Politics, especially American politics, puts pressure on words like "liberal", "conservative" and "values" as they are used more as weapons than as tools for communication.
We had a fun show last week with Geoff Nunburg about the language of politics. In a little bit, I'll ruminate a bit more about the language of politics.
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But back to the language of politics.
On the air, we didn't talk much about competing ways of "framing" the same issue. George Lakoff has recently been arguing that the main reason that Democrats lose elections is that Republicans have been masters at framing the issues, while Democrats have not been. We didn't get very deeply into this idea on the air. Too bad, because Nunberg has some pretty interesting things to say both about Lakoff's claims about framing in general and about Lakoff's particular suggestions about how certain issues might best be framed by the democrats.
In one way, it seems to me right, maybe even trivially so, that politics is bound to involve a lot of competition over ways of "framing" a set of policy choices. There are two reasons for this -- one having to do with the nature of politics and the other having to do with just what we're doing when we're "framing" a set of issues. Politics is about distributing benefits and burdens. Somebody gets a benefit and somebody, possibly a distinct somebody, has to bear a burden. That doesn't mean that politics is necessarily a zero-sum game. Sometimes we all win and sometimes we all lose.
People tend to want to see their benefits maximized and their burdens diminished. Lawrence Mitchell, who was our guest awhile back on our episode about corporations, described corporations as great "externalizing" engines. I think he meant by that that corporations are expert at pushing the social costs of what they do onto third parties. Though corporations may be the most efficient and ruthless externalizers of all, I don't think they're alone. Indeed, we all want to push as much social costs as we can onto somebody else, while receiving as much social benefit as we possibly can. Kant once held that who "wills the end" necessarily "wills the means." He seemed to think that willing the end without willing the means involves some kind of incoherence. There may be something to Kant's thought, if we restrict ourselves just to ends that I must bring about tr
But what does this have to do with the war of the frames? The answer, I think, is that "framing" is really a matter of representing, especially of representing in normatively laden terms. When we frame the issues in competing ways we are, in effect, offering competing narratives about who deserves to enjoy what benefits and bear what burdens.
I also think that many of the narratives we tell ourselves are thoroughly self-serving. They represent us and ours as the deserving recipients of benefits and the undeserving recipients of burdens, while representing "the other" as the undeserving recipients of benefits and the deserving recipients of burdens. A whole lot of politics involves a competition over normatively laden construals, I think. And I suspect that often he who wins the battle over normative construal has gone a very long way toward winning the day.
You might wonder whether there's an objective right and wrong in the battle over construals. This is a tricky question. Certainly, one can misconstrue and misrepresent all sorts of matters and one can do in service of some political agenda or other. Take the so-called controversy over natural selection vs intelligent design. Every even marginally scientifically literate person knows, or should know, that intelligent design is not a serious scientific hypothesis that deserve to be taught in any science class anywhere. But proponents of intelligent design in order to promote a certain anti-science, religiously inspired political agenda have "brilliantly" sought to "frame" intelligent design as a rival scientific hypothesis that deserves teaching along side natural selection and other naturalist mechanisms of evolution. In this case, we have a clear example of an attempt at framing that one might expect or at least may be debunked merely by steadfastly drawing public attention to the real scientific facts of the matter. But even here that thought may be too hopeful. The forces of darkness are so organized, determined, and entrenched in our political culture that they may win the battle over the construals despite the fact that the frame they seek to impose is a framework of misrepresentation and ignorance rather than truth and knowledge. It is frightening that men who ought to know better -- Bill Frist, MD, to name just one -- are now spouting this nonsense.
If it is politically difficult to combat even an attempt at framing that rests on such patent and pernicious falsehoods and misrepresentations what hope is there where the objective truth of the matter, if there is one, is even harder to discern. Indeed, I have to admit that I tend to doubt that there are objective facts of the matter about who should pay what taxes, about when a fetus becomes a person deserving the protection of the law, and even about who is entitled to "marry" whom? What there are instead are competing normative frameworks that construe these matters in different terms and no external authority by which we may adjudicate which normative framework better gets at the truth of the matter. To be sure, our competing frameworks do sometimes give way to a more encompassing normative consensus. This is what has happened at many moments of great social progress and enlightenment. But there is no simple recipe for making that happen. Certainly, there is no antecedent guarantee that it can be made to happen in every case.
So what does that mean about the language of politics? Perhaps it means that political discourse will always suffer from a certain fragmentation and division. Perhaps politics will always involve a battle of competing construals and frames. We may be destined to often talk past and at each other, rather than to each other. One can hope for a more deliberative politics in which we reason together about how to live our shared lives. But that is really only a hope and one far from being realized at this particular moment in history.