Against the backdrop of a noisy Democratic nomination contest, the Republican Party slowly, but deliberately launched its framing strategy to win the general election. That effort is based on the coordinated use of 'violent rhetoric' to redefine the election through...
Against the backdrop of a noisy Democratic nomination contest, the Republican Party slowly, but deliberately launched its framing strategy to win the general election.
That effort is based on the coordinated use of 'violent rhetoric' to redefine the election through a 'violence frame.'
In an effort to win the presidential election, the Republican Party will not just put up a candidate and run a few ads saying he is the better on defense and taxes. Instead, right-wing pundits and politicians will work in unison to define the basic choice in the election by using violent language and logic.
The State of the Frame: Obama Holds It
So far, the Democratic side of the election has dominated the framing the race. In particular the Obama' campaign's language of 'hope' and 'change' has established a core logic defining the election that looks something like this:
[election] = [change]
[voting] = [new]
[victory] = [something new]
Now, the Obama camp had a hard time setting this frame in the beginning, but once the campaign won Iowa, it was fairly clear that the frame had been set. Since Iowa, there has not been any successful effort to reframe the election, although there has been an ongoing attempt to do so.
Specifically, the Clinton campaign has tried to reframe the election in terms of 'experience'--which has had limited success, but has largely failed for two reasons.
First, the Clinton framing effort was not well run, not well coordinated, and involved a largely top down push. Second, it failed because the Obama camp responded to the Clinton effort by relocating the 'experience' frame to the more vague and flexible concept o f 'leadership' and, ultimately, away from 'election.' Clinton said this should be an election about 'experience,' Obama countered by saying 'judgment' was the basis of 'experience,' and reasserted that the election was about 'hope' and 'change.' He still leads.
Now, just because the frame has been held by the Obama camp does not mean that the Clinton 'experience' frame did not have an impact on the race. It had a very big impact--on the Republican side.
As reported in mid-February, shortly after the Clinton camp rolled out its effort to frame the election in terms of 'experience,' the McCain campaign started using their framing.
That's right. First the Clinton camp said that this was an election about 'experience,' then the Obama camp re-asserted that it was about 'change,' then the McCain camp started using the Clinton 'experience' frame.
What voters are now seeing on the Republican nominee side of the aisle is a clumsy attempt by the McCain camp to use the 'experience' frame first provided by the Clinton camp. In a word, it is also a sign of how far behind the McCain camp is and will likely continue to be. After a long and closely contested Democratic nomination, the clearly established Republican nominee is imitating the not-so-successful framing efforts of the 2nd-place Democratic contender.
If imitation is the greatest form of flattery, then the Clinton campaign should be deeply moved by the McCain camp's 'ready-on-day-one' campaign. The fact that a decorated war veteran feels he needs to remind people that he has military experience should give Republican strategist reasons to pause if not panic. Mostly though, it is a testament to how effective the Obama's 'change' framing has been.
Efforts To Reframe Have Failed
In the wake of the string of losses to the Obama camp after Super Tuesday, the Clinton camp tried again to reframe the debate--this time trying to redefine the meaning of Obama's campaign rallies by pushing the logic of 'mass hypnosis.' Obama's speeches, which were widely talked about as the reason for his success on the campaign trail, were criticized as having turned voters into 'cult' followers. That criticism--while ridiculous to young voters deeply involved in the Obama campaign's on-the-ground effort--actually tapped into a deep fear about mass politics that many Americans hold, and it lured the Obama camp into a useless and distracting fight. But it did not change the frame.
The second effort at interference has been the relentless attempt by the Clinton campaign to argue that Barack Obama is not ready to be Commander in Chief. This effort has largely failed for another reason: American history. The reality of American government is that most Presidents have not been quite ready to be Commander in Chief when they were elected. In fact, one of the virtues of our system of government is that elected officials run the military, not the other way around. That feature is not by accident, but by design. The framers of the United States Constitution wanted it that way because they did not want a military junta to emerge. Ergo, from the moment we moved away from being a revolutionary nation where every leader was essentially a military leader, we have had a succession of Presidents who begin commanding the military on day one--never before.
Unfortunately for the Obama camp, instead of making the argument about American history and the nature of our Constitutional government, they decided to step up and criticize Hillary Clinton for supporting George W. Bush's war policies. Relatively speaking, that arguments was small and not very effective, but it did not matter much. Obama's 'hope' and 'change' frame still held, despite the attack on his readiness to lead U.S. military forces.
Right Redoubles Its Effort: Violent Rhetoric
Despite most of the news focusing on the Democratic side of the race, the big story in the election this week was the Republicans launch of their own effort at reframing the debate.
To win the election, the right is going to try to capitalize on a long-term effort by right-wing pundits to reframe every issue in terms of violent language and logic. This effort has been going on almost entirely under the radar of the mainstream media, as it is unfolding in books written by right-wing pundits and on right-wing TV shows that most big media reporters dismiss as insignificant.
Through this effort, the right has framed our entire system of politics through a logic of violence, the result of which is that Democrats and Liberals are not just seen as political opponents to Republicans, but as a collective mortal threat to the continuing existence of America.
The most common focus of this 'violent rhetoric' is national security.
Most political analysts stop short at understanding the right-wing frame of national security by focusing only on the phrase 'War on Terror.' Indeed, that is a key phrase used brought into American politics through a coordinated effort by the right. But that's not the frame.
The right-wing frame of national security takes the form of a much more general, violent concept of a 'war' for American survival on 'two fronts.' In this logic, American national security is endangered by two enemies, not just by one: (1) by a global movement of Islamic militants and (2) by an internal war against cultural militants--Liberals.
The vast majority of dedicated Republican voters has been subject to years and years of this framing effort through an ongoing conversation on TV, radio, and in books.
Moreover, this 'two front' logic does more than lay out a sustained criticism of Democrats. It leads many Republicans to the false conclusion that Democrats--somehow--share a common goal with terrorists: the defeat of George W. Bush, the defeat of the United States in Iraq. It even leads many Republicans to believe that Democrats harbor a secret desire to bring about the end of the United States as we know it.
Over the past five years, primarily through books and TV shows, these right-wing arguments have been well established in the minds of Republican voters. This week, the Republican party began its effort to use these arguments to frame the debate in the general election.
Their effort has been deceptively simple:
From the AP:
An Iowa Republican congressman said Friday that terrorists would be "dancing in the streets" if Democratic candidate Barack Obama were to win the presidency.
Rep. Steve King based his prediction on Obama's pledge to pull troops out of Iraq, his Kenyan heritage and his middle name, Hussein.
"The radical Islamists, the al-Qaida ... would be dancing in the streets in greater numbers than they did on Sept. 11 because they would declare victory in this war on terror," King said in an interview with the Daily Reporter in Spencer.
King said his comments were not meant to demean Obama but to warn how an Obama presidency would look to the world.
"His middle name does matter," King said. "It matters because they read a meaning into that." (link)
As foolish as Steve King's comment may seem at first glance, his effort has probably had more of an impact on the general election than all the combined efforts by the Clinton and McCain campaigns to question the 'experience' of the Obama camp.
By saying that Al Qaeda would rejoice if Obama is elected, King reinforced an already existing Republican frame that defines Democrats as violent threats to the future of this nation. When that happened, the core concepts that make up the public's understanding of the election shifted from 'hope' and 'change' to something more sinister and threatening:
[election] = [threat]
[voting] = [danger]
[victory] = [life or death]
Needless to say, those metaphors build a terrain that is much more favorable to Republicans than to Democrats and have an impact on voters that is far deeper than a simple ethnic slur or racist remark.
King's remark is not new, but is merely a reassertion of the violent rhetoric used by right-wing pundit Ann Counter in her writing and in her many appearances on broadcast TV. For almost a year, Coulter has been pushing the argument that Barack Obama--by virtue of his name--poses a terrorist threat to America. This violent argument has been ridiculed by some, but Coulter has continued to push in her columns and in her role as a pundit on a variety of major TV networks.
King's comment about Obama constitutes a Republican elected official adopting the violent rhetoric of a right-wing pundit.
To respond to King's assertion, all Americans--not just the Obama
camp--should reject the violent idea that an American leader by virtue of his name
somehow compliments the efforts of our enemies. We should all respond to Representative King by saying that the world watches our Presidential election with great interest, and
knows that candidates from both parties have chosen to run for office
out of deep respect for our Constitution. They all share a commitment
to guarding the country from attack. Moreover, we should insist that John McCain and the Republican leadership reject King's use of violent rhetoric as well as similar efforts from right-wing pundits.
Democrats can then push their own frame for foreign policy--a frame that does not use violent rhetoric or logic, but pushes regionalism, smart security, and stature. Accordingly, Democrats are
deeply dedicated to revisiting the regional tensions that were ignored
by the Republican obsession with pre-emptive military strikes on
sovereign nations. A Democratic president will usher in a new era of
smart security--a vision of foreign policy that gives our allies reason
to stand tall again and gives our enemies reason to pause.
Of course, the goal of the Republican Party is to win the election and that is the purpose of launching their violent rhetoric: to frame the election in such a way that defeats the Democratic candidate. The stakes however, are much greater than just who wins or loses the White House. If violent logic takes over America's political debate, voters will likely see a rapid shut down of the deliberative democracy on which our entire system of government depends.
When political debate is taken over by violent language and logic, the effect it has on the public sphere is poisonous and debilitating. Conversation itself shuts down, opening up the door for the return of a pre-modern form of politics antithetical to the free and open exchange of ideas through words.
It has been almost 50 years since this country experienced a sudden collapse in our political conversation and the sudden shift to violence that follows. The Republican effort to frame the Presidential debate with violent rhetoric has once again opened the door that leads in that direction. Americans everywhere and of all political perspectives should take note of it and reject it.
© 2008 Jeffrey Feldman, Frameshop