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The Manipulative Power of Language Framing in Politics

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Political communicators are skilled at framing the debates over controversial issues through an emphasis on the policy goals that deserve the highest priority, according to themselves rather than the people they communicate with.  Such rhetoric affects political attitudes by influencing the importance that individuals place on competing issues.  Frames do not only affect opinions on the issues, but they also influence the judgments of the participants in the communication process with regards to the relative importance of competing values.  Thus, political persuaders shape the public opinion through the framing of their policy goals and choices (Nelson 581).

     Politicians attempt to control public perception through the use of words.  Thus an encyclopedia has defined framing as “a process of selective control over the individual’s perception of media, public, or private communication, in particular the meanings attributed to words or phrases.  Framing defines how an element of rhetoric is packaged so as to allow certain interpretations and rule out others”.  Moreover, media frames may be created by the mass madia as well as specific political and social movements or organizations (“Framing: Communication Theory”).

     Very often we find that the media works alongside political and social movements to control the perceptions of the public at large through the communication theory of framing.  Hence, the media is very frequently heard discussing the “war on terror,” seeing as the politicians have coined the phrase and use it regularly to advise the public about their policies concerning the issue.  Another important example of framing in this context is the recent popularization of the term “escalation” to describe an increase in troop levels in war torn Iraq.

This term, “escalation” implies that the United States of America is deliberately heightening the scope of the conflict in a manner that is provocative (“Framing”).  Christian Spielvogel writes that both George W. Bush and John Kerry, during the 2004 presidential campaign, relied upon the moral framing of the “war on terrorism” and the situation in Iraq as a battle between “good and evil” in their day to day political discourse.  Moreover, President Bush employed this rhetorical frame “to politically and morally cloak the war in Iraq under a larger war on terror.”

     One of the principal experts on the communication theory of framing is George Lakeoff, who has written books on the subject as it applies to politics.  Lakeoff’s theory of political framing presumes that the political elites are the key framers of political discourse, and “the manipulative power of language framing is ultimately more important to a successful political message than the ideas behind it” (Dickson).  A typical example offered by Lakeoff to explain political framing is that of the phrase, “tax relief” in place of “tax reform.”  Here, the use of the word “relief” implies that taxes are a burden on the citizen, and the government (as well as the politicians who use the phrase) are concerned about helping the citizen be granted relief from the burden (“Framing”).

However, when a political party that does not make up the government uses the phrase “tax relief,” it should have a different effect on the listeners.  In this case, the listeners are most likely to believe that the political party that does not form the government is actually against the alleviation of the citizen’s suffering (Dern)  Moreover, the use of the phrase “tax relief” on the part of the ruling party implies that everyone in the nation must love the government anyhow, given that nobody could ever vote against “relief” (Balluff).  As far as “tax reform” is concerned, on the other hand, it is harder for the public to trust a promise of tremendous transformations in the tax structure, as implied by the word, “reform.”  Reforms may, after all, sometimes result in upheaval.

    Terms that frame political debate seek to reduce the possibilities of discourse by way of setting the vocabulary and metaphors using which an issue must be discussed.  Lakeoff believes that framing cannot be avoided in political debate.  Rather, it is an inherent part of political discourse, and of all cognition, both conscious and unconscious.  Still, the use of political framing implies that an effort must be made on the part of politicians to frame consciously (“Framing”).  This is the reason why politicians employ skilled speech writers in the first place.

     Lakeoff has proposed a provocative account of electoral politics that highlights the significance of political semantics.  He has argued that strategic political communication is pivotal to the outcome of elections.  Discussing both the Democrats and the Republicans in the United States, the linguist has stated that the party that is more capable of integrating issues with values, and the candidate with the sound bite that more intuitively evokes the triggering metaphor for the appropriate value system, wins the election.

In Don’t Think of an Elephant!, the linguist has emphasized the framing of political discourse in terms of the fundamental value system, for example, tax relief or permission slip for waging war; rather than in terms of specific measures of performance, effectiveness or a candidate’s personal demeanor.  In essence, Lakeoff has asserted that the power of political rhetoric derives first and foremost from the use of particular words and phrases that have the ability to elicit core value systems (Iyengar).

     “At the most general level,” writes Shanto Iyengar, “framing refers to the way in which opinions about an issue can be altered by emphasizing or deemphasizing particular facets of that issue.”  Lakeoff’s use of the framing concept provides unique understanding in the area.  The linguist has additionally theorized that in order to be persuasive, candidates in an election campaign must be integrating their everyday rhetoric and positions on policy issues into an overarching philosophy of governance.  Hence,

         When George Bush calls for military action against terrorists, federal aid for religious

    organizations and the right to life for those in a persistent vegetative state, Lakeoff argues that

    his principled rhetoric presents him as a conservative with a deep-seated world view.  When

    John Kerry attacks tax cuts as favoring the rich at the expense of the middle class, advocates

    subsidized health care for the poor, and supports a woman’s right to choose, Lakeoff argues

    that he is presenting himself as an opportunistic liberal Democrat shopping for votes.

David Balluff has written that in looking at future events, a speaker may either exhort his audience to adopt his point of view, or dissuade against a competing viewpoint.  Ultimately, it is the audience that is asked to deliberate on whether a particular action would enhance or reduce their wellbeing.  Once again looking at the presidential debates of 2004, the author has stated that it is noteworthy that President Bush used the word “terror” more often than did Kerry.  This is because “terror” and “terrorism” are emotionally charged words after the World Trade Center attack on 11 September 2001.  In addition, the fear of possible future attacks in the voters’ minds only serves to benefit George W. Bush, seeing that he is more confident than Kerry is about preventing future attacks.

     Iyengar has also pointed out in the context of the 2004 presidential campaign that John Kerry and other Democrats, in response to the Republican attack on gay marriage, distinguished between civil unions and same-sex marriage.  According to these politicians, civil unions would confer the same economic benefits as marriage (which they support).  On the other hand, same-sex marriage is best left to the church.

     In Lakeoff’s analysis one would find that most instances of framing are those which involve the use of dissimilar, albeit logically equivalent words or phrases to describe a political question.  The linguist uses the phrase “same-sex marriage” also for “gay marriage” (Iyengar).  In other words, it does not matter whether politicians refer to the same-sex marriage or the gay marriage.  The effects of the two phrases are the same.  David Ray Freeman writes that attaching the words “gay” or “same-sex” to marriage does always place emphasis on sex.  It is gay sex, in fact, that hurts traditional sentiments.  Marriage, on the contrary, has nothing really to do with the government and its politicians.  Nathan J. Dern explains:

         Answer the following questions.  “Do you think the government should tell people who

    they can and can’t marry?”  Now answer: “Are you against gay marriage?”  The fact that these

    questions can be answered differently is evidence of the power of framing in political


         In his new book, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, Lakoff argues that conservatives’ success on

    issues like gay marriage, the Iraq war, and terrorism can be explained by their ability to frame

    issues in a way that triggers the beliefs and experiences of the voters.  Frames dictate

  worldviews, and consequently a series of intentionally constructed frames can promote a

    specific set of values, which in turn might influence voting patterns.

Recently, George Lakeoff and Sam Ferguson published “The Framing of Immigration” through the Rockridge Institute, a “non-partisan progressive think tank that goes behind the language (the surface words and slogans) to reveal the deep frames — the moral values, political principles, and fundamental ideas, both progressive and conservative — that are implicit in political discourse.”

According to the Institute, its goals are simple: (1) To educate the public about how issues are being framed and what hidden agendas lie behind them; (2) To point out how truth and fundamental American values can better be served by alternative framings, both deep and surface; (3) To help progressives better express what they really believe; and (4) To caution progressives against accepting political frames that either hide the truth or undermine the American moral values.

     Lakeoff and Ferguson believed that it was essential for the public to know and understand the framing surrounding immigration, used by both the progressives and conservatives, in addition to the framings that are not being used in this context.  According to the authors, an understanding of framing would reveal important truths about “illegal immigrants,” a phrase which skews the discourse on the subject, given that it characterizes people who are almost all honest and hardworking, as criminals.

By using the word “illegal,” the political framers are ignoring the contributions of the immigrants to the American lifestyles and the economy.  What is more, the phrase, “illegal immigrants” ignores the systemic causes and problems related to the issue, that is, the cheap labor economy of America driving down the cost of labor, and the various political and economic causes that have contributed to pushing countless people to leave their home countries to become “illegal immigrants” in the United States.

     Kenneth Burke, like Lakeoff, is another important theorist on political framing.  He defined the rhetorical function of language as the “the use of language as a symbolic means of inducing cooperation in beings that by nature respond to symbols.”  Defining man as the symbol using, making, and misusing being, as well as the inventor of the negative, Burke explained that humanity is separated from its natural condition by instruments of its own making.

He also wrote that man is “goaded by the spirit of hierarchy, and rotten with perfection.”  And, some of the major problems in human behavior have resulted from instances of symbols using human beings rather than human beings using symbols (“Kenneth Burke)  To put it another way, man must be using language strategically for his purposes – just as Lakeoff suggested.

     Yet another key concept for Burke is that of the terministic screen, which is “a set of symbols that becomes a kind of screen or grid of intelligibility through which the world makes sense to us.  Here Burke offers rhetorical theorists and critics a way of understanding the relationship between language and ideology.

 Language, Burke thought, doesn’t simply ‘reflect’ reality; it also helps select reality as well as deflect reality”  Politicians, therefore, can choose their symbols strategically to select or deflect a particular aspect of reality in the minds of the people they communicate with.  The communication between the politicians and the public at large is a kind of drama which is enacted for the reason that the politicians and the people they communicate with have a given set of motives.  These motives are the mothers of communication in the first place (“Kenneth”).

     The systems of motives for communication serve as terministic screens.  These are linguistic products which provide patterns for interpreting life’s activities.  There is no difference, in other words, between the set of symbols used strategically to induce a particular response in the public, and the systems of motives.  Here, motives translate into symbols that become a kind of screen or stage where communication from the politicians take place (“Kenneth”).

     According to this view, there must be something to link the motives of the politicians with the motives of the public at large.  If there was no link between the two parties, communication would not take place.  We understand, therefore, that the public needs to hear from its political leaders, who in turn, must provide the public with their own interpretations of public affairs.  These interpretations, no doubt, move in the direction of the true motives of the politicians alone.  The public, on the other hand, must be cooperating to produce the given interpretations, or else the people would not bear with such communication.

     Also according to Burke’s theory of terministic screens, the vocabulary that we use acts as a filter that skews our view of the world.  Thus, certain vocabulary words emphasize certain types of thoughts (Goffman)  As an example, it is difficult to conceive of gay marriage or same-sex marriage without a reference to sex.  Dictionaries defining homosexuality or gays solve this problem by including sex in the first sentence.  Given that same-sex marriage or gay marriage cannot be viewed without the idea of sex, it is a tautology of sorts.

     This same concept can be applied to all language in general: that the use of terms creates tautologies within discourse, political or nonpolitical.  Additionally, the terms that we use act as generalizations of reality.  These generalizations may or may not be true.  Thus, according to Burke, the difference between the generalizations and the actual reality is what creates the meaning of language.  If this was not true, there would actually be no use of language, given that everybody would understand generalizations and no deviance from the truth would ever appear (Goffman).

     When a difference is perceived between generalizations and the actual form of reality, it becomes possible for us to create a sign for it.  To put it another way, this is when language comes into the picture, and symbols appear as the verbal parallels to a pattern of experience (Goffman).  Politicians who utilize political framing strategically understand that they must do so because there is a difference between the generalizations and the actual form of reality.

Hence, if President Bush would not continuously talk about “terror,” the people of American may forget about terrorist acts altogether.  The fact that he continues to use the word, “terror,” implies that he wishes for the American people to continue remembering that he is a leader who can protect them from terrorists’ activities in the nation.  This would help them in maintaining their trust in the president, and their confidence that he has legitimately gained after the 11 September attacks on the American soil.

     Nathan Riley further explains the terministic screens of Kenneth Burke:

         Burke engages in discourse about discovering what a ‘screen’ is trying to accomplish.  By

analyzing an argument based on motives it becomes easier to see what the limitations of that

    argument is.  According to Burke, actions are spurred by motivations, so by analyzing the

    argument (action) by what the author was trying to prove (motive), it becomes easier to see

    weaknesses.  Ultimately I believe that Burke does not believe that there is one certain reality

    that can be represented through language (or possibly at all).

By understanding how a politician structures his use of words, we can comprehend his motives; and by understanding his motives we are in a better position to respond to his take on policy issues if we decide to respond, that is.  Seeing that both Kerry and Bush argued on the same topics in dissimilar manners during the 2004 presidential campaign, we have been able to realize that the generalizations about given policy issues are not necessarily true.  Why else would Bush use the word “terror” more often than Kerry?  After all, Kerry too is a citizen of the United States living through the same conditions as Bush and the rest of the Americans.  Was it not obvious to him that “terror” would deserve greater attention on his part if he were to become the president?

     President Bush, on the other hand, believed that “terror” is still a very important subject to respond to.  The president used his own successful style of political framing and ended up winning the election.  According to Lakeoff’s theory, the president used political framing more strategically to win the election.  Burke’s theory would help us understand the situation in a different manner.  According to the theory of terministic screens, Bush was better able to link his motives wih those of the American public in the drama that was enacted with a view to choose the next president of the United States.

Works Cited

  1. Balluff, David. “War of the Words.” Available at http://www.nettime.org/. (3 February 2007).
  2. Dern, Nathan J. “Framing Progress: A scientific look at the highly effective rhetoric of the Republican PartyHarvard Political Review, Winter 2007.
  3. Dickson, Wendy Foster. “Framing the Debate.” Washington Monthly, , April 2005.
  4. “Framing: Communication Theory.” Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Framing_%28communication_theory%29. (3 February 2007)
  5. Freeman, David Ray. “Rhetoric for a Land of the Freer.” Theory: Selling Liberty, 18 October 2006. Available at www.reformthelp.org/home/intro/newEssaysP.php. (3 February 2007).
  6. Goffman, Erving. Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. London: Harper and Row, 1974.
  7. Iyengar, Shanto. “Speaking of Values: The Framing of American Politics.” The Forum, Volume 3, Issue 5, 2005.
  8. “Kenneth Burke.” Wikipedia. Available at http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kenneth_Burke. (3 February 2007).

  1. Nelson, T. E. “Policy Goals, Public Rhetoric, and Political Attitudes.” The Journal of Politics, Volume 66, Number 2, May 2004, pp. 581-605.
  2. Lakeoff, George, and Sam Ferguson. “Framing Versus Spin.” The Rockridge Institute, 2006. Available at http://www.commondreams.org/. (3 February 2007)
  3. Riley, Nathan. “Kenneth Burke’s Terministic Screens, Part II.” Available at www.whoisnate.com/node/36. (3 February 2007).
  4. Spielvogel, Christian. “’You Know Where I Stand’: Moral Framing of the War on Terrorism and the Iraq War in the 2004 Presidential Campaign.” Rhetoric and Public Affairs, Volume 8, Number 4, Winter 2005.

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