‘Make America Great Again’ – why are liberals losing the war of soundbites?
From Donald Trump’s triumphant slogan to the Brexiteers’ ‘take back control’, political discourse is saturated with powerful images or ‘frames’. Should the left fight fire with fire – or will that make things even more toxic?
Sunday 13 November 2016 16.00 GMT
Donald Trump has done pretty well for someone ridiculed by most of the liberal media as an incoherent babbler. His campaigning speeches were just “word salad”, people chuckled. But the speeches worked. And they did so because Trump is a brilliant and careful rhetorician. His can-do slogan of renewed domestic glory – “Make America Great Again” – won over Hillary Clinton’s … well, what was hers, again? Oh, yes, “Stronger Together” – which met exactly the same fate as the Remain campaign’s insipid “Stronger In”.
In the language of political discourse analysis, greatness and strength are both examples of a frame: a guiding metaphor or image for a political argument. It is striking how often Trump deployed the frames of beauty, happiness and optimism: “You’re going to be so happy; you’re going to be so proud,” he would beam, even as he curried favour with racists. Frames can inspire. But they can also deceive.
As another example, we hear a lot about “the British people” these days. The three judges who ruled on the Article 50 challenge were called “enemies of the people” by the Daily Mail, while the Telegraph spoke of “the judges against the British people”, even though the decision defended British citizens’ right to parliamentary representation against the arbitrary exercise of executive power. This singular “British people” has come into peculiar focus since the Brexit vote. As Theresa May said again this month: “The British people, the majority of the British people, voted to leave the European Union.” The “people” voted; now the supposed “will of the people” must be respected. Except they, and it, are purely imaginary.
The Brexit vote was carried by 27% of the population, or 37% of the electorate; slightly fewer voted for Remain; the opinion of the rest of us is unknown. Clearly, the picture of a single British “people” with a unified “will” on this issue is a fiction. (Nor, for the same reasons, did “the American people” vote just for Donald Trump: more people voted for Clinton, and about 42% of the electorate didn’t bother to vote at all.) “The British people”, then, is just another frame, to bolster the leave campaign’s successful deployment of the frame of taking back control. Now, it appears the country has a choice between a “hard Brexit” or a “soft Brexit”: a frame that may seem to favour the pro-EU side if one thinks of hard and soft landings, or their opponents if one favours tumescent forcefulness.
Frames are often imposed by means of subtly manipulative language – Unspeak, or argumentative soundbites. (The idea that Britain should “take back control of our borders”, for example, dishonestly implied that we had no control over them beforehand.) But the same frame can be invoked by many different forms of words. Also part of the leave campaign’s “control” frame, for example, was the emphasis on making our own laws and reclaiming our sovereignty (something else we already had, as evidenced by the very fact we are able to leave the EU).
Political arguments are often conducted as a clash of frames. Control or strength? Security or empathy? And successful social and political reforms can be accompanied by clever reframings. In the US, “gay marriage” or “same-sex marriage” was redesignated “marriage equality”. Now, the frame was not one of homosexuality, but one of equality: of simple fairness. And in this way, or so it might appear, prejudice was overcome. On the other hand, the faultline over abortion rights in America is symbolised by the incommensurable frames in which the issue is couched: one side uses the frame of life (“pro-life”), the other the frame of choice (“pro-choice”), and never the twain shall meet.
Frames are all around us. They saturate political and social discourse. Some think this is just the way mass political communication is bound to work, but others say it doesn’t have to. Must we always fight framing with framing, or is it time to try something different?
In recent years, it has become fashionable in political psychology to say that, broadly speaking, liberals and conservatives respond positively to different sorts of frame. This is one of the ideas promoted by the cognitive linguist George Lakoff, whose popular book on framing, Don’t Think of an Elephant!, became a battle manual for despondent Democrats after George W Bush’s second election victory. In an earlier book, Moral Politics, Lakoff suggested that a major difference between conservatives and liberals lies in their mental models of the family. Republicans love a “strict father” frame, while Democrats prefer a “nurturant parent” picture.
In this sense, Lakoff pointed out recently, Trump is not some bizarre perversion of Republican party politics; on the contrary, he played the campaign as the ultimate “strict father”, threatening to ban Muslims and Mexicans from entering the country, and ready to insult anyone who disagreed with him. He, Lakoff argues, “is a pragmatic conservative, par excellence” – as well as a master of political framing.