He Who Frames The Issue..

I keep thinking about a line from that old Burt Bacharach song–“What’s it all about, Alfie?” After all, figuring out what it’s all about–framing the correct issues– could be the most important task humans face.

We don’t do it well.

I used to tell students that what three years of law school teaches is: “He who frames the issue, wins the debate.” It’s a maxim that the GOP clearly understands.

  • Is the massive assault on trans children an effort to use a wedge issue to political advantage in our ongoing culture war? Or is it, as Republicans piously claim, an effort to “protect” children?
  • Are the various efforts to prevent schools from teaching accurate history and/or providing thought-provoking reading material mechanisms to control the educational narrative, or are they intended to “empower parents”?
  • Does “school choice” allow parents to select schools that are best for their children? Or are such programs a way to circumvent the First Amendment’s Separation of Church and State, so that tax dollars can flow to religious institutions?
  • Are laws forbidding mask mandates efforts to protect our precious individual freedoms, or do they represent dangerous pandering  to the GOP’s anti-science base?
  • Are the gun nuts in the legislature really protecting Americans’ “2d Amendment” rights? (I can’t even come up with an alternate framing rooted in policy–in my view, lawmakers who want to protect kids from “inappropriate” books but not from being murdered by firearms are mentally disordered.)
  • And of course, there’s the mother of all dishonest framing–abortion bans that will inevitably cause the deaths of large numbers of women masquerading as “pro-life” measures, rather than the anti-women efforts grounded in religion and misogyny that they clearly are.

You can probably come up with a number of similar examples of laws defended on the basis of X that are really expressions of Y.

I thought about the multiple examples of GOP excellence in framing when I read that Michigan’s Governor had signed a bill overturning that state’s brilliantly misnamed “Right to Work” law. Right to Work laws are one of the most successful examples of dishonestly “framing the issue” in order to win the debate.

Talking Points Memo recently reported on the decades of successful marketing that gave so many states these laws.

On its face, who’d object to a “right-to-work” law?

By that token, and divorced from its substance, who wouldn’t be “pro-life”? Who quibbles with the assertion that “all lives matter,” or that markets should be “free”?

Right-wing activists have historically been good at branding, at characterizing even policy positions that restrict rights as postures of freedom and advancement.

“Right-to-work” laws are a seminal example of this marketing technique. They have nothing to do with guarantees of employment, but allow those in unionized jobs to opt out of paying union dues — while the unions are still required to provide services, like representation in disputes with management, even to those non-paying workers.

These laws have become the topic of national conversation, as Michigan is poised to repeal its version, the first state to do so in over 50 years.

The article noted the origins of the phrase and the trajectory of its subsequent marketing.

There is some dispute as to the phrase’s origins, but most point to anti-union Dallas Morning News editorial writer William Ruggles as coining the modern usage. In his 1941 Labor Day column, he called for a constitutional amendment to prohibit the “closed shop” or “union shop” — workplaces where unions can negotiate a contract that includes union membership as a condition of employment.

His column reportedly piqued the interest of Vance Muse, an avowed white supremacist who was working for various racist, anti-Semetic and anti-union campaigns — including a push for a “right-to-work” law in Arkansas (the name for the legislation courtesy of a Ruggles suggestion). That effort was successful: Arkansas became one of the first states to pass a right-to-work law, along with Florida.

“Opponents to unionism in the South discovered this brilliant rhetorical phraseology, and they began to propagandize on it,” Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor who directs the Center for the Study of Work, Labor, and Democracy at the University of California, Santa Barbara, told TPM.

 From the beginning, this marketing campaign had a distinctly libertarian bent. It was meant to evoke the idea of individual freedom, that workers should get to pocket their hard-earned cash that would otherwise go to union dues.

Interestingly,  states with right-to-work laws are almost all the same states that have outlawed abortion. As the article notes, advocates for both are extremely good at marketing themselves, and at getting their chosen rhetoric to be adopted by the mainstream.

Meanwhile, Democrats keep using slogans like “defund the police.” No wonder we have minority political control.


  1. You’ve pointed out the very hypocrisy that has me tearing out my hair. I’m so very sick of it all, and I see no change on the horizon, nor anything I can do to effect meaningful change myself.

  2. UC Prof George Lakoff wrote books on how Republicans have framed the issues to dominate the conversation. There’s a video on the subject (link below) .

    Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics

    27 October 2003

    George Lakoff, a UC Berkeley professor of linguistics and cognitive science, thinks he knows why. Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them, says Lakoff.
    The work has paid off: by dictating the terms of national debate, conservatives have put progressives firmly on the defensive.


  3. Tennessee Governor Lee stated, “Now is not the time to discuss the gun issue.” After signing a bill regarding school security in Tennessee he stated guns were not part of the school safety bill.

    “You can probably come up with a number of similar examples of laws defended on the basis of X that are really expressions of Y.”

    Gov. Lee’s comments and the Tennessee school security issue are focused on the school’s responsibility to protect students (X) and upholding the GOP’s focus that “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people. (Y)” Gov. Lee’s wife, a former teacher, was good friends with one of the adult victims in that school shooting where the blood has barely congealed from the 3 children and 3 adults blown apart by a former student with mental problems. I wonder what Mrs. Lee’s personal thoughts are on the gun issue.

    The NRA has framed the gun issue in this country and the GOP uses the 2nd Amendment as a battering ram, paid for by the NRA Lobby, to uphold the killings as funerals are AGAIN being planned by a grieving nation. Another song from the past, “Stayin’ Alive, Stayin’ Alive” is what it’s all about

  4. Excellent points. I had never made the connection between the “Right to Work” and the anti-abortion movement.
    The amount of hypocrisy in the naming of things as the opposite of what they are is shocking to the senses. Almost any right-wing organization that calls itself one thing is doing the exact opposite. Any organization that uses “Freedom” in its name is devoted to taking away the freedoms of any person who does not look like them or believe like them.
    And, any time the orange clown begins to accuse others of doing something, he is telling us exactly what he is doing or planning to do.

  5. I’m surprised that you typed this: Democrats want to “defund the police.”

    One person held up a sign saying that during the George Floyd protests and the GOP loved that one and have been spouting it ever since.

    Democrats want to end “immunity to police” which is a fair argument. I’m so disappointed that you’ve stated that when it is not true.

  6. Laurie writes above, “…have put progressives firmly on the defensive.”

    The only progressives I know are running strictly from deep blue districts. The DNC or Democratic Party always challenges these districts with a monied-interest candidate. Even the progressives we have in D.C. aren’t progressives. They get marginalized quickly by both Mainstream politicians and the media.

    If you remember, RTW was passed by Mitch Daniels only when he hired himself at Purdue. Now he is going to Liberty Fund in Carmel, which I assume supports the faux labor market. If your HR Department works for you in Indiana, think again.

    If you’ve been wronged, try finding a lawyer to take your case. Almost all lawyers in Indiana have stopped taking on cases because they know even the judges rule against you. This is due to corruption. Our society has moved far to the so-called political right. Many of you profess that the Democratic Party now appeals to former Republican voters. 😉

    Interestingly, Google’s AI called BARD, has an interesting slant to it I’ve noticed since testing it the past week. So, I asked it about RTW and it gave pros and cons and then summarized with:

    “Ultimately, the decision of whether or not to support right-to-work laws is a complex one. There are a number of factors to consider, and there is no easy answer.”

    Apparently, it’s not either/or…

  7. in my field of work, im at arms lenth with another while on the job. the rightwing mind set in NoDak id prevalent with theorys of using words to convince the worker hes winning. the onslaught of trumpism is wide and loud here. being literally in the ditches with these fools talking how its all about them over the liberal left they know im a paying member of. they wish to say how its great to slant minorities and well to be blunt,would like to just shootemall. this is a near all white state,especially in this white world of road construction. seems the conversation is the same ol hammered and drug out lame excuse for trump. my conversation is mainly about your wallet over your need to spout off about being a rightwing bigot. And ,those are my choosen words to them,face to face..i fear not,i come from a less than green pastures your white ass was raised in. hey that gun isnt much good without ammo. buy all the guns ya want,if the goverment decides to cut off your ammo, that gun is basically useless,do the math. hey how about that wallet? did ya ever come to the thought that all the profits from the greed side of your supply to live outpaces your income? that right to work credo is nothing more than a profit masters propaganda monicker. that small buisness ,at least here,its owner has backing of keeping his buisness flush as long as he votes to keep you the worker next to poverty and ruin. as he races his profits at the local track or has a boat far bigger than you will ever own. heres a free cap for,your head with my ad on it,now get back to work. I went to work at mid America steel in 2001 as fabricator/welder,certified in every aspect of,,great,union job,one of a few in NoDak, boilermakers union,gee great.. until it was realized it paid $12.53 an hour and no bennifits.thats right to work. i was making $17+ an hour in 1978 doing the same work in Calif…bobcat,bismarck,NoDak,in 1987 was on strike,it was still bobcat and was still local owned. they made about $24 and hour,and on strike for bennifits. now today,its owned by doosan,korea, they pay $18.00 an hour,for sweatshop labor. thats right to work at its best,support a foriegn enity give em incentive to buy it with tax breaks and glee from then govenor hoven, and then invest the states money in it,while suppressing any safety net for its workers, way to go NoDak. employment looks good today,apply for a job,hey its all white here!..(thats a slant on its all right) ya get a job in NoDak and find that your pay check may look good but its a costing ya more to live middle class than it pays. seems they the trumpers have had success in dragging my wallet down with them. a out of state contractor named CSI in st cloud minn,has come to NoDak to,underbid the road construction cos here in NoDak. the wages and work has evaporated for the local const companies.(im talking almost gone) i lost $20K last year against all previous years. seems that right to work shit works for them,when they came to NoDak.it doesnt for the workers. now maybe that trumper will open their closed mind and ask why? hell, you voted for it.

  8. Todd:
    its time the demos made a stand,at least,get a person to run and spend some of that demo money to at least make a effort to soap box the issues we do understand and need. even if its trivial money,its worth a voice for what it can achive.the demos have thrown in the towel in may areas. but it drowns the voice from reason and whats really going on. cut the trump out ,its wasting time and money. its all about what you take home,and why you cant get ahead. it needs to be relized how the greed side has made bullshit issues and how its made his wallet fat. while taking working Americans into economic slavery..

  9. How do I frame the issues for my own benefit? Hello, my name is Norris. I left Sleepy Hollow 65 years ago. I have been woke ever since.

  10. I notice more and more that Republican politicians do not so much “frame” the issue as they do “garble” the message in order to cover the desires of their different constituencies. Talking out of both sides of the mouth is what we used to call this behavior.
    This morning their are news reports about how Gov. Holcomb addressed the issue of school safety by saying that “We always need to be vigilant”. Really? That’s what is needed? Vigilance? Then in coming weeks as the NRA takes over the city he will be addressing them with the need to keep guns in the hands of everyone but no vigilance is needed on the part of government.
    Craziness and duplicity have taken over much of society… certainly inside of Indiana government.

  11. If only more people could recognize sophistry when they see it. But, sadly, the commodification of education has created the false impression that the courses that teach that sort of skill have no ROI. Rather than being foundational, they become token humanities requirements or electives- mere educational overhead to be minimized in the delivery of a product.

  12. Going hand -in-hand with framing is the tendency of the Right to encourage “polar” thinking. Rather than acknowledging the complexities of the issues, the Right denigrates those choosing a more subtle analysis as weak-minded or wishy-washy.

  13. “Conservatives have spent decades defining their ideas, carefully choosing the language with which to present them, and building an infrastructure to communicate them” – you betcha -together it is an ecosystem.

    “The rest of us” (progressives, liberals, moderates) can’t seem to circle our wagons and just flag a few things to agree on…equality of opportunity, one person/one vote, no one is above the law, etc.??

  14. I’m old enough to remember that when the grossly misnamed “right to work” law was passed in Indiana we pro-labor people labelled it the “right to scab” law. Trouble is, as Sheila notes today, we were outframed. The “company” framers took the side of the poor workers who had to pay dues to a union as a condition of employment as a frame and our contention that it was a union-busting piece of dung fell on dry ground. Lesson #1 in how to tame that horrid Wagner Act of FDR’s New Deal. . .

    I have Lakoff’s books and note that he earned his doctorate at IU, a rather odd venue for such a progressive thinker, but a Hoosier Debs he was not. Capturing attitudes by manipulation of words and inferences is an old game still in vogue. As a for instance, Trump’s confessionals and attempts at framing are indistinguishable. He is a clumsy framer.

  15. Under “right to work” an employee is free to decide whether to support his union. If the union can show that it is benefiting that worker and explain that it can provide strong benefits only by maintaining strong membership, most workers will understand and join. If large numbers of them try to get a free ride by not joining, they will find that a weakened union will provide fewer benefits. This helps the union make its case to the workers for joining. It also provides the strongest incentive for the union to put its efforts into actions that provide clear benefits to workers rather than corrupt practices that benefit the union itself rather than the workers. In short, if the union doesn’t do what the workers want, they can withdraw their support and the union collapses.
    If a union can force a worker to pay them in order to keep his job, the union holds all the power. Looked at from this perspective, right to work laws are not really misnamed.
    When a worker withholds his membership because he objects to how the union is spending its money, and he is labeled a freeloader or parasite that is also framing the issue. Sometimes unfairly I think.

  16. Sharon: Why should government set up a pro-management situation via a right to work law which provides for dissension within a workforce? What is gained by pointing out that unions have sometimes been corrupted without noting the same as to their employers? Why are closed or union or open shop agreements between labor and management hampered by state action? Other than safety and the like, what business does the state have in setting the terms of an agreement to which it is not a party?

    I could go on and on, especially when I see the bad guys portrayed as good guys. I remain persuaded that the so-called right to work statutes are anti-labor atrocities under the guise of a phony concern for the rights of dissident union workers, a dissidence fed by such legislation to the advantage of management around their bargaining tables with unions in re wages and working conditions.

  17. Just like G.W.Bush and his Blue Skies Initiative! Pure Orwellian BS calling things their opposite.
    The Demas need someone who can openly, and dramatically, call out the status of the right-wing

  18. On abortion, you have two sides which view the same issue very differently. Pro-choice activists emphasize the very legitimate issue of a woman’s autonomy with respect to her body. Pro-life activists place the emphasis on protecting the human life growing inside the woman’s body.

    I don’t know why each side feels compelled to challenge the legitimacy of how people feel about the issue. Pro-choicers insist pro-life people must hate women (even though more women are pro-life than men) or must be motivated by zealous religious beliefd. Meanwhile, many pro-lifers refuse to recognize that a woman has legitimate concerns as to their own body.

    We need to be honest about the very legitimate concerns on both sides of this issue.

  19. Gerald. I don’t disagree with you and I don’t know how to find the right balance of power between labor and management. I was just opining that it is always easier to spot someone else’s mislabeling and framework skewing than it is our own. Even when I try to look at issues from all sides fairly, I’m sure I sometimes make that mistake.

  20. I will make two brief points.

    “De-fund the police” was NOT a slogan embraced by the Democratic Party and was criticized by many, including candidate Biden. Unfortunately, the party lacks discipline and “left wing” of the party is the absolute worst at framing issues, thus the unfortunate “De-fund the Police”.
    I do remember an academic running for City Council in Detroit in ’69. He would appear before the police union and tell them that they were being deprived of the training they needed. His actual paper had more of a “they are ill-trained” sound to it. He knew how to frame.

    Republicans learned that they needed to target two things: unionization and torts law. Why? Labor unions and PI lawyers were the major source of funding for the Democrats. They were fairly successful at hurting both groups and then moved on to unchecked gerrymandering (which they also outperform Democrats at) and voter restrictions (or if it doesn’t hurt our voters, it must be a fair rule).

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