December 2006: Facing Some Hard Truths

Progressives need to relearn how they "frame" their message
December 1, 2006

The first time you come across them, it doesn’t seem to make any sense.

They could be family members, co-workers, neighbours, or friends--and yet you can’t understand them: the sometimes NDP, sometimes Conservative voter. The kind of people who give generously at anti-poverty fund-raisers, but look forward to their share of the tax-cut pie—as if the two are not connected.

How can someone hold both progressive and conservative values at the same time?

Dr. George Lakoff–an American linguist, cognitive scientist, and the father of “framing”–says it’s easy: that is the definition of a bi-conceptua l–someone who’s a little left and a little right, depending on the issue.

For progressive ideas to regain mainstream populist appeal, Dr. Lakoff says we need to spend a lot more time getting to know the bi-conceptuals among us, for they are our future audience.

In recent years, many progressives have gotten lost in a tautological debate about whether the left needs to swerve to the centre to win broad popular appeal. This debate is best known in the U.K. and Canada as “the Third Way,” and it has been hugely divisive.

Dr. Lakoff says: forget the Third Way. In fact, forget the notion of the centre. There is no ideological centre; it doesn’t exist. What exists, instead, are people who use one moral system in one area of their lives, and another for other parts of their lives: the bi-conceptuals.

“It is hardly unnatural… to be fiscally conservative and socially progressive,” Dr. Lakoff writes in his new book Thinking Points (

The good news is that our potential circle of friends is bigger than we might think. There is a legion of bi-conceptuals who are out there, ready and waiting to hear from progressives who can lead and inspire.

Getting to know bi-conceptuals, however, takes a considerable re-think of the way we communicate.

The reason bi-conceptuals aren’t voting for progressive governance is because our message frames fail to tap into the wellspring of principles, values, ideas, and beliefs we hold so dearly.

Message frames are core to Dr. Lakoff’s contribution to understanding why progressives have such a hard time communicating successfully to a broad audience. Dr. Lakoff submits that every word and idea exists within a frame. There are surface frames and deep frames. Surface frames touch surface emotions, while deep frames tap into deeply-held values, principles, beliefs--morality.

When we focus on “spin” or short-term “message boxes,” we are merely playing with surface frames. It’s not enough to simply use better words. To change people’s minds, to re-hardwire how they think about issues, we need to tap into deep frames that evoke core progressive values such as trust, openness, honesty.

We need to start focusing on values rather than issues, drawing on issues to represent values (rather than hoping for the inverse). We cannot persuade by using facts alone. Rather, we need to frame facts to support uniquely progressive morals and principles.

For those of us lost in a world of policy analysis, number crunching, or message spinning, this is easier said than done--partly because progressives are caught in a trap.

Actually, Dr. Lakoff says progressives fall into as many as 12 traps:

The Issue Trap: Progressives need to get out of their issue silos–whose issue is bigger, better, more important. We need to unite around a set of values that cut across issues and support the work we’re doing within our silos. It’s an old refrain, but united we stand.

The Poll Trap: “The job of leaders is to lead, not follow,” Dr. Lakoff writes. “Real leaders don’t use polls to find out what positions to take; they lead people to new positions.” This is worth considering and debating. While Lakoff is no fan of polling, taking a snapshot of public opinion can be helpful, if only to determine how far we need to take Canadians to secure greater support for progressive values. But his core point--that leaders cannot lead by merely following--is an essential consideration for those of us who have pored over polling results in search of the Holy Grail. Let’s consider using polls to understand how far we need to move people, rather than allowing polls to limit our ideas, our policies, our language, and our imagination. Let’s lead, not follow. Leading takes courage and vision. We have plenty of both.

The Laundry List Trap: In our view, this is a kissing cousin of the issue trap, where we see politicians going to voters with laundry lists of policies to cover off all the big issues. Dr. Lakoff notes that people vote based on values, connection, authenticity, trust, identity–they rarely vote for a single issue. Think about a Canadian example: In the last two federal elections, Canadians went to the polls looking for leadership they could trust post-sponsorship scandal–yet progressives responded with issue-driven laundry lists of policy proposals. Policy wonks don’t win people’s hearts; they often fail to win people’s heads. Which leads us to …

The Rationalism Trap: Progressives often assume hard facts will persuade voters, that voters are “rational” and vote in their self-interest on the issues. So we ply the public with facts and figures; we appeal to policy wonks without appealing to emotions, values, principles. Or worse, we negate a frame that our opponents are using; we react rather than act. We take their language, repeat their words, and try to make them our own. Example: Prime Minister Stephen Harper leads the debate over Canada’s military role in Afghanistan with the words “Support our troops.” NDP Leader Jack Layton responds with the words “Support our troops: send them home.” We repeat the language that taps into Conservative values and think adding on our own language will win people’s hearts and minds. We do this all the time on the left. Years of talk about fiscal deficits led progressives to talk about social deficits. The list goes on, and we’re all guilty of repeating our opponents’ frames. Dr. Lakoff is clear on this: If you negate a frame, you enforce the frame: Don’t use their language.

The No-Framing-Necessary Trap: You may have heard this one before: the truth shall set you free, it doesn’t need to be “framed” because the facts speak for themselves. Of course, we’ve tried this numerous times on the left. In a recent Straight Goods article, Malcolm French referred to this as doing the same things over and over again and expecting a different result. It’s time to do it differently.

The Policies-Are-Values-Trap: “Progressives regularly mistake policies for values,” Dr. Lakoff writes. Policies are supposed to reflect values of human dignity, common good, fairness, equality; progressives need to spend some time considering the difference. This is no small challenge.

The Centrist Trap: We addressed this at the beginning of our article. Dr. Lakoff says it’s counterproductive to try to move voters to a mythological centre–to move to the right–because it helps activate the right’s values and alienates those who are already with us.

The “Misunderestimating” Trap: We underestimate our potential audience by thinking people are just stupid for voting for conservative regimes (against their economic self-interest); all they need is to be educated with the real economic facts. “The reality is that those who vote conservative have their reasons, and we had better understand them,” Dr. Lakoff writes. “Conservative populism is cultural–not economic–in nature.” Dr. Lakoff recommends looking at conservative goals through conservative values to yield greater insight into why conservatives are as effective as they are in communicating those values.

The Reactive Trap: “When progressives react, we echo the conservative frames and values, so our message is not heard or, even worse, reinforces their ideas,” Dr. Lakoff writes. Progressives need to do the hard work required to change frames, not react to the frames created by Conservatives. This takes time, commitment, unity of values, and repetition of frames. Think tax cuts. It took years–and enormous repetition and discipline in messaging--for the tax-cut agenda to move from the fringes of neoliberal thought to the heart of popular culture. (Apologies for repeating the tax cut frame).

The Spin Trap: Dr. Lakoff calls spin a “dishonest use of surface linguistic frames to hide the truth.” Slogans alone are empty phrases. We know this intuitively, yet we still search for the perfect slogan as though it’s a simple matter of nailing down the morning crossword puzzle. “Conservative slogans work because they have been communicating their deep frames for decades,” Dr. Lakoff writes.

The Policyspeak Trap: We’re all guilty of this one–loading our language with jargon and bureaucratic solutions instead of talking in real-life terms that evoke real-life concerns. In journalism school, young reporters are taught to write the human side of the story, to show (not tell) what this means to “the guy in the truck” or to Joe Lunchbucket.” In journalism, they call this writing “context.” To Dr. Lakoff, this is about connecting with people at a deeper level.

The Blame Game Trap: Many progressives consider it their comfort blanket to blame the corporate-owned media, conservative lies, or lack of political leadership for our own inability to communicate our values, principles and beliefs in a way that resonates with a broader voting public. But there’s an old saying about people who blame others: There may be one finger pointing outward, but there are four other fingers pointing inward. Dr. Lakoff writes, “Yes, conservative leaders have regularly lied and used Orwellian language to distort the truth, and yes, the media have been lax, repeating the conservatives’ frames. But we have little control over that. We can control only how we communicate.”

Therein lies our challenge.

(Trish Hennessy is the director of the CCPA’s Inequality Project based in Toronto. Kerri-Anne Finn is the communications officer for the CCPA’s national office in Ottawa.)