Framing the Debate

    Cross-posted from the Rocky Mountain Chronicle.

    Every time President Bush holds an official press conference or makes a televised speech, I get loads of emails promoting the latest drinking game: Take a shot whenever he says the word evil. Pass the bottle if he invokes the mushroom cloud, doomsday scenario. Five minutes into the floorshow, you’re so crocked, you don’t care if he smirks when he correctly pronounces a three-syllable word.
    Not to be a buzzkill, but Jeffrey Feldman would like you to take the structure behind the speeches a bit more seriously. A cultural anthropologist and author of Framing the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections), Feldman deconstructs President Bush’s speeches into key concepts that resonate with American voters. Maddening as that might be to progressives who view the president’s communication skills with great contempt for their simplicity (in both words, themes and pronunciations), Feldman believes we can learn from Bush. He starts with the concept of framing.

    In its most basic terms, framing triggers mental images and emotional responses in audience members’ minds. To Feldman, frames invoke “principles and values through keywords, metaphors and strategic phrases.” He attributes Bush’s electoral wins to persistent, decades-long framing of the conservative worldview of smaller government, Christian faith and national defense, among other positions with which voters identify.

    Jeffrey Feldman, author, blogger, and cultural anthropologist, wants you to start framing the debate.

    Meanwhile, Democrats tie themselves in knots talking about abstract policies and worrying about finding just the right words to convey their high-minded ideals. And in the case of Senator John Kerry during the 2004 presidential debates, it sounds like mealy-mouthed mush.

    Through the lens of framing and using the backdrop of 15 presidential speeches, Feldman identifies and analyzes the key constructs of each speech. The most successfully framed speeches use the same recipe: keyword or phrase repetition and reaching back to great historical moments. Therefore, the subject of the speech is easily remembered and gains instant credibility.

    For instance, in President Bill Clinton’s second inaugural address, he expertly combats a common Republican refrain – government is bad – using framing. In the speech, Clinton repeatedly refers to government not as an intangible organizational system, but as a person, albeit one who needs help from the citizenry to set new goals and strive for self-actualization. Weaving in images of Martin Luther King’s vision of overcoming adversity and promoting the American Dream, it’s classic Bill Clinton as therapist-in-chief. In the context of the 1990s, it was very successful.

    Flash forward to Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” State of the Union address following the then-recent terrorist attacks. The frame invokes darker concepts of doom and fear to heighten America’s acceptance of his zero-sum logic: You’re with us or against us; follow me and live; engage in diplomacy and die. Feldman found that Bush used the word evil or a synonym for it 5,100** five times in his 48-minute speech.

    At his website,, Feldman deciphers the framing of current speeches and contemporary policy issues. He also offers tips there and in his book on how activists can pick out the frames themselves and become media processors rather than mere readers.

    He is, however, quick to point out the difference between a frame, which he describes as a larger concept to convey values and principles, and spin, an inherently deceptive technique to provide cover for errors and/or misinterpreted statements.

    Transforming the political debate through framing may finally inspire progressives to abandon the old, ineffective paradigms of signing petitions, wailing about Fox News and shouting lame slogans. The platforms provided by letters to the editor, op-eds, blogs, social networking sites and public meetings give people plenty of opportunities to be heard. It’s simply a matter of using the chance in the spotlight wisely. Ranting doesn’t count.

    But do remember to repeat, repeat, repeat.

    **Correction: “The number 5100 in the chart on p. 166  of Framing the Debate is a copy edit mistake. The correct number is 5.  While President Bush was responsible for the framing in his 2002 State of the Union, the typographical errors in the book belong to me. My apologies to the readers and my gratitude for bringing this editing oversight to my attention.”  — Jeffrey Feldman

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