Conceptual Frameworks, Language, and Messaging: Why Conservatives have dominated American public discourse, politics, and policy for a generation

October 21, 2011  |   Progressive Political Commentary

Conceptual Frameworks, Language, and Messaging: Why Conservatives have dominated American public discourse, politics, and policy for a generation

The anger on the Tea Party right, and the frustration on the left that has energized the “Occupy” movement in cities across America, spring from similar,
mostly economic, dissatisfactions. The difference is that those on the rightght have been co-opted to a set of beliefs that are actually in opposition to their own economic interests. Those involved in the “Occupy” movement, and others on the left are quite clear about
where their interests lie, despite concerns by media pundits that the participants in the “Occupy” movement thus far lack a clear set of policy demands.

Voters from the right vote their aspirations, rather than their reality, while the policies
they support make it less likely that they (or their children) will ever achieve
the economic security and self reliance to which they aspire. Led to believe
that they could succeed if only government would get out of the way, they believe
in “personal freedom,” but lack an understanding of the nature of freedom as
defined by our Constitution.  They advocate an ideology of “personal responsibility,” rejecting the mutual responsibility required for social and national cohesion and willfully ignorant of the benefits they enjoy thanks to a social contract embodied by our government.

The right demands lower taxes and ever smaller, ever more impotent government,
focused narrowly on national security, administration of a harsh conception of justice
(largely punishment, meted out by a for-profit prison industry), and promotion
of the orderly but “unfettered” conduct of business.  Despite incongruity with a small-government ideology, social conservatives also demand strictly enforced restrictions on sexual conduct and family planning decision making. When consumers are sickened or
endangered by tainted food, industrial toxins, or unsafe vehicles, those who
hold this small-government ideology are as quick as anyone to ask, “Where was
the government? Why did they allow this to happen?” And, there is the classic,
from a Tea Party dominated town hall meeting in 2009, “Keep your government
hands off my Medicare!” Internal coherence of ideology and worldview is clearly
not a hallmark of conservative thinking for many on the right.

Vigorously implemented New Deal policies that reined in the excesses of market capitalism created a growing and economically secure American middle class between 1940 and 1960.  The introduction of a social safety net; government regulation of finance and industry; expansion of educational opportunity; expanded rights to organize workplaces and bargain collectively over wages, benefits, and workplace safety; progress on civil liberties and equal treatment under law; and broadly shared public service all contributed to an extended period of American economic growth and success.

Put simply, a prosperous middle class was built thanks to Progressive values that dominated American politics and policy for over three decades.  There was a broad commitment to a social contract in which everyone shared responsibility according to their capability. Since about 1980, government’s growing impotence in the face of budgetary and policy challenges from the increasingly-far right has strained the middle and
lower economic quintiles to the breaking point.

Conservatives, or more correctly called economic elites and those who believe in vain they
will one day join that rarified category, have long believed they are overtaxed
– they’ve been told repeatedly that they are, despite logical comparisons with
other advanced economies that are taxed at far higher rates. Before the
financial crisis of 2008 tanked the economy, driving up spending for automatic
stabilizers such as unemployment benefits, Medicaid, and child nutrition
programs, the US government budget stood at just over 15% of GDP, lower than at
any time since the early 1940’s, at the beginning of the period when the middle
class was created. That level is also the lowest of any wealthy country.  While we could debate the fairness of the tax system, whether it ought to be more or less progressive, etc., the gross numbers hardly indicate an overtaxed American populace.

The right claims that government is corrupt and unable to do anything well. There
is corruption, but it is corrupt because we’ve allowed the owners of capital and conservative corporate interests to have an outsize influence on policy and budgetary decision making.  Those interests are not aligned with the interests of middle class workers whose principal asset is their labor. Government doesn’t do a lot of things well because we’ve gutted it, privatized it, and turned it over to particular interests during the last three decades.  Agency and regulatory budgets have been slashed; and functions that ought not to be subject to the profit motive (e.g., environmental protection and regulatory oversight, worker protection oversight, even national defense and security) have been shifted to profit-seeking private contractors.  The effect of privatization and the outsize
influence afforded the owners of capital has skewed US trade and industrial
policies in ways that have devastated working families who grew up believing in
the American dream.

That dream can be revived, but until we reverse the course of the past thirty years, it will not be.  Unfortunately, our public discourse and policy remains mired in neoliberal ideology not far removed from that which prevailed prior to the Great Depression.  Change must come from a newly-inspired and reinvigorated political left, and start with fundamental change in the way we communicate Progressive morals, values, ideas, beliefs, and strategies.

How did ordinary working Americans become so devoted to an ideology that is in opposition to their own economic interests? 

Economic elites – the owners of capital as Adam Smith called them – have done a remarkable job of framing the national dialogue around the myth of “ordinary, self-reliant, hard working Americans, who owe their well-deserved success to personal virtues.” In fact, success for most depends on accidents of birth, and a reliance on the vast social, educational, and physical infrastructure that was built during the postwar years.  Sure,
there are exceptions, but a successful society cannot base rules and decisions on anecdotal evidence and exceptions.

Beginning in earnest in the early 1970’s, elite leaders began to develop and vigorously broadcast carefully crafted language aimed at framing public discourse and setting the terms of debate on public policies. They recognized, and capitalized on, widespread discontent that took root in the 1960’s, related to economic and social ills stemming from the war in Vietnam, unresolved racial inequalities, and a counter-reaction to the youthful rebelliousness of the 1960’s (which itself was in part a reaction against the social conformity of the 1950’s).

The left, conversely, failed to step up to meet the challenge of a resurgent right that had been eclipsed since the Great Depression. Rather than renewing their own message, framing the debate on their own terms and developing winning language and messaging based on a Progressive morals, values, ideas, and conceptual frameworks, the left adopted much of the language being heard from the right. The result has been disastrous for working Americans, for our national security, and indeed, for our prospects as a viable representative republic.

Words have both dictionary definitions and widely shared nuances of implication.  Take the word “revolt.” One dictionary definition is “to break away from or rise against constituted authority,” But the term also implies a population that is being ruled unfairly, or assumes that they are being ruled unfairly. And it creates mental images of people throwing off that unfair rule.  The idea of throwing off unfair rule is perceived as a good thing.

From the right, we hear the term “revolt” paired with “voter,” and “tax.”  Ordinary Americans, who identify as “voters” and “taxpayers,” thus begin to see themselves as the oppressed and the government as the oppressor.  If the voters “revolt” against incumbent elected leaders and taxation, everything will be good again.  This is language that promotes
anti-government ideology and reflexive anti-incumbent reaction. It sets up an adversarial relationship between ostensibly representative government and ordinary, taxpaying voters that both support and depend on a functioning government. “If we “throw all the bums out and elect new leaders who are ‘not Washington insiders,’ then things will get better,” goes the story.  Of course, it never quite works out because the money-in-politics system quickly co-opts even those elected with the best of intentions.  The inevitable result is political gridlock, divisive rhetoric, and electoral volatility that serve only to further confirm the inability of government to address the pressing problems we face as a society and nation.

In the conceptual framework of those on the right, taxes are tantamount to the theft of income earned by “good, disciplined, and self reliant” Americans. These confiscated resources are then used to support “the undisciplined, dependent, and undeserving.” Tax “relief” implies that taxes are an affliction to be overcome.  To oppose tax relief is to be the
villain. Consequently, the left, unwilling to play the villain, and unable to come up with a convincing counter-message, have been forced to adopt the anti-tax language of the right, and by doing so, right-wing anti-tax policies have followed at all levels of government.

What the left has failed to understand is that moral and value judgments are bound up with the implied meanings of the language used by the right. Progressives talk about policy, but fail to speak to the moral values of a large portion of the American public. By failing to speak to morals and values, we fail to set the terms of debate, and we fail to convince.

When Progressives talk about our policy positions, we use language provided by the right without considering the implications of how we are conveying our messages.  Examples include, but are not limited to, our language on the rights of women to make personal reproductive decisions; our advocacy for the right of LGBT Americans to live free of discrimination in employment, housing and marriage; and our call for humane policies for workers who cross borders without the proper documentation. Our language too often reflects a black-or-white, good-vs.-evil, with-us-or-against-us worldview, and an overly narrow focus on the rights and liberties of the individual, as opposed to collective rights, shared liberties, and a responsible approach to freedom.

“Pro-Choice” implies, for many, an immoral personal choice based on convenience and
expediency, juxtaposed against a righteous “pro-life” stance. To be “not-pro-life” implies being “pro-death,” or worse, “pro-murder.” “Pro-family” and “pro-child” convey a better message, but there are certainly many ways to effectively convey the values that underlie our policy preferences on this issue.

“LGBT rights” separate LGBT Americans, allowing opponents to claim that demands for equal treatment are really some special set of considerations not afforded to others or infringing on the rights and freedoms of those who hold differing values. When we respond to charges from the right that LGBT rights infringe the rights of religious and social conservatives, we respond poorly, failing to adequately articulate why such claims are false and irrelevant, with arguments based on widely shared values. This, too, is a failure of language and message that needs more attention, research, and a coordinated effort to ensure that the LGBT leaders use a consistent and values-based message in all public discourse on the topic.

Shockingly, we even hear self-described Progressives in politics and the media referring to
undocumented workers as “illegal” (can a person be illegal?) and “alien” (a dangerous “other” that threatens the prerogatives of “people like us”). The terminology has been so oft-repeated that it is used without considering the hateful connotations it carries and how it strengthens conceptual frameworks of racism, blame, and social division. This has to stop, because Latinos and people of color are paying for this language with their very lives.

But, what are “conceptual frameworks,” and how do they relate to language and messaging on ideology, policy, and issues? We all carry conceptual frameworks. They are our way of interpreting reality and the world around us.

It is not uncommon for an individual to carry conflicting conceptual frameworks on the same issue. A simple way of thinking about conflicting conceptual framework might be illustrated by the oft-heard response, “I see your point, but…”  Such a response indicates the existence of two, conflicting conceptual frameworks in the mind of the listener, one being dominant.  One or the other of these conceptual frameworks can be strengthened or weakened by the messages we hear, and by how frequently we hear them.

The aim of effective messaging is to strengthen or weaken our existing conceptual frameworks, thus winning supporters to the policy preferences of the messenger. Winning over those whose dominant conceptual framework reflects that of the messenger is relatively easy. It’s like preaching to a choir whose faith is heightened by hearing the sermon every Sunday. The real goal and the real challenge of effective messaging is the strengthening of the desired conceptual framework among those who are conflicted and/or frustrated with the status quo, be it economic, social, or religious. Frustrated, angry, and conflicted people are understandably susceptible to manipulation of their conceptual frameworks if the messaging resonates with their values and provides them with an explanation (often, blame) and a solution to their plight. It is at moments of great social change that language and messaging can be most effective at altering the conceptual frameworks of large numbers of people.

Language and messaging, it should be noted, are not be confused with facts, which have been shown to be ineffective at changing a strongly held conceptual framework.   Conceptual frameworks are strengthened or weakened based on how effectively the implications and nuances embedded in language resonate with deeply held core values. Facts can be dismissed as biased, untrue, or irrelevant, while effective messages connect with our core values and either strengthen or weaken related conceptual frameworks, which in turn determine how the individual perceives reality. Changes in conceptual frameworks, rather than presentation of facts, most often induce changes in our opinions and positions on issues.

The right’s success in framing the national dialogue in terms that alienate Americans from the idea of a social contract involves more than just coming up with the right buzz words that speak to our values, of course. Conservatives have done an outstanding job of getting their messages out consistently. Getting the message out requires that the terms of debate are repeated, endlessly, by people and institutions that appear credible and thus deserve respect. Developing those spokespersons and institutions requires sustained and substantial investment in long-term assets. It takes money, lots of it.

Economic elites and social conservatives have invested many billions of dollars, over decades, researching language and developing messages that strengthen the conceptual frameworks that support a conservative worldview. They have long understood the value of both messaging and the need to repeat it in the public square relentlessly. To that end, they have established conservative think tanks, and encouraged like-minded wealthy individuals to endow professorships at prestigious universities.  They have invested in media outlets dedicated to disseminating the conservative message.  Forty years of investment have yielded an overwhelmingly conservative message dominating talk radio, cable news, print publications, and online information sources.

These investments have created an “army of the right,” constantly updating and honing anti-government, anti-tax, anti-labor, anti-immigrant, and subtle anti-minority messages, reinforcing the conceptual frameworks of an overstressed polity, ensuring that conservative ideas dominate the national political discourse, and crowding out Progressive messages that are less well articulated.  The right understands the long-term value of investing and they have done an outstanding job of building the infrastructure necessary to preserve and defend their interests.

And while the right invests in long-term institutional infrastructure, the left gives money to grassroots organizations and demands that it all go “to the cause,” or to elect leaders that later disappoint.  The left’s causes are about helping people in need, nurturing, and taking responsibility for the well-being of others.  Money spent on administration, communications infrastructure, and career development for progressive leaders is a diversion of resources intended to provide for immediate needs of the vulnerable and disadvantaged.

Conservatives see “good” people as those who have already become wealthy “through  personal discipline and self reliance,” or who see themselves as disciplined and self reliant, and thus capable of someday acquiring wealth.  Their messaging reinforces that conceptual framework. Progressives see this stereotype of the “independent, self-made man” as a flawed perception of the self struggling in opposition to a decadent and indolent society.

The conservative worldview says that “helping” spoils people, gives them things they have not earned (e.g. “entitlements” such as Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, and unemployment benefits – “entitlement” implying something to which one feels entitled, but in fact doesn’t deserve).  “Helping” results in dependency and lack of discipline in this worldview.  We naturally like to take credit for our successes, so messaging that reinforces an independent and self-reliant worldview, together with the investment required to relentlessly broadcast it, explains why conservatives have succeeded at dominating our public discourse and policy direction.

In order to reframe public discourse in ways that benefit ordinary workers and vulnerable communities, we need to find a fundamentally different linguistic and conceptual framework to talk about taxes, the role of government, and what it means to be a member of an interdependent society.  We need to develop messages that strengthen a collective conceptual framework of mutual responsibility, community, and shared freedom and liberty. We need to move away from a narrow focus on the rights of the individual (that’s the language of the right). We need to frame government as the essential institution through which we pursue shared goals and aspirations. We need to explain why progressive and fair taxation is an indispensable element of patriotism. Progressives need to learn and become comfortable articulating the language of morals, values, and ideas, and then frame our policy prescriptions as the way we achieve our vision of a just society and unified nation.

Reframing public discourse is a long-term project.  The right began investing in the  infrastructure needed to frame public debate in the 1970’s.  By 1980, they had Ronald Reagan, who was able to use that infrastructure to win the presidency. And they have dominated our public discourse, our public policies, and our political system ever since. The left must to begin to invest in the same sorts of infrastructure that the right has been building for decades.  That won’t be an easy transition, given the short-sighted accountability demands we place on our political and nonprofit institutions, but it must be done.

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