America’s Democrats and Republicans, it’s often said, speak different languages. On the right, the terminology follows a familiar pattern: illegal aliens; radical Islamic terrorism; gun control; death tax. On the left, it is all about undocumented immigrants, jihadism, gun safety and estate tax.
At the heart of this war of words is a familiar struggle and it’s to do with framing.
The rhetorical frame is like a picture frame, encasing an issue and presenting it so it looks its best. Sometimes an issue may look its best if it’s framed in a way that makes it seem ugly or chaotic or dangerous.
Perhaps that framing is best understood through the words “tax burden”. The term is often used by Republicans and the right in general to suggest the intolerable weight of paying into the public coffers for services that are meant for everyone (including, as they seem to suggest, the undeserving).
But linguist George Lakoff, a consultant to Democrats, once tried to get them to embrace a different framing, one that emphasises the following: “taxes are what you pay to be an American. … Taxes are your dues — you pay your dues to be an American.” Really, pretty much in line with FDR, who said: “Taxes, after all, are dues that we pay for the privileges of membership in an organized society.”
Lakoff has long argued that the rhetorical frame is key to ensuring that the facts of an argument persuade the intended audience. And he’s right.
So, here’s an interesting change that is currently being driven by two newly elected Democrat governors: reclaiming the words patriotism and freedom from the Republicans.
We’ll be looking at that in greater detail to explore how the political frame – the scaffolding of words – can be re-tooled.