Progressive Framing

5/22/2012 update … If you have a serious interest in this topic, you MUST SEE the Cognitive Policy Works (CPW) website. The CPW’s core mission is to bring powerful insights from the cognitive and behavioral sciences to practitioners working to deliver progressive social change all over the world. They are a community of collaborators with expertise in psychology, linguistics, media studies, education, neuroscience, strategic planning, entrepreneurship, frame analysis, political consulting, and innovation design.

“There are two aspects of every policy: a cognitive policy and a material policy. Material policies consist of the nuts and bolts, what is to be done in the world to fulfill policy goals. For example, the details of a health care plan, or a plan for getting out of Iraq. Material policies each have a cognitive dimension, often unconscious and implicit. This includes the ideas, frames, values, and modes of thought that inform the political understanding of the material policy. For example, consider the following questions: Do all Americans, just by their very existence, deserve health care, just as they deserve police protection? How does focusing on health care differ from emphasis on health insurance? How these questions are answered plays a crucial role in what the material details of health care policy should be.
Cognitive policy is about the values and ideas that both motivate the policy goals and that have to be uppermost in the minds of the public and the media in order for the policy to seem so much a matter of common sense that it will be readily accepted.”

The Cognitive Policy Works (

[7/25/2014 — Cognitive Policy Works closed in late 2013 and its foundational work has been folded into the new consulting company, Culture2 Inc.  ]

End of update. My original post follows:

Karl Rove (Wikipedia)

Frank Luntz (Wikipedia)

The spin doctors

Progressives owe a huge debt to Frank Luntz and Karl Rove. These gentlemen, and many others like them, have taught those of us with eyes to see and ears to hear about the magic of “spin“, especially the the importance of language, the turn of a phrase, and the mysterious thing called “framing”.

Framing (Wikipedia)

A frame in social theory consists of a schema of interpretation — that is, a collection of anecdotes and stereotypes—that individuals rely on to understand and respond to events. In simpler terms, people have, through their lifetimes, built a series of mental emotional filters. They use these filters to make sense of the world. The choices they then make are influenced by their frame or emotional filters.

I hate when arguments about facts are entangled with an obvious ideological bias on economics, politics, etc. I suspect that consciously or unconsciously, ideological bullies instinctively understand that by aggressively accusing their opponents of their own camouflaged ambitions and inclinations they may be able to push their opponents farther and farther off certain positions or “intellectual territories” that they wish to occupy for themselves. I consider this to frequently cross the line between discourse and culture war, and so I am ready to do battle. I affix my favorite bumper sticker here as my pennant– my battle colors.

Click for Wikipedia article

The man pictured on my battle standard is Charles Darwin, a fitting icon for the culture war between conservatives and liberal progressives, which I see as a continuation of the ancient, fundamental, and existential conflict between a still somewhat juvenile “Age of Enlightenment” and a cranky, doddering old “Divine Order“.

The culture war may be at its very core a clash of genes; but it is often waged upon a battlefield of ideas on which words are the soldiers, and they are often butchered or held prisoner by one side or the other.

Anyone who wants to lay claim to the word freedom will have to embrace liberalism (from the Latin liberalis, “of freedom”) whether they like it or not. .

The battle for hearts and minds

My friend Natural Lefty , a psychologist, says “Some of the things that are going on with the political “right” in this country show signs of desperation. It is as though the rich and powerful, and the deeply conservative who are neither rich nor powerful, feel their “way of life” being threatened as they lose the popular battle for the hearts and minds of Americans, so they form an unholy alliance and push farther to the right, trying to bring the entire nation with them. They also convince themselves that their views are mainstream, and manage to convince a considerable percentage of Americans that they are indeed conservative, since “liberal” is a dirty word and high taxes and “big brother” government sound bad, but in fact, when specifically asked, the large majority of us prefer progressive policies, and it is only big government that can represent the people and save us from big business.”

Modern American Liberalism (Wikipedia):

“Conservatives have attempted to rebrand the word “liberal” to mean weak, effete, soft on crime, soft on terrorism, etc, and have hammered the left with  pejorative terms such as “bleeding-heart liberal”, “tax-and-spend liberal”, “cut-and-run liberal”, “Massachusetts liberal“, “limousine liberal“, and “liberal elite“…

Markos Moulitsas points out that the attack on liberals is a well-funded effort by conservative groups that use a wealthy network of  “think tanks, training groups, media outlets, and policy centers” to promote their agenda. In 2002 four times as much money was spent on research by the right as by the left, and they got four times as much media time….Conservatives, through their think tanks, figured out the importance of framing, and they figured out how to frame every issue.”

“Author Ann Coulter went even further in her best-selling book How to Talk to a Liberal (If You Must), as she likened liberalism to treason. The Conservative Book Service sells a talking doll of Coulter that says, among other things, “Liberals hate America”. Conservative talk radio hosts Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity often use anti-liberal slogans; the latter titled a book Deliver Us from Evil: Defeating Terrorism, Despotism, and Liberalism.”

A classic frame-up: the dreaded “Death Tax”

A famous case of framing was Frank Luntz successfully renaming what was always known as the Estate Tax (or inheritance tax) to the “Death Tax“. Almost overnight this transformed something that few Americans ever thought about, or thought of as something that applied only to the wealthy, into something the ordinary person dreaded. The Death Tax became a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over all of our heads.

Having a “Sword of Damocles hanging over one’s head.”

The “death tax” is a dysphemism, or “malphemism,” — a reverse euphemism, where the substitute word is more negative than the original word. In most cases a euphemism substitutes a pleasant, positive-sounding word for an original that might carry a more negative emotional or philosophical connotation. Examples of a standard euphemism would be the libertarian use of the word “freedom” as a substitute for anarchy (a word with a far more negative connotations for most Americans), or the term “free market”  as a substitute for predatory, anti-competitive forms of capitalism.

A euphemism may be employed consciously by a spin doctor, salesman, public relations technician, etc.; or naively (without a user’s  awareness of any false associations) by the general public, if the promoters of the euphemism are successful at introducing it into popular usage.

Spin doctors like Luntz and Rove are pros. They cynically ply their trade for the highest bidder–usually some political or corporate demagogue.

Sara Palin, femagogue

Sara Palin, femagogue

Wikipedia: Demagogy

(or demagoguery)

“(Ancient Greek:  from dēmos “people” and agein “to lead”) is a strategy for gaining political power by appealing to the prejudices, emotions, fears and expectations of the public—typically via impassioned rhetoric and propaganda, and often using nationalist, populist or religious themes.”

So when I suggest that progressives owe these spin doctors a debt of gratitude, am I suggesting that progressives adopt the same kinds of tactics? No and yes.

NO, progressives should not concoct euphemisms or spin cynically or in bad faith.

YES, when there are choices between words and phrases that can be made honestly and in good faith, we should consistently choose the more favorable terms and avoid those that are either misleading or unnecessarily bitter to the American palate. Perhaps even more important, there are ways to frame a concept that more accurately focus on key underlying assumptions.

I quoted the Wikipedia definition of framing above, but I want to say more about what framing can and should be. The kind of framing progressives should be about is not so much the “picture framing” kind of framing, but more the “house framing” kind of framing. Picture framing is about “putting lipstick on the pig”. It never hurts. But house framing is about building the underlying structural skeleton that supports all the external, visible parts of the house. The visible exterior of a house, an argument, or a narrative reflects the form and quality of the underlying frame. The solidity and integrity of the frame has much to do with how long the house will stand and whether or not the roof will stay on in a storm.

Progressives need to be high-quality framers. Conservatives, being primarily interested in the quarterly earnings report and tomorrow’s share price, tend to go in for the pre-fab, cut-corner, slap-it-up kind of framing job using the cheapest imported materials and labor. After all, the frame is hidden behind the facade, right? The buyer’s not going to see the darn frame or even think about it. But progressives don’t need to buy into that way of doing business.

There is another, better approach. Sometimes there are old, pre-used framing materials that are actually much higher in quality than anything new you can buy. I restored an 1880’s mill worker’s house that had been framed with heartwood-pine 2×4’s that actually measured 2-1/2″ x 4″ and were so strong I couldn’t drive a nail into them without drilling a hole first!  Conservatives these days like to frame up their shoddy arguments with 1-1/2″ x 3″ sticks of warped, split, and knotty sapwood.

Religious Framing

Of course, there are some old framing components that progressives should not recycle. The Framers of the American Revolution and the new US Constitution were arguably the Master Framers of all time; but they used some framing methods and materials, absolutely mandatory in those  days, which should no longer be recycled by progressive architects and framers.

The second sentence of the United States Declaration of Independence is, according to Wikipedia, “…one of the best-known sentences in the English language” and contains “the most potent and consequential words in American history.”  Those words are:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

You might say the words “created” and “endowed by their Creator” were mandated by the “uniform framing codes” of the 18th century. The Framers may (or may not) have all been completely comfortable with those terms, but whether they were or not, they would have had little choice about it in those days. You simply couldn’t talk about human rights without an obligatory nod to the “creator” and the “divine order” crowd . That wasn’t just the most popular framing, it was about the only kind of framing there was.

Fast forward to the 21st century: the President of the United States still has to tap dance for the fundamentalist “religious correctness police” like some burlesque-show pickaninny. (Don’t know what a pickaninny is? GOOD! I probably shouldn’t remind you.) I don’t know (OR CARE)  if President Obama is sincere about his Christian faith (any more than I know if Thomas Jefferson or Ben Franklin was sincere about his “deism“), because it seems that religious kowtowing is still mandatory in US politics. In fact, a deist would not be religiously orthodox enough to get elected today.

The religious test for office (explicitly unconstitutional for the strict-constructionist/original-intentists out there), is more difficult to pass today than it was in 1776! When the “divine order” crowd say jump, a candidate, yea, even a sitting President, better just say “how high?” But how is an elected official going to fairly represent all of his or her constituency after being forced to publicly boost a particular religious faith? If anything, the stronger the personal faith of an elected official may be, the more it should be kept private or downplayed during the term of office.

Well, if the US Constitution isn’t a high enough authority for the religious-correctness mob, I can tell them in no uncertain terms that God says they should sit down and shut up because they are getting on His last nerve! Their own God is not just embarrassed by those obnoxious, self-righteous, holier-than-thou bullies–He is sending them to a special place in hell.

Read along with me…

Matthew 7:21 Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven.

Matthew 22:14 [Jesus to the scribes and Pharisees:] For many are called, but few are chosen. [The scribes and Pharisees were known for their “holier than thou” hypocrisy, corruption, abuse of the poor, and persecution of the truly righteous. They came to the “holy wedding” but did not come in the proper wedding garments–love, compassion, humility, etc.]

Matthew 23:14-15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you devour widows’ houses, and for a pretense make long prayers. Therefore you will receive greater condemnation. 15 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you travel land and sea to win one proselyte, and when he is won, you make him twice as much a son of hell as yourselves.

Matthew 23:23 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you pay tithe of mint and anise and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. These you ought to have done, without leaving the others undone.

Matthew 23:25 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!  For you cleanse the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of extortion and  self-indulgence.

Matthew 23:27 Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs which indeed appear beautiful outwardly, but inside are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness.

Matthew 23:27 Serpents, brood of vipers! How can you escape the condemnation of hell?

Hey, do those scribes and Pharisees sound familiar at all? I quote the ancient scriptures not for the sake of the stone-throwing, pitchfork-wielding, witch-burning, right-wing fundamentalists (because I don’t do exorcisms) but for the sake of progressives who may feel pressured to be tolerant and forbearing of fundamentalist belligerence. These particular scriptures stand quite well own their own, without any supernatural authority, as secular wisdom regarding those “Blind guides, who strain out a gnat and swallow a camel!” [Mt 23:24]. I think its about time for progressives, when confronted by these religious bullies, to make the sign of the cross and say “Get thee behind me, Satan!

If you let them push you around, especially if you have taken a public oath to uphold and defend the US Constitution, shame on you.

“The truth is, that the greatest enemies of the doctrine of Jesus are those, calling themselves the expositors of them, who have perverted them to the structure of a system of fancy absolutely incomprehensible, and without any foundation in his genuine words. And the day will come, when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” – Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, Apr. 11, 1823 Founders V. Bush: A Comparison in Quotations of the Policies and Politics of the Founding Fathers and George W. Bush

Other Framing Issues

Take “Fair Market” vs “Free Market” for example. What does “free” mean? Does it mean there are no monopolies unfairly restricting freedom of opportunity, competition, and freedom of choice for consumers; or does it mean that monopolies and unsafe, polluting industries are free to do as they damn well please? Does it mean there are no rules, no referees? Who knows what it means?

Fair market,” on the other hand, is less ambiguous. It means a level playing field, impartial referees, and checks and balances. In the Fair Market, everyone is free to play the game according to his own strengths and his own strategies, as long as the rules are observed. The Fair Market is more free than a Darwinian free-market free-for-all.

One person, one vote and corporate person-hood

One of the most egregious examples of far-right framing is the issue of corporate person-hood and corporate First Amendment Rights revived by recent Supreme Court decisions reversing 100 years of precedent on limiting corporate campaign contributions and political advertising expenditures (see my post on “Money = Speech?”). The US Supreme Court also recently enjoined Arizona not for its “Papers Please” legislation but from matching private campaign expenditures with public funds for candidates participating in the public campaign funding program democratically instituted by the people of Arizona (see my post on “Supreme Court For Sale Sold”).  The Court argued that public funding would chill private funding, but they seem unconcerned that the toxic “one dollar = one vote” formula would unfairly weigh elections in favor of money rather the old “one person, one vote” formula our democracy was based on. The progressive argument is that “People vote, corporations don’t, so corporations are fundamentally different from people.” The Court’s activism on this issue reflects the degree to which it has been captured by corporate interests. The history of this development is well documented by Thom Hartmann in his book “Unequal Protection: The Rise of Corporate Dominance and the Theft of Human Rights,” and in the Wikipedia page on “Corporate Personhood”.

More framing contrast examples:

socialism participatory economics (parecon), economic democracy, workplace democracy, green free-enterprise
collective worker-ownership, employee ownership
welfare economic safety net
regulation Fair Market, public interest law (as in consumer protection and public health and safety laws)
death tax estate tax, inheritance tax
government takeover public policy, democratic process
Big Labor unions, working people
union boss union leader
closed shop right-wing myth–outlawed by Taft-Hartley Act in the US in 1947

Some of the above “bitter-tasting” terms are also commonly used as “straw men” where skewed definitions are implicitly or explicitly applied to these terms that progressives themselves rarely apply to them. Examples include “socialism” and “welfare” where the hard right commonly raises the straw man that progressive use of these terms implies top-down, authoritarian, command-and-control policies when in fact progressives are passionately committed to guarding individual rights and liberties.

In addition, we should consistently reverse the euphemisms of the opposition whenever the factual context reveals them for what they are:

capitalist corporate elitist, corporate socialist,  plutocrat, economic predator
free-market capitalism monopoly capitalism, predatory capitalism
free market market anarchy, law of the jungle
invisible hand invisible pick-pocket
banking industry banksters
investors, financiers Wall Street racketeers
corporations business gangsters, corporate crooks, corporate socialists
corporate personhood, corporate free speech “one buck, one vote”
deregulation, privatization corporate takeover, corporate lawlessness, economic anarchy
limited government corporate anarchy
conservative out-dated, anachronistic, regressive, narrow-minded, mean-spirited, selfish, greedy, authoritarian
libertarian (adj) regressive, anarchistic, barbaric
libertarian (noun) elitist, Narcissist, barbarian, anarchist
outsourcing shipping jobs overseas
industry incentives corporate welfare, corporate socialism, corruption, bribery, quid pro quo, payola
independence, self-interest self-centered, greedy, antisocial
freedom anarchy, lawlessness, social Darwinism
strict constructionalism corporate constructionalism
personalize Social Security privatize, gamble with, outsource Social Security
ideology cult, dogma, superstition
Right to work no rights at work, right to work for less

In framing the discussion of participatory economics (parecon) and economic democracy, (for more on framing of discussions of democratic, worker-owned and consumer-owned cooperative ventures, see the post on Green Free-Enterprise) progressives should describe our opponents as stuck on (and ourselves as independent of) discredited, outdated, parochial, and partisan economic theories, political theories, philosophies, ideologies, and cults.1


Finally, we can and should describe our point of view and our opponents’ as:

egalitarian authoritarian3
utilitarian Utopian
contemporary anachronistic
empirical ideological
pragmatic dogmatic
eclectic monolithic
universal parochial
non-partisan partisan
reality-based faith-based
scientific mythic
balanced one-sided
cooperative self-centered, selfish
compassionate mean-spirited


1. Obsolete terms: conservatism, libertarianism, liberalism, socialism, collectivism, left-wing (right-wing may still be useful).

2. For a definition of progressive see “What is Progressivism?” and for additional distinctions between progressives and non-progressives see the post on “Political Compass reading” and the table of “Authoritarian vs Egalitarian” characteristics on the page “Town Hall Meeting: Class war, culture war, or holy war?”

3. Libertarianism, free-market capitalism, anarchy, etc. devolve into feudalism. (See the post on Libertarian Fundamentalism)

Poor Richard

5 Responses to “Progressive Framing”

  1. "Natural Lefty" Says:

    Thom Hartmann wrote a book about reframing and talks about it on his show, but the more we do it, the better. I applaud your great contribution here. I found some of the items very funny on the various lists (the one on Town Hall Meeting, too). I have my own spin-terms for various concepts as well, but yours are more extensive. I have thought about writing about this topic, but still haven’t gotten around to it. I see you (and Thom) did first. The really strong point of this approach is that your relabelling is far more accurate and realistic than the original term has become over time with the corruption of meaning that right-ward political spin has created. That is what I aim for too, while at the same time showing the inadequacies of the conservative ideology which created the right-ward spin in the first place.

    Once again, I hope you don’t mind if I refer to these terms or this post in the future. Thanks!

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Natural Lefty,

      I agree that Thom Hartmann is really a leader in the progressive framing effort.

      My own contribution here is intended more to emphasize the issue rather than to pin down definitive language, so feel free to suggest alternatives.

      Also feel free to use any of the framing ideas–the more people use them the better. I don’t know if any of the word usage is original to me (I seriously doubt it) but attribution to this page would be appreciated!


  2. "Natural Lefty" Says:

    Poor Richard, I will definitely mention you when I write about these topics. As a social psychologist, the framing issue has been very salient to me for a long time.

  3. Poor Richard's Trilogy (Part 3) | P2P Foundation Says:

    […] free-enterprise is an exercise in the progressive framing of economic […]

  4. Poor Richard's Trilogy (Part 3) | P2P Foundation Says:

    […] free-enterprise is an exercise in the progressive framing of economic […]

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