Frame Constraints

When used with integrity, your frame gives the a listener a broader and more cohesive understanding of an issue grounded in our moral values. However, frames also create boundaries or constraints around a discussion.

I’ll use an example by George Lakoff. Think of the word “hospital”. What can we say about that frame of a hospital? There are things and people in that frame (“elements”) such as a hospital building, operating rooms, scalpels, patients and surgeons. Then there are the ways those things interact (“scenarios”): Patients go to hospitals to get care from nurses and doctors. They may be operated on with scalpels in an operating room. In a hospital certain elements belong there and others, say an elephant, does not. We also have expectations about the scenarios;  for example it would be outside the constraints of the frame if you were asked to operate on the surgeon!

How does that apply to political framing? A very common conservative frame constraint is to limit discussions about health care (or just about anything else) to transactional or free market frames. The focus is on the transaction between buyer and sellers of insurance or medical services, the taxes that pay for Medicare and Medicaid and the responsibility of the person buying medical services or insurance to choose products wisely. Even the words health care focuses on the care provided, not the health of the person or their right to it.

Here’s the danger: we’re human. When a frame constrains discussion, we don’t always notice it. Conservative framing of healthcare has so successfully limited discussion to the market frame that we unconsciously limit our own discussion to the constraint. When we hear it said that consumers should have a “choice of insurance plans”, we immediately feel the urge to set the record straight; we say that many of those plans provide almost no coverage. When we hear about the rising cost of healthcare, we talk about insurance company and Big Pharma profits. Great points, but in both cases we stayed within the constraint of market transactions.

It is not wrong to consider or talk about the financial realities of healthcare in the US -and it is important to know your facts. But you need to tap into the emotions we all have around health care as it is today. The most important thing in any discussion of healthcare is health. There are nowhere near enough messages about how our broken system is hard on everyone -citizens, businesses, the economy and the nation. It imperils the health and well being of real people and their families. If our messages fail to break out of the market constraint, a number of damaging things happen: we don’t lead with the real issue of people’s health; we spend less time on our messages; we strengthen the conservative frame simply by staying in it and we unwittingly let the conservatives control the agenda.

Stop and think; then pivot!

The point of the Stop portion of Stop Drop and Roll is to take that step back. Unlearn the habit of just jumping in and responding. Instead, learn to stop and think about things -including how the conservative frame constrains discussion. Pivot away from the conservative frame and use one of our own. The more we do it, the easier and quicker it happens. Remember, framing is a skill.

Should we never talk about costs? There is no prohibition on talking about costs or facts or numbers. Just understand that 1) these things are are not tremendously effective and 2) there are plenty of liberals who fact fling every day. Be the person who breaks out and delivers a solid liberal message grounded in our values that talks about real people.

Frame constraints can work for us.

Our frames will also constrain discussion —and that’s to our benefit. When marriage rights activists chose the frame of love, the discussion became constrained to elements and scenarios about love: family, bonding, caring, commitment and loving who you choose. This frame gradually replaced the conservative “sin” frame —even among young conservatives— until the freedom to marry the person you love became the law of the land.

Stop, know the constraints of your opponent’s frame and break free with a frame that puts the discussion squarely where you want it.