How do Republicans continually frustrate Democrats, keeping them on the defensive? It's not just their media control (Fox News, Clear Channel, etc.), it's not just the $2 billion they've put into think tanks over the past 30 years, and it's not just lies and dirty tricks. It's their skill at "framing."
Take the term "tax relief," for example. The phrase started appearing in White House press releases on the day President Bush took office, and it has been repeated over and over ever since. But it's what is behind the words -- the mental structure known as a "frame" -- that matters as much as the words themselves.
For there to be "relief" there must be an affliction, an afflicted party harmed by the affliction, and a reliever who takes the affliction away and is therefore a hero. And if anybody tries to stop the reliever, he's a villain wanting the suffering to go on. Add "tax" to the mix and you have a metaphorical frame: Taxation as an affliction, the taxpayer as the afflicted party, the president as the hero, and the Democrats as the villains.
Every time you hear the term, those subliminal meanings resonate. Once the campaign repeats the words day after day, they end up in every newspaper and on every TV and radio station, and the term becomes the way TV commentators and journalists talk about taxes. And pretty soon the Democrats are forced to talk about their own brand of "tax relief," for the middle class. But by adopting the Republicans' language, they have adopted one of the GOP's central ideas. Every time they use the words, they reinforce the idea.
That's because once phrases become part of everyday language, their frames become physically fixed in people's brains. When this happens, mere facts don't matter. If the facts don't fit the frames, the frames stay and the facts are ignored. Once the Republicans see their frames accepted, they have an overwhelming advantage in every debate. Their frames become the new common sense, because frames define what common sense is.
When Democrats are outframed, they tend to go on the defensive, to deny the frame: "No, the Republicans have only given tax relief to the rich, who don't need it. We'll give tax relief to the middle class instead." Negating a frame just reinforces it, as when Richard Nixon said on TV during Watergate, "I am not a crook!" Thereafter, everybody thought of him as a crook. The Democrats this year, by accepting the words and frames that go with them, are just helping the Republicans.
Instead, the Democrats need to play offense, not defense, and Kerry needs to frame himself. Two words -- strong progressive -- would work well. He needs to frame Bush as weak, and as weakening the country. He needs 10 words that say what he stands for: a Strong America, Mutual Responsibility, Broad Prosperity, a Better Future, and Valuing Families.
Kerry also needs to promote an America united, not a divisive culture war, and to call "compassionate conservatism" what it is: You're-on-your-own radicalism. Specific values -- freedom, fairness, responsibility, and trust -- must back up every policy direction: Global leadership, new energy, health care for all, jobs that pay, schools that matter. America's great challenge is to become one again -- with each other and with the world.
The Two Americas should be called Strong America that works and Elite America that doesn't. It is Strong America, which contributes more than it is paid, that supports Elite America's lifestyle. To unite the country, Elite America must give up its subsidies and Strong America must be paid what it deserves.
Reframing is essential. Take taxes. Democrats need to find a way of talking about taxes that reveals the truth hidden by the affliction metaphor. For example, taxes are investments in both infrastructure and people -- wise investments that only the government can make. The government has invested taxpayer money wisely in a huge number of things that make our lives and our businesses possible: Interstate highways, the Internet, government funded scientific research, and training.
Corporations, businessmen, and investors benefit from taxpayer investments most of all. Taxpayers have paid for our financial institutions: the Federal Reserve, the Securities and Exchange Commission, our national banks, and the courts, 90 percent of which are used for corporate law. If you want to start a business, you don't have to build highways, invent computer science, construct the Internet, train your scientists, build a banking system, build and maintain a court system. The taxpayers have done all that for you.
You see, there are no self-made men. If you make a bundle in business, it was made possible by taxpayer investments. The rich have gotten more dividends; they should pay for the investments that make their businesses possible. It's only fair.
That's the sort of reframing the Democrats need to do -- and repeat -- over hundreds of issues, large and small. They are 30 years and $2 billion behind. Playing catch up won't be easy, but it is necessary.
George Lakoff is a professor of linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley and a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute. He is the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think" and the forthcoming book, "Don't Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate.
© 2004 The Boston Globe