The Skill of Framing

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We’ve had requests for lists of well framed messages on specific issues. Not to say we won’t provide examples of effective framing, but we will resist a catalog. A list doesn’t tell you why we take the positions we do. A list must be consulted or memorized. A list does not empower you to generate well framed messages when you need them.

A list does not help you internalize the skill of framing. A clear understanding of the interrelated values that make up our worldview empowers you to self generate messages on any issue old or new.

The skill of framing also takes the focus off facts and puts it solidly in the realm of morality. Think about your voter contact experiences -neither of you can ever know all the facts about every issue. Each of you is afraid the other knows more and that your ignorance will be revealed. Both of you feel a great deal of anxiety about this and want to end the conversation as quickly as possible. When you are skilled at framing, however, your conversations become values conversations and everyone can talk about what they believe.

Framing our values gets voters inside our worldview for a moment. When you connect with a voter on a shared belief, you provide a catalyst that opens the door to an entirely new way to look at things.

Effective framing is also strategic.

If each of our messages evoke our worldview (consciously or unconsciously), then they reinforce each other. Over time our worldview is strengthened in voters’ minds and the pendulum of public opinion swings back in our direction. Importantly, we lay the foundation for our candidates to express our values proudly and without penalty. “Moving right to win” would no longer be necessary.


[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]In March 2017, George Greene and Julie Ethan met with George Lakoff at his home in Berkeley, CA to review our content for our Connections Lab Workshops. Through workshops like ours and Prof. Lakoff’s Citizens’ Communication Network progressives will learn more effective ways to communicate.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row][vc_row][vc_column][vc_single_image image=”491″ img_size=”large” add_caption=”yes”][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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]

Two Brains

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Researchers and others have known for a long time that we don’t have just one way of thinking. We are more often guided by our emotions and past experience than by cold rational analysis.

Humans seem capable of rational thought, but that ability didn’t exactly evolve to help us put people on the moon or delve into quantum mechanics. As with other evolutionary adaptations, our ability to perform some kind of reasoning kept us alive long enough to reproduce.That reasoning is not quite formal reasoning: If I see a polar bear eat my brother, then I will likely survive if I avoid a grizzly. However, I might also avoid a koala. That’s an irrational reaction, but I pay no evolutionary price for it. Our everyday “reasoning” is quite often not strictly rational and not consciously guided by us as much as we’d like to believe.

Researchers an d others have long posited two ways of thinking and there have been a number of “two brain” models that for the most part are similar:

For us aging boomers it was Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance with its Classical and Romantic.

Way before that was Yin and Yang.

Daniel Kahnemann talks about System One (in the moment and intuitive) and System Two (deliberative and rational) and describes the interplay as a psychodrama between the two. His book Thinking Fast and Slow is about the best reading on this (and other subjects about our brain’s gifts and flaws).

My favorite is Jonathan Haidt’s metaphor of the rider and the elephant.  The elephant is our largely unconscious reactive brain: the rider, our rational brain. The elephant lumbers along attracted by the next shiny object and making snap decisions based on emotion and previous experience. The “rational” rider is capable of rational thought (and therefore capable of pulling the elephant back to a more rational path), but is lazy and actually seems more content to rationalize what the elephant has already decided!

The image above has some useful suggestions for dealing with these two.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Are We Ready?

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]When The Republican President crashes, will we be ready to pick up the pieces?

Week one of our new Republican President’s term in office began with the largest mass protest in American and world history. The crazy is only just beginning and as it mounts there is the very real probability that Trump will, at any moment, say or do something so ill-conceived and dangerous that citizens will turn away from him and demand his head on a platter.

This should absolutely terrify progressives.

First, Republican leaders at that moment will feel they have no choice but to distance themselves from Trump and his actions. Because they have done such effective messaging based in their core worldview, they will likely just pull all their voters with them. (For this reason we must start today to be sure there is no daylight between The Republican President and Republicans.)

Second, and more pressing, is that progressives are wholly unprepared to communicate to voters our better alternative in any effective way.

Liberals fail at communication over and over. Think about what we all do when confronted with the latest Republican absurdity or The Republican President’s latest tweet. We haul out facts by the busload, point to them and say “See!?” and expect voters to instantly reason to the same conclusion we have.  But facts and reason do not work. It’s not that humans can’t reason, it’s not that you and I shouldn’t know -or ever speak- the facts; it’s that humans -all humans- simply do not make most of their decisions using reason. Study after study in Cognitive Psychology, Social Psychology, Linguistics and Economics over almost an entire century come to this very same conclusion.

If people are not going to listen to reason, then why are we reasoning with them?

Too busy flinging facts, we have not done any sort of job telling people what we really believe and why. (Worse, the Republicans, being no dummies, have happily stepped in to do the job for us; many, if not most citizens now define us by the straw man created by conservatives.) We need to develop the skill of forming well framed messages that evoke the core values in our worldview.

 It’s not terribly difficult and it takes just a little studying up a little (check out the links on our Workshop Resources page or pick up The Little Blue Book by George Lakoff. Our workshops address framing in detail). In a nutshell, the progressive worldview is “We all do better when we all do better”. Our worldview is rooted in caring and empowerment. Our messages need to evoke these core values -those brain cells need to light up in peoples brains. Over and over.

To help you get going, think Stop, Drop and Roll:

Stop and think about what is being said. What frames and codewords are Republicans using? Look deep: what is the real issue? (Hint: it’s usually not what they’re saying). What core value is behind what we believe about the real issue?

Drop Republican frames and words. Using their words and frames lets them set the agenda and keeps us off ours -and don’t think they don’t know that! We must know their frames well enough to stay out of them. We need to also drop the fact flinging and debunking. It may be true and satisfying, but it doesn’t work.

Roll with effective messages. Use the most appropriate moral value frame to craft a message for the real issue. That frame should not only address the issue but reinforce our core values and our larger worldview.

It will take some study and practice, but it gets easier if we if we build it into our culture -as Republicans have done- and we need to do it as least well as they have.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

Call Him “The Republican President”


Beginning today and at every opportunity we must refer to Trump as “The Republican President“.

He most surely is: Republican extremist rhetoric, pervasive propaganda and their successful efforts at gerrymandering, dirty tricks and voter suppression created the opening Trump walked through. Republican leaders supported him during the campaign and continue to defend him. Trump in not an anomaly, he is a result and they may attempt to cut bait and take Pence at any moment. 

There is the very real probability that Trump will, at any moment, say or do something so ill-conceived and dangerous that citizens will demand his head on a platter. 

At that moment, Republican leaders will feel they have no choice but to distance themselves from their President and his actions. Their message will be that “We’re not like him”. This gives them the opportunity to jettison him while preserving their extremist worldview in the minds of voters. We cannot allow any daylight between Republicans and their President. By continuously associating Trump and the Republicans, we set the stage for Republicans to rightfully go down with the Frankenstein monster they, themselves created.

We then have an opening to provide an alternative. To do that we’ll need to be prepared to communicate our alternative worldview effectively -and that’s what the Pocket Progressive attempts to change!


How Do I Get Involved?


A recent visit with some wonderful old high school chums (that’s them!) brought up a question I’ve been asked more than any other since America lost it’s marbles and elected a racist billionaire hell bent on oligarchy: “Since the unthinkable happened, I have to get involved, but how do I do that?” For my buddies and everyone else who asks this same question, there are things you can do, you can make a contribution, and it’s really not that hard.

First, understand that only people who win elections actually get to make laws. It’s great to be involved in advocacy organizations, social justice groups and other worthy causes (keep doing that), but it’s not enough. Advocacy groups lobby lawmakers and I’ll guarantee you that we’d get our way more often if those lawmakers were on our side.

Next, I can tell you from firsthand experience that only a tragically minuscule fraction of people ever get involved in campaigns or political parties. Out of the million people in my congressional district only about three hundred or so committed liberals are active year in and year out. Again, that’s out of a million people. That’s just three one hundredths of a percent! And that’s in a congressional district with an excellent ground game and which leads the nation in voter turnout. I can’t imagine it’s much different anywhere else. This means that the vast majority of liberals are not directly involved in getting people elected! (Sorry, lobbing facebook posts at your wing nut uncle does not count!)

The world is run by those who show up. So the first thing to do is show up.

So, what can you do?

Well, what can you do? Take an inventory of your skills. People are needed for all sorts of tasks. If you can organize events, volunteer to do that. If you’re a salesperson, teacher or a Toastmaster, you may be great at public speaking and voter persuasion -or running for party leadership. We need IT people, data entry people, graphic designers, managers, videographers, social media junkies, treasurers -and yes door knockers and phone callers -and more.

Here’s a quick story. My crazy neighbor wanted to be involved. I didn’t want to put her in front of voters because… well, because. I told her that campaign staffers live on potato chips and Pepsi and work 18 hour days for months. She said “Well I make a mean lasagna.” Which she then did, as well as providing fresh fruit and other healthy food. Needless to say, she was a huge hit, she felt like a million bucks and we had healthier, more effective staffers.

Join the community of activists in your local party unit.

Visit your state party website, get the phone number and call them. Tell them where you live and ask for the number of a party leader in your area. Note that your local leader will be a volunteer: if they don’t get back to you, you must be persistent. You will definitely want to be plugged in locally.

And yeah, sure, it might feel like an inside group. Consider that many of these folks have been working for years and have won and lost many battles together. You can bet they’re tight. But they do welcome new people and they will help you along. You, too, may come to find that the friends you admire most are the friends you are active with.

You might also look for organizations and events that connect liberals . You can go to a party unit bean feed or other gathering. Check out a candidate fundraiser (these ask for a small voluntary donation) or a town hall. There are often groups that meet monthly and have featured speakers (Drinking Liberally is one and you can check for Meetups in your area). It may surprise you how fast you’ll begin meeting a lot of lawmakers, candidates and other movers and shakers!

Become a delegate

Being a party delegate gets you a vote in party affairs. That gives you power.

Different state parties have different methods, but in election years there will be a precinct meeting or caucus that you can attend (again, your state or local party unit will have the information). In most states you first become a delegate at the precinct level. Technically you run for this position, but quite often delegate seats go unfilled because few people show up, so it’s often as easy as raising your hand when they ask “Who wants to be a delegate?”.

You can run for further delegate positions that can get you to your Congressional and state conventions and even to the Democratic National Convention (the one you see on TV!). You can also run for party leadership positions; these give you the ability to influence how your party works. It may take you a cycle or two to get hang of what’s going on, but if you persist, you can make a big impact.

Special note to Bernie supporters: Tea Partiers easily took over the GOP by becoming delegates. If everyone brought a few like-minded friends and ran for delegate positions, it would not be hard to get a lot of influence very quickly.

Learn to frame.

This last is very important and anyone can do it with a little practice. Framing is a way of speaking to voters that takes into account the way human brains really work, not how we’d like them to work. The biggest mistake we make is to spend nearly all our time righteously debunking the absurd things conservatives say. First off, the conservatives are purposely baiting us, second they get to set the agenda by keeping the argument within their frame and third, throwing facts at people and expecting them to come to the same rational conclusion we did does not work (and will most often work against you)! There is a century of science to back this up.

This site is devoted to teaching people to communicate effectively through cognitive science. It’s the only science that liberal leaders seem to not only ignore, but actively resist and it’s the science, ironically, that conservatives used to get where they are. (Explore the site a bit, especially he first menu item above, to get a taste of framing basics. The resources page will suggest useful reading to get you farther into framing and cognitive psychology.)

Get started!

(And by the way ladies: thanks for the great munchies, beer and conversation!)



Don’t say “Alt Right”

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]Get “Alt right” out of your vocabulary. It is a way of referring to white supremacist groups that obscures the reality of what they are. Think about the framing: “alt” means alternative, as if it’s just another way of being on the right. It also suggests it’s trendy or cool -like “alt country”. However, it’s not a benign alternative and it’s definitely not cool.

Organized racism is extremely dangerous. It has grown tremendously in recent decades as Republicans have tolerated and even courted racist votes. Racists now feel emboldened to come out of the shadows as candidate Trump made racism a central theme of his campaign and as President Elect Trump named a prominent white supremacist as his closest presidential adviser.

We should never use this term and neither should the media. For at least half a century they’ve properly used the term “white supremacists” and have only recently switched. Some media outlets are now reconsidering the term alt right and are drawing guidelines for it’s use -it’s our duty to encourage them to drop it entirely; nothing less than it’s abandonment is appropriate.

As a general rule, call things what they are. Softening or using euphemisms as rhetorical courtesy often obscures reality. Don’t make it harder for your listeners to know exactly what you mean.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

You are not so smart

[vc_row][vc_column][vc_column_text]We talk a good deal here about analyzing words and ideas. We know that persuading people with facts and logic is possible  -the problem is that, given what’s known about how people think it is very unlikely. This is not a value judgement, it’s the way brains work; yes, even yours and mine! Bottom line: the human brain’s default state is not formal reasoning.

However, being able to logically deconstruct what your opponent is saying will often uncover the real issue obscured by your opponent’s language. Logical fallacy -and it’s evil twin propaganda- are explored in expert and humorous form at David McRaney’s

For example, a common propaganda technique is the “straw man” -defining your opponent’s position and then arguing vehemently against it. “Liberals want to take our guns away” is heard often despite the fact that few if any common sense gun law advocacy groups want to ban or confiscate all guns.

Bookmark McRaney’s site and check in often![/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]

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