Going Negative

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In learning about framing our core progressive values, you might conclude that there’s a prohibition on exposing the excesses, hypocrisy and “alternative facts” of our opponents. To be sure, there are times when going negative can hurt; research suggests candidates who go negative hurt themselves more than their opponent. The science behind framing also tells us that, rather than spending time talking about your opponent, you should use most of your time to talk about who you are, what you stand for and why people should support you, your candidate or your issue. 

Though we should spend most of our time communicating who we are and the moral basis of our beliefs, we’d also do a disservice to voters if we did not talk about the very real dangers of extreme conservatism. You can go negative, but proceed with caution!

There is effective framing to be done that does not necessarily evoke our values. An example: At the time of this writing, President Trump seems ever closer to being removed from office (quite likely in a straight jacket), but a President Trump was the inevitable result of four decades of damaging Republican, propaganda that drove a huge wedge between citizens. Besides Trump’s obvious failings, there is not much daylight between the President and Republicans on policy or the use of propaganda and when he goes, they need to go with him. A simple frame ties the two together: replacing the word Trump with “the Republican President” as often a grammar allows ties his failure to theirs.


You can go negative and evoke our values. One way is by using a term that evokes opposites. By painting your opponent as irresponsible you suggest that you are responsible. If you accuse your opponent of taking something away, say healthcare, you are seen as giving it. Back in 1980 conservative strategists created a list of things to say about liberals called the GOPAC memo that used this very strategy. The GOPAC memo marks the turn from civility and creative legislating in Congress to the hyper-partisan obstruction and incivility we now see in the nation. All from a simple list of words.

A caution: conservatives use framing any way that works without regard for truth. Like any other technology, cognitive science can be used for good as well as evil. Framing can be done with integrity if it’s done with honesty. Truth matters.

When it becomes necessary to go negative, it is very important to be careful about what you say. Anger, the urge to hit back, the satisfaction of debunking and exposing hypocrisy clouds judgement. Also, do not mistake clever phrasing with effective framing. “Common sense gun laws are pro life” is certainly a clever way to talk about guns, but as framing, it fails spectacularly:

  1. Is the statement an attempt to gain support for gun laws or make you feel self righteous about tweaking conservatives?
  2. “Pro-life” is a conservative frame. Repeating it strengthens neural connections for that frame.
  3. Pro-gun and anti-abortion are NOT seen as hypocritical within the conservative worldview.
  4. The statement mixes gun safety with abortion, lighting up two huge constellations of frames, confusing the voter and preventing an anti-abortion voter from agreeing with you on gun safety.
  5. What could have been a conversation about common sense now includes an intractable and highly charged conversation about abortion.
  6. The better frame for gun laws is protection, but that possibility becomes poisoned by the link to abortion. For many, the protection of a fetus will map quite easily onto protection of lives using a gun.  

The statement does succeed by describing gun laws as common sense. It could succeed much further with the liberal frame of protection (without the baggage of abortion): Common sense gun laws save lives.

Going negative has it’s place, but liberals have relied almost exclusively on pointing out what’s wrong with the other guy. Our long term strategy of creating a foundation of liberal values in the political narrative will fail if we don’t spend the great majority of our time talking about who we are, what we believe and why.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]