. To make rotten politics smell better by wrapping them in clean paper is the goal of "spin," or deception, not of framing.
Good framing in a speech prunes away the distraction so that the vision grows fuller and more vibrant, giving the listener a better chance to appreciate the ideas being expressed. Spin, by contrast, distracts the listener through misdirection.
In other words, deception and misdirection are the hallmarks of spin. Clarification through a consciously chosen distillation process, where we seek to boil down our worldview – and not get stuck on the complexities of policy and issues (always a challenge for us) – is the aim of framing.
These are complicated and nuanced distinctions. And despite the call for hard thinking about the implicit worldview we are conveying when we speak, a lot of the art of framing still seems tied in to gut instinct. In some places in Framing the Debate, Feldman examines the advantages of what he calls "arguing big" and in others he points out the importance of discussing "small moments." The ability to smoothly integrate these approaches into one sharp and targeted and true message to the world about progressivism is as much an art as a linguistic and psychological science.
One of the most important aspects of this book is implicit in its structure, in the harkening back across centuries to plant current progressive speech and ideals in the historical grounding of America. Feldman says:
But beyond just treating past speeches as temporary narrative safe havens, progressive framers must also develop the habit and practice of reading American political speeches for another reason: to grow roots.... Without building that bridge between past and present American voices, progressive frames risk crafting a political debate that—while effective in scientific principle—is culturally rootless.
Aside from the beautiful language and ideas expressed in the past, there are great lessons on display in many of the texts visited in this book. Two of them provide prime examples of spin on display (Nixon’s resignation speech and Bush’s State of the Union). As such, they serve as models of misdirection that Feldman deftly dissects to show how to counter such tactics in everyday conversations and are invaluable for their inclusion here.
Yet for this reader at least, the most intriguing speech treated in the book was Ronald Reagan’s farewell address. As a self-professed fan of narrative, I found looking at the nuts and bolts of how he drew in listeners through setting the stage with "small moments" fascinating, and how he tied that in to his "big picture" of his view of America highly instructive. Having parts of the speech in text is important. Feldman rightly warns against confusing a good speaker with a good message, and having the inarguably good orator Reagan in print shows that there truly was more at work in his appeal – like it or not – than simple good delivery. The combination of personal anecdote and big picture theme is a model that some of our most promising candidates (Edwards, Obama) are embracing on the campaign trail now, and many citizen activists can probably learn much on how to be more effective – and not cloying – in our daily conversations about politics.
Feldman characterizes his book as "as much a reference book and tool kit as it is a linear introduction to presidential speeches and framing." This is an excellent definition, and it should be on the shelf of every activist for ready reference as we move ahead to shape how we discuss the future of America with our fellow citizens. And how, as blog readers, can we not be drawn to a book that so clearly states our own practice and motives as this:
The key to framing the dinner table as a place for political discussion is to steer potential confrontation into suggestive conversation. Too often, when politics come up, progressives (as well as conservatives) often leap directly to defending their side, which can have the effect of cutting off debate. To effectively frame a progressive issue, however, it is helpful to elicit, not cut off, the discussion—in other words, to foster the debate.
A good place to learn how to foster the debate is in the comment threads of progressive blogs. In a sense, these threads have become some of the most lively "dinner tables" in America over the last few years, and are ideal settings for developing the skill of fostering debate. Progressives can seek out contentious discussion and then enter into the comment threads with the specific goal of moderating the discussion rather than endorsing—or enforcing—a specific political position. And, since political debate on most blogs is much "louder" than most actual dinner table conversations, fostering one at home should be easy.
Editor's note: This review was originally published at the Daily Kos, which notes that its "content may be used for any purpose without explicit permission unless otherwise specified." The original page can be found here.Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.