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Power/Knowledge/Framing

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Written by Shawn Fremstad   
Thursday, 29 September 2011 09:45

In a recent post, Jared Bernstein notes that he doesn't "put a whole lot of weight on the importance of how issues are framed" arguing instead that "underlying power dynamics are what matters most, and history is littered with carefully, compellingly framed arguments that lost because one side had deeper pockets and greater access than the other." Relying in part on a NYT op-ed by Stan Greenberg from earlier this year, he concludes that progressives must "re-establish faith in the institution of government ... and that has to come from explanation, evidence, and effective implementation of government programs." 

A fair amount of what goes under the heading of "framing" these days is facile and I'm not really a fan of the word (a better description might be "constructing compelling narratives that are based on progressive values and don't just throw a lot of numbers at people" but that's a lot to say). I imagine Jared has some of the more facile stuff in mind when he critiques framing, but I can't say that I'm persuaded that "explanation, evidence, and effective implementation" are any more effective. Don't get me wrong, I love doing careful policy analysis and hope it makes a difference, but I also think doing it without paying as much (or more) attention to framing is folly for progressives. 

In their masterful Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Fight over Taxing Inherited Wealth, which looks at the 2001 estate tax battle, Michael Graetz and Ian Shapiro, show how overreliance on "evidence" and underreliance on framing contributed to our defeat:

Publications from the more activist anti-repeal think tanks ... were premised on the conviction that giving people more accurate information would do the trick. ... The notion that the best defense is a statistically well-supported argument grounded in social science informed much of the 2001 political resistent to repeal. Unlike their predecessors in 1926, who also made moral arguments about the unfairness of inherited wealth and America not being a society based on pedigree, the opponents of repeal at century's end struck to the facts, that the estate tax was not really double taxation once you understand the step-up-in-basis rules, and so on. Like John Dewey, the groups working against repeal ... assumed that if people could only be enlightened about the scientific realities, their hearts and minds would follow.

Graetz and Shapiro argue that "compelling narrative" often trumps a "well-supported argument" because it is more consistent with how people really think about issues. 

... contrast John Dewey's faith in the democratic power of "scientific" argument with the psychologist Jerome Bruner's account of how people think. Bruner contends that a narrative mode of understanding reality runs alongside our rational scientific capacities and is never displaced by them. The narrative mode is relentlessly particular, concerned with people and their stories. It lacks the top-down character of scientific theorizing. A narrative is something you relate to, rather than something you are persuaded by. ... 'A good story and a well-formed argument," Bruner insists, 'are different natural kinds.' This is why a compelling narrative so often trumps a well-supported arguments. Winning political movements embrace compelling stories that people can relate to, that people can feel part of.

Graetz and Shapiro's reference to wining political movements bring us back to the questions of power and faith in government. It seems unlikely that the underlying power dynamics in 1925-26—when Andrew Mellon spearheaded a drive to repeal the estate tax that was unsuccessful even though Republicans controlled both houses of Congress and the Presidency—were more in our side's favor then than they were in 2001 when repeal succeeded.

I think the more important lesson here is that winning political movements are ones that build their own power and, ideally, transform underlying power relationships, as the progressive movement did in the first half of the 20th century and the civil rights movement did in the latter half. More than explanation and evidence, this takes, as Graetz and Shapiro put it, "a compelling narrative ... [that] make[s] people associate [our] preferred course of action with their preexisting disposition, their ideological committment, and their view of how the world works." This deeper kind of framing is really an indispensible part of any movement to transform underlying power dynamics. 

The same goes for rebuilding faith in progressive government. (The modifier progressive is important here—government also does things like repeal the estate tax, invade Iraq, and enact laws that redistribute wealth away from working people to a small elite; there is no reason to bolster faith in these types of actions just because they are done by a government). As the indispensible work that has been done over the last several years by the Demos Center for the Public Sector shows, a sophisticated understanding of framing and related cognitive research is a fundamental part of this task.

Finally, it's worth noting that a lot of public issues don't necessarily involve conflicts between people wth  "deeper pockets or greater access" on one side and less money and power on the other. Both "welfare reform" as it played out in the 1990s and the death penalty are examples of issues where wealthy people and private foundations established by wealthy people have funded both sides of the issue. As a result, how these issues are framed can be especially important, as has been shown by researchers like Martin Gilens (in his Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy) and Frank Baumgartner (in his research showing how changes in how anti-death penalty activists framed their case has produced a "marked shift in aggregate public opinion" and a "dramatic decline in the willingness of juries to impose death sentences"). 

Comments (1)Add Comment
Fiction vs. Non-fiction
written by Elwood Anderson, September 29, 2011 12:39
The power of fiction vs. non-fiction is clearly illustrated by the number of conservatives who have been influenced the Ayn Rand novels, vs. the number that are influenced by rational arguments made in non-fiction books. People appear to want to be moved, not enlightened. Human clinging to religions from antiquity is more evidence of this.

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