From Framing to Naming

spadeA recent Common Dreams article by David Michael Green proposes that a key part of Lakoffian re-framing is re-naming conservatives, their programs and their ideological positions. But while Lakoff proposes re-framing as a non-confrontational way of showing conservatives the validity of progressive positions and ideas, Green’s re-naming is designed more to reassure and energize progressives and drive fence-sitters over to the progressive cause.

There’s some logic to both tactics, though they’re hard to mix. Before we assess the preferability of one or the other, let’s take a look at some examples of ‘re-naming’. Before we start, let’s recall the classic name game confrontation: the terminology surrounding the abortion rights debate. To progressives, the two sides are ‘pro-choice’ and ‘anti-choice’, the issue is the ‘terminating of a pregnancy’ involving a ‘fetus’, and the imagery is a woman dead from hemorrhage after a back-alley abortion, a coat-hanger beside her covered in blood. To conservatives, the two sides are ‘pro-life’ and ‘pro-abortion’, the issue is the ‘killing of an unborn baby’, and the image is a blood-covered, magnified-to-life-size ‘child’ in a garbage can. In the shrill shouting matches on the subject, each side steadfastly sticks to its names, its terminology, its imagery. There is no middle ground, no room for compromise, no point even in debate.

Bush’s neocons have used this same naming technique to establish a conservative frame for each of the issues in its agenda. Progressives have cried foul, ridiculing but not (until now) using alternative names for these agenda items — names that are “just the right stretch from today’s conventional wisdom — distinctive, and far enough to do damage without not so far as to be immediately dismissed for lacking credibility (e,g, fascist)”. Let’s consider what some of those names might be. The ones suggested by Green are in italics:

Conservative Name Progressive Re-Name
conservatives regressives
war on terror war against Islamic oil states
private accounts plan pension theft plan
patriot act abrogation of civil freedoms act
no child left behind act education underfunding act
clear skies initiative air pollution legalization initiative
digital rights management corporate price-gouging protection
privatization diversion of public property to private interests
death tax estate tax
meritocracy polarization of wealth
family values regressive values
healthy forests initiative give-away of public forests to corporate developers initiative
tort reform; class action fairness act corporate crime indemnification act
Club for Growth lobby billionaires against government regulation lobby
deregulation removal of consumer protection
‘free’ trade unfair trade
tax cuts service cuts
Progress for America lobby corporations for kleptocracy lobby
creationism teaching alternative laws forced teaching of discredited Christian dogma in public schools
economic globalization oligopoly corporatism

We also need to take the initiative in naming some programs with similar progressive frames that have no conservative name at all, because they’re not on the conservative agenda. But as Lakoff points out, they might get on the agenda, or at least conservatives might have to acknowledge them, if progressives consistently hammered away at them, as Dennis Kucinich did during last year’s US campaign:

  • a legacy for our children
  • a healthy life with decent nutrition and health care for all
  • a healthy, responsible, properly-managed, robust, self-sufficient and sustainable economy
  • sound stewardship of the Earth
  • affordable education that equips all children to make a decent living
  • the right to a living wage, decent housing and safe neighbourhoods
  • moral regulation to temper the excesses of the untrammeled market and greedy and unethical big business
  • freedom from unreasonable harassment and detention by untrained and overzealous government bureaucrats
  • mutual respect for, and collaboration with, all democratic nations

Green wants to use the ‘us progressive — them regressive’ frame for all the relabeling of the conservative agenda, but I’m not sure this would work — he may be too caught up in the progressive frame of thinking to realize that ‘going back to the old days’ is a good thing in the eyes of many conservatives and moderates with selective memories and nostalgia that grows with age. In fact, retro is fashionable. But Green’s heart is in the right place. If we start using the alternative names on the right side until they become common parlance, we could at least establish that the conservative agenda and framing are not the only intrinsically moral ones.

The issue of course is, Who are we trying to impress? If it’s progressives, we’re preaching to the choir, though at least giving them some better words for the hymns. If it’s regressives, we might as well save our breath — all we’ll do is radicalize and inflame them to more extreme positions and more aggressive action to defend them. If it’s moderates, we need to acknowledge that most Americans consider themselves moderates and many of them resent being forced to take sides on issues, and dislike hyperbole from either side. And. like it or not, without hyperbole, confrontation, outrage and spin in political matters, there is often no passion at all, allowing the status quo to continue unabated.

So we should probably acknowledge that these new names are mainly for us. They allow progressives to be active instead of reactive, positive instead of negative, on the offensive instead of the defensive, passionate instead of conceptual.

It’s a start.

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31 Responses to From Framing to Naming

  1. Michael in Hong Kong says:

    With regard to describing the fiscal and environmental irresponsibility currently around, I’ve always thought that a very powerful & accurate phrase is “stealing from our children” as in “the Bush ‘Stealing from our Children’ policy”.

  2. Stephen says:

    Agreed. Everytime I hear Republican talking points in the Media, or them coming out of the President’s mouth, I can’t but hear a little voice in my head say, “No Future Here.”What’s missing is an honest, open look at tomorrow, something that is needed if we’re going to make it past today.

  3. Marc says:

    Interesting idea. I think you made a few good suggestions with names, and I especially like the idea of referring to ‘conservatives’ as regressives. Some of the names probably won’t fly because they are either too long or just openly hostile.Now, if you can get some of the big liberal blogs to start using these terms, we might actually get somewhere.

  4. A coule of years ago when the federal government of Canada was trying to pass a draconian First Nations Governance Act, they used the word “accountability” a sa key plank in the agenda. The implication of course, was that First Nations are NOT accountable and therefore, the federal government needs to pass legislation to ensure this.But of course “accountability” is absolutely a First Nations issue. It has been from time immemorial, when our own governments needed to ensure that the decisions they were taking were in the best interests of the community.And so, instead of reframing the issues, which would have looked like running away from it, several of us involved in Aboriginal political organizations went right at it and reclaimed the word, redefining it and taking it back from those who would define “accountability” on our behalf. Sometimes you need new words and sometimes you have to grab back the ones they stole from you.

  5. Raging Bee says:

    Nice try, but calling conservatives “regressives” won’t work, simply because most people don’t associate truly “conservative” values with “regression.” Also, calling “family values” “regressive values” will imply that “progressives” consider family units to be “regressive” or “obsolete.”For you to call conservatives “regressive,” after explicitly stating that agriculture and civilization were bad ideas, and that humans were actually happier as hunters and gatherers, is beyond ridiculous.

  6. Helen Danger says:

    Fantastic list! Hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to shorten some of your phrases to make them even more catchy.Conservatives –> Regressives (perfect!)War on terror –> War for OilPrivate (personal) accounts plan –> Anti Retiree PlanPatriot Act –> Police State ActNo Child Left Behind Act –> No Child (just that. sounds ominous)Clear Skies Initiative –> Polluter Reward InitiativeDigital Rights Managment –> Computer LockdownPrivatization –> Corporate WelfareDeath Tax –> Estate Tax (wonderful!)Meritocracy –> Social DarwinismFamily Values –> NeoPuritanismHealthy Forests Initiative –> Deforestation ProgramTort Reform –> Corporate Lawyer GiveawayClub for Growth lobby –> Club for Greed lobbyCreationism Teaching Alternative Laws –> Anti-Science Movement Economic Globalization –> Pro-Sweatshop

  7. Helen Danger says:

    Hmmm…that last comment was really hard to read. Lessee what happens if I try again…Fantastic list! Hope you don’t mind, but I’d like to shorten some of your phrases to make them even more catchy. Old Label: Conservatives…New Label: Regressives (perfect!) Old Label: War on terror…New Label: War for Oil Old Label: Private (personal) accounts plan…New Label: Anti Retiree Plan Old Label: Patriot Act…New Label: Police State Act Old Label: No Child Left Behind Act…New Label: No Child (just that. sounds ominous) Old Label: Clear Skies Initiative…New Label: Polluter Reward System Old Label: Digital Rights Managment…New Label: Computer Lockdown Old Label: Privatization…New Label: Corporate Welfare Old Label: Death Tax …New Label: Estate Tax (wonderful!) Old Label: Meritocracy…New Label: Social Darwinism Old Label: Family Values…New Label: NeoPuritanism Old Label: Healthy Forests Initiative…New Label: Deforestation Program Old Label: Tort Reform …New Label: Corporate Lawyer Grab bag Old Label: Club for Growth lobby …New Label: Club for Greed lobby Old Label: Creationism Teaching Alternative Laws…New Label: Anti-Science Movement Old Label: Economic Globalization…New Label: Pro-Sweatshop

  8. Helen Danger says:

    Well that didn’t turn out much better…Anyway…Here’s a label I just came up with for social conservatism: Christian Sharia. Call the individuals who practice it Christian Jihadists. No, it doesn’t make factual sense, but it sounds bad. Which is the modus operandi the right has been using all this time. Okay…Now I’m done.

  9. Dave Pollard says:

    Thanks everyone. Amazing the power of names and titles, isn’t it? Some of my best articles went nowhere because they had cumbersome names, while some mediocre ones with catchy names got a lot of buzz. Chris’ comment on ‘taking back’ stolen names is interesting. If we applied that to Bush, most of his legilative acts would be nameless! Helen’s names are quite clever, especially Anti-Science Movement, Pro-Sweatshop Lobby, and Police State Act.

  10. Mike says:

    Apparently the ‘Luntz playbook’ was recently scanned and posted to the web in pdf format. This is all about framing. See

  11. shari says:

    I’m with you on the renaming, Dave, but the NCLB rename is a bit off…public education evisceration act might be better because it’s less about underfunding, more about dismantling public ed.tx

  12. Great idea, but as commentators above suggest, it needs a redraft. As one person noted, many of the names are too hostile. Many are too long.But the many thing is, many miss the point. The purpose of reframing is to send a message – to infuse a meaning – with the phrase. Many of these lables don’t do that. They don’t need to sound bad – they just need to point to where the thing is going. Bush’s own policies condemn him – let clarity do the work.I should add as well that we are working against a coalition of two distinct groups: economic conservatives, who want to privatize everything; and social conservatives, who want to turn us into a theocracy.It is important to pick the right issue for the right group. Sometimes there are two. The war on Iraq, for example, appeared to economic conservatives, who had hoped to set up an ‘Open for Business’ Iraq, and to social conservatives, who had hoped to strike a blow against Islam.

  13. So here we go then:Conservatives –> ConservativesStay on mesage here.War on terror –> …nothingThere’s no such thing. Break it down. Bush is lumping in some good things (preventing terrorism) with some bad things (invading Iraq). Defeat this phrase with specificity, and in particular:–> occupation of Afghanistan–> invasion of Iraq–> torture–> arbitrary detensionYou get the idea.Private accounts plan –> elimination of social securityPatriot Act –> noneDon’t refer to the act. Note that an alternative name sounds cutesy and whiney. Refer to specific provisions of the act:–> Detention without trial–> Torture assisted interrogation–> Draft–> Silence dissentAs in: The patriot act allows Bush to silence dissent, which is why legal actions against Churchill went unchallenged.Associate, associate, associate.No Child Left Behind Act –> School privatizationClear Skies Initiative –> pro-pollution programDigital Rights Managment –> content controlPrivatization –> privatizationConservatives hate that label. They try to avoid it wherever possible – that’s it’s not caled ‘social security privatization’. Staf with it, but stay on message: privatization means the giving of public assets to corporations and friends of the government.Death Tax –> unearned wealth taxMeritocracy –> kleptocracyFamily Values –> homogenizationDon’t mix this with anti-religious labels – we want people to be free to practice religion, but we don’t want the same model to be enforced against everyone. The the phrase ‘homo’ in the world will make them squeamish.Healthy Forests Initiative –> deforestationTort Reform –> civic irresponsibilityClub for Growth lobby –> business lobbyAgain, let the bare facts condemn themCreationism Teaching Alternative Laws –> unscientific, ornon-scientificAs in ‘teaching of unscientific biology’Economic Globalization –> corporate governancePlay to the idea here that corporate interests are usurping the capacity of people to govern themselvesStay on message…We are for: a just peaceThey are for: an unjust warWe are for: diversityThey are for: conformityWe are for: earned wealthThey are for: unearned (or stolen) wealthWe are for: freedom of expressionThey are for: the party lineWe are for: social securityThey are for: poverty

  14. Conservatives vs. ProgressivesWar on Terror vs. Global JusticePrivate accounts plan vs. Social SecurityPatriot Act vs. Freedom and DemocracyNo Child Left Behind Act vs. Learning (or: open learning, free learning, universal learning)Clear Skies Initiative vs. Clean airDigital Rights Managment vs. Open source (or open access, or digital freedom)Privatization vs. Your (or Our)As in: we believe in our schools. Or: they are dismantling your program and giving it to themselves.Death Tax vs. social responsibility (or something like that – the idea is that he is repaying society for what it gave him)Meritocracy vs. Fairness, justiceFamily Values vs. Personal valuesAs in: they are trying to impose their family values, but we have the right to hold to our personal values. because we have values, dammit – never let them take that away.Healthy Forests Initiative vs. the wilderness (take the ‘Marlboro man image away from them – we are the ones who value and are at home in nature, the wilderness, etc. — we <i.understand nature, they fear it)Tort Reform vs. ResponsibilityClub for Growth lobby vs. The people, citizensCreationism… –> Science (not evolution – don’t defend evolution, defend science)Economic Globalization –> Global freedomThe idea here is that globalism is asymmetric – corporations get all the rights, we get none. They want free movement of capital? Fine, we want free movement of people. Point out that we (the people) are being denied what they are getting.

  15. Dave Pollard says:

    Stephen: Wow — excellent suggestions, thanks. With everyone’s ideas I’m going to have to re-do the table and start circulating it around.

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