Reframing the Religious Right: Taking First Steps
Frederick Clarkson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jan 31, 2006 at 08:03:26 PM EST
Framing or "reframing" has been the buzz of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party since the publication of George Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant.  The book was endorsed by Howard Dean, and made the New York Times best seller list.

Framing is an approach to politics and public policy in which conversation is based on "values" more than "issues" and the wonky details of public policy. It is a helpful way of making politics more widely accessible and persuasive, and of understanding the deep resonance the religious right movement has enjoyed across a broad swath of the American public.

Framing and reframing is an essential ingredient of any political and communications strategy -- and it has broad implications for thinking, communicating, and movement building in response to the religious right.

While framing was not invented by Lakoff, his work has popularized the concept -- which has become integral to contemporary efforts to revive the progressive movement in the U.S., and the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Framing and values discussions have been integral to the work of some of the more animated progressive political organizations, suchas Democracy for America and Progressive Democrats of Massachusetts.

Sociologists William Gamson and Charlotte Ryan, writing recently in The Public Eye, discussed why this is important.

Facts never speak for themselves. They take on their meaning by being embedded in frames, themes which organize thoughts, rendering some facts as relevant and significant and others as irrelevant and trivial. Framing matters and the contest is lost at the outset if one allows one's adversaries to define the terms of the debate. To be selfconscious about framing strategy is not being manipulative. It gives coherent meaning to what is happening in the world. One can either do it unconsciously, or with deliberation and conscious thought.

A frame is a thought organizer. Like a picture frame, it puts a rim around some part of the world, highlighting certain events and facts as important and rendering others invisible. Like a building frame, it holds things together but is covered by insulation and walls. It provides coherence to an array of symbols, images, and arguments, linking them through an underlying organizing idea that suggests what is essential -- what consequences and values are at stake. We do not see the frame directly, but infer its presence by its characteristic expressions and language.

Meanwhhile, recognizing the broad significance of framing in movement building, Tom Ball, the principal founder of the interactive blog site, Political Cortex has put together an excellent five-part framing "handbook." It's short, accessible and to the point.  So, for that matter, is Lakoff's book, Don't Think of an Elephant, which is on the Talk to Action recommended reading list.

Other good blogs that discuss framing are Jeffrey Feldman's Frameshop  and Michael DiChiara's Wonk NOT!. In explaining the purpose of his site, DeChiara writes:  

When people talk about politics and strategy, they often end up wonking out-- getting caught up in arcane policies, statistics, and facts that cause most people to tune-out to issues, even if they care about them. Revitalizing progressive politics and policies requires more than the facts. Its about articulating a postive, progressive world view that can motivate and inspire. values, YES. wonk, NOT!

In opposing the religious right from the standpoint of framing and values, we enter tricky and largely unexplored territory. I say tricky, because while the proponents of the religous right generally hold to a fairly common set of value frames that unite them politically, and are successful in avoiding the many areas of profound disagreement on values, (suchas the divide between protestant fundamentalists and the Catholic heirarchy on matters of poverty and social justice) but because the opposition to the religious right is far more diverse in world view and in terms of issue priorities than the religious right.

So, for example, as encouraging as the various efforts to articulate progessive Christian values as an alternative to the Christian Right have been, I think these need to be developed in the context not only of response to the Christian right, but in the context of the wider and necessarily diverse movement that is obviously required for those very values to prevail in public life.

Meanwhile, too often we frame our thinking about the religious right strictly in terms of "issues" -- reproductive rights, gay and lesbian civil rights, the environment, separation of church and state, and so on, that get easily bogged down in wonky details that are not nearly as interesting and engaging as proponents of any one of these areas may think -- as important as all of these areas truly are.

Talk to Action is premised on serveral underlying frames, which I will discuss in the course of this series. When we say "reclaiming citizenship" in the Talk to Action subtitle, for example, the assumption is that we have largely abandoned common notions of what it means to be a citizen, and that we have balkanized into an ecclectic collection of seemingly unrelated interests. The idea of citizenship affirms a national or at least a civic commonality with one another, as distinct from coalitions of issues and other identities. Reclaiming citizenship also assumes that we are participating in electoral democracy as the principal means by which we express our sense of the commons via government. Listen to how one candidate who has a values approach to politics sounds:

So now let's stand for something. Let's use this election, and I ask you to use my candidacy, as an example of what the Democratic Party can stand for... And that when people say, 'government is bad' let's say 'wait a minute! government is us! It's us!' and so we ought to want that to be smart and effective and efficient and pragmatic and compassionate, because that is the best of who we are and what we have.

And if this is the kind of government that you can get behind, that is the kind of government I am ready to lead, and I hope I can have your support.

That was Massachusetts Democratic gubernatorial candidate Deval Patrick speaking in Pittsfield, Massachusetts on January 12th. He exclaims: "the government is us. It's us!"  Indeed. And the way this passionate and articulate candidate talks about this underscores an important aspect of the framing of values -- it is not necessarily about phrases, "messages" and slogans.  It is about being able to articulate underlying values and knowledge -- using your own words; and words appropriate to the circumstances.

The common sense of it is that people who know what they are talking about, and speak with clarity and conviction, are more persuasive than those who don't. It is the difference between the empty and alienating rhetoric of the media age -- and authentic human leadership in a democratic society.

Gamson and Ryan in their article add

building an effective framing strategy is not merely about more effective marketing expressed through catchy symbols that tap an emotional hot button and trigger the desired response. The problem isn't that it doesn't work -- in the short run, it may -- but that its singular focus on finesse in individual framing undermines the goal of increasing citizens' sense that they can collectively change things. By treating potential participants as individuals whose citizenship involves voting and perhaps conveying their personal opinion to key decision-makers, citizens as collective actors are moved off of the screen.

As I wrote recently, the Christian Right has over the past two decades become the best organized, and one of the most powerful factions in American politics. While  there are many parts to the movement that got them there, their vehicle to power has always been electoral politics. (I will write more about this in subsequent essays in this series.) I think that one of the frrames that has helped animate and unify the movement is that it has succeeded in integrating many people's identity as Christians with their identities as citizens. Therefore, the notion of Christian nationalism is integral to the idea of Christian citizenship:  that America once was, and should be yet again, a Christian nation, and that therefore, engagement in electoral poliics as a Christian in a Christian political movement is a transcendent act. This has to do with such profound matters as the meaning of one's life -- and the Biblically prophesized end of the world.

These frames can and should be attacked --and we have done some of that  on Talk to Action. If we do not agree with the dominionist movement's notions of Christian nationalism and citizenship, then how shall we reframe it? Shall we merely deny that America was founded as a Christian nation and counter with "facts"? Or shall we develop a coherent narrative based on knowledge and conviction about the real story of our nation? Our story? One based not only on the facts of history, but the values that they represent, and how we are the living embodiments of the values of the framers of the Constitution, carrying forward the great experiment in constitutional democracy in our time?

In other words, we need, in the context of a diverse society, to figure out how we defend democratic pluralism against a more homogeneous adversary. How we acheive sufficient unity, without ever expecting uniformity, is part of the art of democratic pluralism. So how we tell the story of America, how we see ourselves in history, and then the collective actions we take as citizens -- will have everything to do with how the history of the future gets written.

That said, as important as framing and reframing is, it has for some become a political fashion; and like the reductionism of message politics before it, framing can become a substitute for aquiring broader knowledge about the opposition, and developing more coherent strategies, and buidling powerful  social and political movements. Reframing the progressive message, or in this instance, responses to the religious right, is not to be conflated with crafting a strategy to build for power. It is but one important component.

Gamson and Ryan observe

An essential guide for progressives must address.... how framing strategies can draw out the latent sense of agency that people already carry around with them. In sum, a participatory communication model involves developing an ongoing capability of people to act collectively in framing contests. One doesn't transform people who feel individually powerless into a group with a sense of collective efficacy by pushing hot buttons. Indeed, one doesn't transform people at all. People transform themselves through movement building -- the work of reflection, critique, dialog, relation building and infrastructure building that synergistically constitute a "major reframing effort."

Framing matters, but it is not the only thing that matters. There is a danger of "quick fix" politics -- the sexy frame as the new hot button. Just as conservatives worked slowly and patiently for three decades, progressives need to start small and build big, to win back our base of support. Framing work is critical to this process, but framing work itself must be framed in the context of movement building.

Integrating framing and other forms of movement building is necessary if the frame carriers are going to be able to compete successfully...

The reason that this essay is part of a series on what to do about the religious right, is that we need to recognize that we are all operating out of frames -- as is the religious right. This is not theoretical stuff. This is how we already lead our political lives. So very simply, we need to recognize this -- and get a lot better at it.

It would be fair to say that my 1997 book Eternal Hostility:  The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy was a book-length exercise in reframing the religious right. Indeed, I spent an entire chapter unpacking how much of our response to the religious right had been misdirected by adopting the frames presented by two prominent authors in the 1990s. The chapter was titled: "The Fight for the Framework:  Resetting the Terms of Debate."

In our lifetimes, the work of reframing will be continuous. These are skills that everyone needs. But writers, thinkers, bloggers, and movement leaders in particular need to learn them if they have not already; hone those skills they may already have; and rigorously apply them as necessary. One of the functions of leaders of movements in our time must be to ensure that framing is a widely held and honed skill and not the soley the task of PR firms and think tanks.

Framing for beginners:

Tom Ball's online handbook; Lakoff's book, and Gamson and Ryan's article.

The value of framing is that it is a powerful tool for movement building -- and for winning the important political and social debates of our time.

by Frederick Clarkson on Tue Jan 31, 2006 at 08:09:29 PM EST
In the movie "With God on Our Side," Ralph Reed of the Christian Coalition made a very telling statement. I can't remember the exact wording, but I'll paraphrase:

"We realized that it doesn't really matter what you say, it matters how you say it."

He was referring to framing.

The movie, by they way is highly recommended.  It lets the leaders of the Christian Right speak for themselves, starting in the 1950s and working all the way through the election of 2000 and the beginning of the Iraq war. It is a very, very illuminating film.

The people who built the movement knew exactly what they were doing, and spent a long time doing it.  They have understood the importance of framing for a decade or more.

Beware of the everyday brutality of the averted gaze.
by mataliandy on Wed Feb 01, 2006 at 01:31:22 AM EST

Did you also notice how Ralph Reed spoke about tax ctus? He readily admitted that there was no religious basis for them except to appease more secular conservatives on the Right. It was adopted solely to forge a political alliance

That is something that must be talked about a bit more.

by Frank Cocozzelli on Wed Feb 22, 2006 at 11:43:08 AM EST

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