Tag Archives: framing

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.

Framing the Wrong Argument

I like David Brooks. I even agree with a significant part of what he writes. But his column in yesterday’s New York Times not only missed the boat, it swam in the wrong ocean.

Brooks characterized the Obama ads attacking Romney’s performance at Bain as an attack on capitalism, and essentially framed the current Presidential race as a contest between “big government” and “capitalism.” This is wrong on so many counts, it’s hard to know where to begin.

I am an ardent believer in capitalism and free markets.  In my opinion, Mitt Romney is the poster boy for a destructive and distorted vision of market economics that is giving capitalism its current bad name.

The sort of capitalism that works, the capitalism that originally made this country the most productive in the world, is characterized by transparency and a level playing field. Transparency means marketplaces with willing buyers and willing sellers who both possess the information relevant to their transaction. There are obviously areas–like healthcare–where that sort of information symmetry is impossible; in such areas, markets cannot work. Markets work extremely well, however, when buyers and sellers both have access to sufficient information on which to base their economic behavior.

The metaphor of a level playing field goes well beyond parity of information, however. A level playing field requires rules against cheating–and authorities willing and able to enforce those rules. Crony capitalism is the antithesis of a level playing field. Gaming the system by sending your lobbyists to Washington to buy influence, obtain favorable tax treatment, gut regulations and subsidize your endeavors are hallmarks of oligarchy. Such behaviors bear no relationship to a true market economy.

The notion that Mitt Romney represents true capitalism is delusional. So, for that matter, is the charge that Obama represents “big government.” As even the Wall Street Journal has conceded, growth in government spending under the Obama administration has been the lowest since the Eisenhower administration. The charge of “big government” rests on two aspects of Obama’s presidency: the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare”) and his continuation of George W. Bush’s policies on surveillance and national security.

I agree with critics of Obama’s national security policies. Those policies infringed civil liberties when Bush inaugurated them, and they are no less ill-conceived and dangerous simply because the President pursuing them can pronounce “nuclear.” But the widespread belief that the ACA is anti-capitalist and pro “big government” rests on the same fundamental misapprehension as Brooks’ column: that anything done by the private sector is by definition “capitalism.”

The basic question to be answered when constructing a government is: what is its role? What tasks must we do collectively,through this governing mechanism we have created, and what tasks should be left to individuals, businesses and/or nonprofit organizations?

In areas where markets work, we should let them. But there are areas where markets don’t work, or work only with substantial assistance. Think public safety, national defense, infrastructure provision. Healthcare is an area where markets demonstrably do not work and have not worked. Every other western industrialized nation has come to that conclusion. The cost of ignoring that reality is draining our treasury and increasing the inequities that are splintering our polity.

Recognition of reality is sanity, not preference for “big government.”

If we really need to frame the electoral choice we face, I’d suggest “a contest between ‘I’ve got mine’ and the common good.”

The Power of Framing

During one hour of television tonight, I heard four repetitions of an ad in which Mitch Daniels explains that “this one simple law”–the deceptively named Right to Work law–will bring jobs to Indiana, and keep people from being forced to pay union dues. It was extremely well done.  Once during that hour,  I saw a much less persuasive ad calling Right to Work an “attack on working people.” Daniels had specific points to make; the opposing ad simply claimed the bill would be bad for workers. Advantage: Daniels.

Unfortunately for the policy process, Daniels’ specific points were simply untrue. The union ad would have been considerably more effective had it pointed that out.

Let’s begin with the way the administration is framing this issue. People shouldn’t be “forced” to pay “dues or fees” as a condition of employment. Put that way, it seems like a very reasonable position. But let’s ask a slightly different–and arguably more accurate–question: should some people be forced to provide services to their co-workers for free?

Let’s try an analogy: Let’s say you are a dues-paying member of a social club, and a guy you know says he want to come to the parties and enjoy the refreshments, but he doesn’t want to join the club. Fine, you say, just pay for your food and drink. But the visitor doesn’t even want to do that–indeed, he is highly offended by the suggestion.

That’s what Right to Work is really about–letting some folks “mooch” off the efforts of others.

Under current labor laws, no one has to join a union. But if you go to work in a union shop, you are required to pay your fair share of the costs of negotiation–your share of the amount paid to the people who represent you in dealings with management. You are required to pay for a benefit you receive. That’s it.

A lot of claims are being made by those who want to see this law passed, and most of them are either blatantly untrue or incredibly misleading. For example, the National Right to Work Committee has issued a “Fact Sheet” claiming–among other things–that job growth in Indiana was slower than the average job growth of Midwest states with Right to Work laws. Daniels echoes that assertion in his TV ad– but the claim is “true” only because one of those states is North Dakota, where oil fields were recently discovered, leading to a huge boom. If you exclude North Dakota, the remaining Right to Work States averaged a net job loss. Similarly, the Committee lauds Texas, a Right to Work state, for its job creation during the past decade–without bothering to mention that Texas’ job growth was all in the public sector, and entirely due to the growth of government–Texas private sector actually lost jobs during the past decade.

Other claims were similarly misleading. Independent research–as I noted in a previous post--finds absolutely no relationship between job creation and Right to Work laws, either positive or negative. The only documented effect of such laws is to weaken unions and reduce wages for both union and non-union workers.

So–one might ask–why is the Governor so determined to enact this legislation that he is willing to spend a fortune airing highly misleading TV ads? Why is he so intent upon ramming this through that he was willing to impose “safety” regulations that would keep union members from filling the Statehouse, until the public outcry made him rethink that tactic? The only reason I can think of is because such laws hurt unions, and unions generally support Democrats. It’s purely political.

But you’ve got to give Daniels and the Republicans credit: they are one hell of a lot better at framing this issue than the Democrats are in explaining it.