Framing for the Resistance


SON, a long-distance runner since high school, has a saying that he uses to describe any process that is going to take work and time:  “This is a marathon, not a sprint.”  An effective Resistance to Trump is going to be a marathon, not a sprint.  While one of his most effective tactics is to keep everyone responding to his latest lie/outrage/insanity –and then another, and then another, so that you never even have time to effectively deal with Outrage du Jour Numero Un — the Resistance must start playing the long game.

And to do that, to play the long game, we must start to focus with almost laser-like intensity on effective framing.  The Left too often allows the Right to frame the debate and the Right is delighted to do so, often with scientifically-tested phrases that, once adopted, essentially determine the outcome.

Consider “death taxes.”  Some time ago, the Right stopped talking about estate taxes, or inheritance taxes, or unearned-wealth-transfer payments (see what I did there?) and began to campaign against “death taxes.”  Damn.  The government even wants to tax you for dying.  Do you think we should abolish “death taxes”?  Of course you do.  What kind of monster wants to impose “death taxes”?  You can just see Joe Sixpack sitting in his Lazy-Boy, watching Fox “news,” and raging against those evil liberals who want to tax his twelve children when he dies and leaves them his double-wide trailer , his gun collection, and his Chevy truck.   Of course, as always, the Right has pulled a fast one on Joe and Joe’s so stupid that he keeps falling for it.  Joe has never, in his entire life, owned, nor will he ever own, enough to be subject to “the death tax.”

[Trump’s proposed cut on inheritance taxes is] such a narrowly focused cut, yet one dressed up as a boon for ordinary Americans—Trump himself called it a burden on the “American worker.” Yet as we observed in 2009, the estate tax affects only a few thousand people at most, all of them multimillionaires with an average nest egg of more than $30 million.   . . .  The tax is currently 40% of estates larger than an exemption of $5.45 million for individuals and $10.9 million for couples.

More here.


For all Americans, the first $5.45 million dollars (or, twice that, the first $10.9 million for a married couple) is exempt from the “death tax.”  If Joe had $5.45 million, he could leave every penny of it to his loving family and they’d never have to pay a single penny of tax on their windfall.  Actually, Joe’s not that unusual.  More than 99% of all Americans will die owning less than $5.45 million dollars.  So the dreaded “death tax” will only impact the approximately .3% of Americans who own more than that.  (It would, however, to be honest, cut a bit into Uday and Kusay’s African safaris and into Ivanka’s dolphin-blood-smoothie budget. *)  But thousands of Trumpians have marched off to the polls to stop that evil Obama (who more than likely WILL leave Sasha and Malia far more than $5 million) from imposing “death taxes” on their children.

I dwell on this example because you can, still, today, find well-meaning liberals who refer to inheritance taxes not as “unearned-wealth-transfer payments,”  but as “death taxes.”   Then, they earnestly explain, often with charts and graphs and tables, and always with technical tax language, why the government SHOULD charge “orphans,” (rather than “scions,”) a “death tax.”

People.  We have got to stop doing this.

The first thing you should do before responding to ANY Trumpian or otherRight-wing talking point is to examine what they say and figure out which words are picture frames.  Figure out which words they’ve focus-group-tested in order to frame the issue in a way that pre-determines the outcome.  Then, you must:  (1) point out the framing and (2) reframe the issue.

Just pointing out that the issue has been framed in a particular way helps to undo the effect of the framing, but it’s not enough.  Hence, the title of George Lakoff’s groundbreaking book on framing:  Don’t Think of an Elephant.  It’s not enough to say, “Hey!  Joe!  They just snookered you!  They called it a ‘death tax’ to get you upset, but your kids will never have to pay any unearned-wealth-transfer tax because that tax is only imposed on the .3% of rich kids whose parents leave them more than $5 million!”  No.  What you’ve got to do is to talk to Joe, who worked hard and knows that he earned every penny he ever made, and who is damn proud of that double-wide, that gun collection, and that Chevy truck, about the unearned wealth transfer payments from the government that billionaires, but only billionaires, would be able to leave their degenerate, spoiled, baby-billionaires.  You’ve got to talk to Joe about the unearned-wealth-transfer payments from the government that lets rich brats sniff cocaine off the breasts of $1,000 hookers while Joe’s daughter leaves her kids with him to go earn minimum wage checking groceries at Walmart.

Stop showing up with a dull knife at a gun fight.

Dr. Gwendolyn Reese  recently wrote about the Resistance’s need for effective framing:

CHRISTIAN-SHARIA LAW is what people like Pence are peddling.  Given the situation with mass incarceration, for-profit prisons, and the systematic disenfranchising of people of color, and the targeting of People of Color through various kinds of profiling tactics – those who oppose this are ABOLITIONISTS, because taken together this is SLAVERY IN A NEW DRESS.  [I’d say, SLAVERY WITH NEW CHAINS.]  The GOP has RIGGED THE SYSTEM, through Gerrymandering, voter-suppression, and refusing to hold confirmation hearings, and, therefore, the GOP has STOLEN OUR DEMOCRACY. Through their tax plans and their desire to privatize and destroy our social safety net the GOP is waging a WAR ON THE POOR while the Democrats were waging a WAR ON POVERTY. The GOP Elites and Trump’s cabinet are full of SWAMP MONSTERS. And finally, they have a CONTRACT ON AMERICA, which is exactly what Gingrich/GrinchRich is after. And I think we can line up Comey, large chunks of the FBI, Tillerson, Trump…and just call them RUSSIAN ASSETS.

She’s right.  Can we all please adopt this phrasing?

I also want to talk about some of the few times that the Left has managed to successfully frame an issue.

First, let’s talk about “the 1%.”  It’s fashionable to say that the Occupy Movement failed.  Their drum circles devolved into debates over which group was the most victimized; they turned off “regular” New Yorkers who had to walk around them; and they had no lasting impact on any legislation.  But the phrase “the 1%” has lived on.  And it set the stage for, among other things, Mitt Romney’s defeat.  When Romney sniggered about the “47% of Americans” who, according to him, are dependent upon government, believe that they are victims, believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you-name-it, the concept of “the 1%” was already a part of public discourse.  And so we suddenly had the 1% vs. the 47%, and the 47% included veterans, the elderly who had paid into Social Security for their entire lives, and the disabled.  Sadly, because they do not understand the Overton Window, many Leftists disparaged Occupy.  But Occupy provided the Left with what is possibly THE most effective bit of framing to come out of the last 75 years.  We should use the hell out of it during Donald Trump’s gold-plated administration.

Second, let’s talk about “privilege.”  I’m not even sure who coined this term, but it has made a major difference in our ability to talk about what’s wrong in this country.  Before “privilege,” we could say that it was wrong to tell People of Color that they couldn’t use a water fountain (that was “discrimination”) but we didn’t really have a way to talk about how, in DeRay McKission’s words,  whiteness  ” works.”  We didn’t have an effective way to communicate how Joe Biden could sexually privilege Clarence Thomas over Anita Hill or how Bernie Sanders could appeal to white men while slamming women and People of Color.  We lacked a way to express how hetro-marriage privileged straight people while gay people were left to fend for themselves.  You can kind of tell how successful “privilege” has been by how angry the term makes those on the right.  When my friend, Literata, uses the term “privilege-splian,” and the Right goes batshit, you know that we’re on to something.

And, third, let’s talk about “mansplaining.”  This term came from an article entitled Men Explain Things to Me.  And there isn’t a woman worth her second X chromosome who didn’t read that article and go, “Oh, Hell, yes.”  But the term has gone beyond that and it was especially useful to women who were attacked by BernieBros (no, not every one of Senator Sanders’ supporters was a BernieBro, but those who were know who they are and they were VERY ANGRY at being called a “BernieBro.”  Very.  Angry.  Very.  No.  Seriously.  They did not like that.  At all.  One bit.)  “Mansplaining” was brilliant framing because it allowed American women to clearly and effectively point out what was wrong with a WHOLE LOT of the criticisms lobbed at the Clinton campaign, at feminist critiques, and even at Wicca.

So the Left CAN frame when it needs to.  And the Left is going to have to frame MUCH more effectively over the coming years than it has done so heretofore.  What differences can you point out between these (and other!) examples of framing and those times when the Right has won the framing wars?

What’s the best framing you’ve seen?

  • I admit that I stole this from someone on the inter-webs and I forget who.  Apologies, because I would give attribution if I could.

13 responses to “Framing for the Resistance

  1. I’ve always responded to mention of the “death tax” with, “Do you mean the silver-spoon tax?” I think it’s more easily understood than “unearned-wealth-transfer tax”, and you’re already half way to making it clear that it only applies to trust-fund babies.

    • The “Silver Spoon Tax” Brilliant!!! Consider it stolen. It will be put into heavy rotation in the UNE-verse. Master Lakoff would be proud.

      “That kid was born with a bunch of silver spoons in his mouth…” for example….

  2. As much as I hate the GOP and just about everything they stand for, my hats go off to them for their brilliant PR machine and spin. Quite frankly, I’ve never seen anything like it, nor as successful. How you can continually convince people to vote against their own interests, election after election, while systematically dismantling the only system that could stop them is almost breathtaking in scope. It’s wrong and evil, but holy shit, those fuckers run circles around the left and the rest of us are left standing with an empty sack.

  3. Hats off to them, too, for their use of grassroots face-to-face organizing. We could learn a few things from the NRA, for example. They have chapters all over the country of real people who can be mobilized. They don’t rely on click, share, donate, and sign some clickbait petition that no one’s going to read. Hell, we could learn a lot on this score from the history of the civil rights movement and the women’s liberation movement. And while we’re on the subject of framing — why are so many of the memes put out by liberal and progressive groups so weak?

  4. “I dwell on this example because you can, still, today, find well-meaning liberals who refer to inheritance taxes not as “unearned-wealth-transfer payments,” but as “death taxes.”

    Hell I heard “socialist” and “jew” used as pejoratives by self proclaimed liberals in the last primary.

  5. The frame I hate is “entitlements programs” like Social Security and Medicare. The framing makes it sound like a welfare program. It isn’t, it’s an insurance program that we have paid into. Dem’s should call it what it is, SS Trust Fund, and Medicare Insurance, and call out the Rep’s when they miss-state the facts. Another one is,” Medicare For All” (because it is such a cost effective program) replacing “Obama Care” or “ACA’.

    • Thank you for pointing this out. I am amazed at the people (including a few liberals) that have referred to something I paid into as an entitlement. Yes, I’m entitled to get some of my money back!

  6. “Obamacare” is the worst framing. Teed right up for the right wing. Even Obama called it Obamacare. Dude you’re politicizing this – it’s not about YOU.
    It’s the Affordable Care Act.

  7. haggart: When someone uses the term “Obamacare” (always as a pejorative), I give them a puzzled look then say “Oh, do you mean Romneycare?,” because it was basically modeled on the plan put in place in Massachusetts during Romney’s tenure as governor. They change the subject quickly after that, which is jake with me.

  8. liberal was made a pejorative…
    i like it, but i do go to progressive, but then i feel defeated by the right

  9. I would submit my personal preference, for a 90% tax on wealth in excess of a billion dollars.
    No, it isn’t politically feasible anytime soon.

    But just introducing the idea, getting people to debate it, think about the billionaires, and openly question whether anyone is morally entitled to own such a fortune, is in itself valuable. Very few people can summon up a coherent defense of owning wealth measured in billions.

    Part of progress is just getting people to imagine something different, to shift the terms of debate.

  10. I’m very concerned about the Right’s “voucher” frame. People will be able to get insurance, schooling, etc., using “vouchers.” The word makes it sound like something you get as reward for a hard week’s work.

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