Most of what I read about framing has difficulty getting past the idea of the response. If they say this, how should we respond? It's definitely a great place to begin. Thinking about how we respond to the opposition's language...

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Jeffrey Feldman, Editor-in-Chief
Frameshop, 01/10/2005

Most of what I read about framing has difficulty getting past the idea of the response. If they say this, how should we respond? It's definitely a great place to begin. Thinking about how we respond to the opposition's language is a good first step to seeing how they set their frame and how it controls the political landscape of ideas. There have been many great discussions as a result. And yet, whether or not it is actually possible to take control of political debate simply by responding to your opponent's terms is a question that is not discussed often enough. Is the knockout punch possible?

In a word: no. This idea of winning with one fatal blow is less an act of framing than the result of our honest and understandable desire for a quick and dramatic win. The real key to winning is not landing a knockout punch, but walking out of their ring and into our own game.

Beat The Ring, Not the Boxer
In an ideal world, controlling debate means never having to respond. But we are not in an ideal world. The opposition's spin machine has us all but pinned. As a result, many of us harbor a progressive debating fantasy about the sudden, unexpected punch--the well-placed phrase that gets our back off the ropes and lands the other side face down on the mat.

While discussions of framing often feed this idea (I've done it many times myself), I want to suggest that responses alone are not going to take back the debate. A well-frame is not the boxer on the other side of the ring. The frame is the ring. And no matter how many good punches we land, we are never going to change the fact that we are in a boxing match controlled by the opposition.

Here's an example of what I mean.

In the latest round of the Social Security match being promoted by the Bush White House, Vice President Cheney argued that Social Security had "problems" that need to be "confronted." Take a quick look at how our Vice President sets up the fight:

"The time has come for an honest, straightforward, and realistic discussion about the future of the Social Security system. The system has been in steady service, uninterrupted, for nearly 70 years. It has fulfilled the promise announced by President Franklin Roosevelt -? providing vital income to millions of seniors, and assuring generations of working people that their retirement years would have some decent measure of security. For today's generation of senior citizens, the system is strong and fiscally sound. But younger workers are understandably concerned about whether Social Security will be around for them when they need it. The problem is simple to state: With an aging population, and a steadily falling ratio of workers to retirees, the system is on a course to eventual bankruptcy."

-- Vice President Cheney, Catholic University, Jan. 13, 2005

Now, when I read this clip from the Vice President's speech, I feel it like a right hook across my chin. My first instinct is to raise my gloves, lower my head, and unleash my knockout blow--which would be some kind of definitive financial statement about Social Security not being in bankruptcy at all.

Ah, but punching back at the Vice President's words with my own statements about the solvency of Social Security would be like kicking Shae Stadium when the Mets lose. It may feel good and make a lot of noise, but it won't change the outcome of this game or the next.

The game that the Vice President is inviting us to play is hidden in the word "bankruptcy" and in the unfeeling terms that he uses to discuss this program that has stood by Americans since the the Great Depression. The Vice President wants the debate on Social Security to be a fought in the accounting department using the language of deposits and withdrawals and the imagery of cold, steel deposit boxes half-filled with $10 bills.

But wait a minute. Does America believe that Social Security is about financial accounting? Absolutely not. That's not our game.

Americans believe that this country is strongest when all stand together, and weakest when we are forced to stand alone. With Social Security by our side and watching out for us, Americans feel confident about the future. Nonetheless, the Bush White House is determined to hurt Social Security, leaving Americans alone to fend for themselves in retirement and times of need.

As FDR stated so clearly in 1935, Social Security is not about the accumulation of money, but about the vision we hold as Americans that the unity of the nation is the key to our strength. In difficult times--like the Great Depression or September 11--certain voices rise up that try to convince us that America is a nation that values selfishness and greed over collective well-being. But we have always been able to distinguish those words from our true commitment to standing together.

Vice President Cheney's use of the term "bankruptcy" in his remarks about Social Security is a sucker punch intended to knock the wind out of the American public and lure them into a fight over accounting in Social Security. That is not the fight we want and that is not the fight we will ever win.

The Social Security debate is about strength through unity as a key American ideal. And we establish the rules of that debate not by using Dick Cheney's banking terms, but by remembering FDR's language about the strength of American being rooted in our belief in the general well-being, and not being suckered by those who promote selfishness and greed.

Walking out of the Ring
Making the decision to walk out of the ring is probably the hardest decision that those of us dedicated to winning debate will make. It's a frightening choice the first time we make it because at first it feels like we are quitting. That's why it is so important to have a place to go before we leave their ring.

The structuring frame that allows us to generate new language will come easier for some debates than for others. For me, in this debate on Social Security, it was difficult to really understand what frame could provide a new place to go until I read and listened to FDR's speech on Social Security and Welfare from 1935. But there are many ways to get there.

The key, of course, is not to drop our guard and let the opposition knock us down. But beware of the temptation to land a knockout punch while still in the opposition's ring. Until we are playing a game of our own design, even our best punches will be little more than sparring.

© Jeffrey Feldman 2005, Frameshop

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