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Framing Our Language

This is a menu of the topics on this page (click on any): Role of Government Messages    Abortion Messages    Gun Messages    Gay Rights Messages    Immigration Messages    Economic Messages    Tax Messages    Iraq Messages    National Security Messages   .

An on-line forum exists called Actions for Freedom. It is proposed that REMBR (Regional Episcopal Ministry of Boca Raton) join that forum in order to flesh out our views on important contemporary issues. To jump start this process, it is proposed that 18 of us add or adapt George Lakoff's language to express either a conservative or progressive view on each of the following 9 subjects. You can simply offer Lakoff's paragraph as a quote if you wish. Of course, the forum is open to everyone and any of us may add to it whatever we feel called to add to it. These 18 paragraphs simply will help us get the dialogue going. Click on  E-Mail  to send a message to Carl. Please note that REMBR includes both conservative and progressive points of view on all these subjects.
  • Role of Government
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Abortion
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Gun
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Gay Rights
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Immigration
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Economic
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Tax
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • Iraq-Afghanistan
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
  • National Security
    • Conservative view
    • Progressive view
Ronald Bailey wrote the following in his blog ( on Octber 30, 2008.

.... the 2005 Times article on "The Framing Wars" which features University of California Berkeley linguist George Lakoff's views on Republican issue framing: 

According to Lakoff, Republicans are skilled at using loaded language, along with constant repetition, to play into the frames in our unconscious minds. Take one of his favorite examples, the phrase ''tax relief.'' It presumes, Lakoff points out, that we are being oppressed by taxes and that we need to be liberated from them. It fits into a familiar frame of persecution, and when such a phrase, repeated over time, enters the everyday lexicon, it biases the debate in favor of conservatives. If Democrats start to talk about their own ''tax relief'' plan, Lakoff says, they have conceded the point that taxes are somehow an unfair burden rather than making the case that they are an investment in the common good. The argument is lost before it begins.

Lakoff informed his political theories by studying the work of Frank Luntz, the Republican pollster who helped Newt Gingrich formulate the Contract With America in 1994. To Lakoff and his followers, Luntz is the very embodiment of Republican deception. His private memos, many of which fell into the hands of Democrats, explain why. In one recent memo, titled ''The 14 Words Never to Use,'' Luntz urged conservatives to restrict themselves to phrases from what he calls, grandly, the ''New American Lexicon.'' Thus, a smart Republican, in Luntz's view, never advocates ''drilling for oil''; he prefers ''exploring for energy.'' He should never criticize the ''government,'' which cleans our streets and pays our firemen; he should attack ''Washington,'' with its ceaseless thirst for taxes and regulations. ''We should never use the word outsourcing,'' Luntz wrote, ''because we will then be asked to defend or end the practice of allowing companies to ship American jobs overseas.''

In Lakoff's view, not only does Luntz's language twist the facts of his agenda but it also renders facts meaningless by actually reprogramming, through long-term repetition, the neural networks inside our brains. And this is where Lakoff's vision gets a little disturbing. According to Lakoff, Democrats have been wrong to assume that people are rational actors who make their decisions based on facts; in reality, he says, cognitive science has proved that all of us are programmed to respond to the frames that have been embedded deep in our unconscious minds, and if the facts don't fit the frame, our brains simply reject them. Lakoff explained to me that the frames in our brains can be ''activated'' by the right combination of words and imagery, and only then, once the brain has been unlocked, can we process the facts being thrown at us.

The Voices for Progress (VFP) project is a collaborative research project between Westen Strategies and Greenberg Quinlan Rosner Research, funded by American Family Voices, to overcome this disadvantage. Its mission is to assist progressives by developing language and narratives that connect with voters on a personal, emotional level in the short-term, as well as help the progressive movement brand themselves effectively in the long-term.

The goal of the VFP is to develop and test principled stands on issues—emotionally compelling values statements and narratives about where we stand—so that progressive leaders, elected officials, and others do not need to practice the politics of avoidance (trying to change the subject instead of addressing issues head-on), resort to off-putting or euphemistic language, offer defensive hedges without clear underlying principles (particularly on wedge issues, e.g., •I believe we should register new handguns but not old onesö), or adopt •conservative-liteö positions designed to avoid offending certain constituent groups perceived to be opposed to a progressive position. Embedded in these narratives should be readily remembered phrases or sentences that evoke the broader principles underlying them. The goal of this project is not to develop •talking points.ö Progressives are by definition free thinking, and their values range from center-to-left progressive. Rather, the goal is to develop a menu of well-tested principled stands, from center to left, which progressive organizations and individuals advancing progressive causes can use if they find them helpful and consistent with their own values and goals, so that they are not constantly reinventing the wheel or speaking to the public in ways that do not resonate emotionally. The evidence is clear that the language on the left needs an •extreme makeoverö so that we stop recycling the tired, poor, and huddled phrases of the left (e.g., •the environment,ö •reproductive health,ö •I×ll fight for peopleö) that lost their appeal decades ago and have little appeal in the political center.

Role of Government Messages

Conservative Message: Big government is the problem, not the solution. We need limited government, not the politics of tax and spend. The government×s job is to provide for our national security, protect our borders, keep our streets free from criminals, and provide basic services. We should cut taxes so Americans can keep more of their hard earned money and keep it out of the hands of politicians in Washington, who think they know how to spend it better than the American people do. And we don×t need government to impose burdensome regulations and red tape on businesses that just hamper our economy and our ability to create jobs. The best government is a small government, which gets out of the way of the free market and lets it create prosperity and jobs.

Progressive Message C: We need leaders who take personal responsibility for their actions and expect the same from our government. Government is our shared investment in our shared future, and our leaders need to shepherd that investment wisely. That means investing in our greatest national treasure—our children—by strengthening public education and giving real tax breaks to middle class parents struggling to pay for day care and college tuition. It means investing in our nation×s health, by investing in science that saves lives and in solutions to a broken health care system, so people who work for a living can take their kids to a doctor and can×t be denied insurance because of •preexisting conditions.ö And it means investing in the infrastructure that allows business to thrive and create good jobs, starting with investing in alternative energy that will end our dependence on foreign oil.

Key points in messaging on the role of government:

  1. Use the language of leaders, leadership, and true leaders instead when talking about government.
  2. Populist language about people who work for a living and middle class Americans versus corporate special interests performs well.
  3. Messages that emphasize the importance of business (especially small business) in economic growth, but also the pitfalls of businesses writing their own rules help dispel the branding of progressives and Democrats as •anti-business.ö
  4. Partnering with business is a positive framework in which to discuss the government×s role in the economy.
  5. Messages that tie the costs of unregulated markets to voters× everyday experience, but avoid the language of regulation, perform well (e.g., •True leaders don×t sit back and hope things work out as big businesses move American jobs to China or triple the price of gas. Leadership means knowing when to step back and when to step up¸ö)

Abortion Messages

Conservative Message: I believe in a culture of life. I believe that life begins at conception, and we have a moral obligation to protect it as God×s creation. We need to restore legal protection to innocent human life and stop activist judges who think they can change morality with the bang of a gavel. This is about the sanctity of life, about whether we preserve and promote a culture that values innocent life, or a careless and reckless culture in which anything goes—where abortion is a commonplace method of birth control, and we allow the murder of the innocent simply because their parents don×t want to take responsibility for the choices they make.

Progressive Message C: Abortion is a matter between a woman, her doctor, and her God. This is a moral and a personal issue, not a political one, and politicians need to stop using it to try to score political points. But we need to do everything possible to reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies, teen pregnancies, and abortions. That means teaching our kids not only about abstinence but also about responsible use of birth control, so that all the children born in this country are wanted children. And we need to prevent late-term abortions, except when the mother×s life or health is in danger, because abortion shouldn×t be used as a form of birth control, and it shouldn×t be used when a fetus is able to live on its own.

Key points in messaging on abortion:

  1. Use a religious freedom and intrusive government network against the conservative position.
  2. Establish the shared goals of reducing unwanted pregnancies and teen pregnancies and to avoid the use of abortion as a form of contraception.
  3. Emphasize that abortion is not only a deeply personal decision but also a painful one.
  4. An alternative to pro-choice vs. pro-life: •no one×s actions should be dictated by another person×s faith.ö
  5. Re-enfranchise the other 50% of the population when discussing abortion: no one should tell •a woman or a coupleö or •a man and a womanö when •they should or shouldn×t start their family.ö
  6. People want comprehensive sex education and access to contraception.
  7. Recognize that the majority of voters do not consider an early-term fetus a person but become progressively less comfortable with abortion as a pregnancy proceeds. Reducing late term abortion is a goal that people to agree on.

Gun Messages

Conservative Message: The Constitution guarantees the right to bear arms, which the founding fathers understood as the cornerstone of individual liberty and the final guard against government tyranny. America has always had a deep tradition of gun-ownership, going back to the revolution and the frontier, and throughout the generations the lessons of hunting and sportsmanship have been passed down from father to son. Those who advocate for gun control don×t understand those traditions, and they don×t understand that police can×t be everywhere but criminals can, including at our own doors. Criminals aren×t going to obey gun laws, so law-abiding citizens need the right to protect their homes and their families. Any infringement on gun rights is an infringement on our freedom.

Progressive Message E: My view on guns reflects one simple principle: that our gun laws should guarantee the rights and freedoms of all law-abiding Americans. That×s why I stand with the majority who believe in the right of law-abiding citizens to own guns to hunt and protect their families. And that×s why I also stand with the majority who don×t believe that right extends to felons, terrorists, and gang members. We need to roll up our sleeves and deal with the gun violence that plagues our schools and streets in a way that reflects the traditions, values, and common sense of the American people. If you×re a law-abiding citizen, you should be able to buy a gun. But we need to start enforcing the laws on the books, make background checks faster and more accurate, make sure we can track down a gun×s serial number from the cartridges left at a crime scene, and close the loophole that lets criminals and terrorists buy guns at gun shows without a background check.

Key points in messaging on guns:

  1. Emphasizing law-abiding citizens on both sides of the debate draws strong support across the spectrum: the right to hunt and protect your family and the right to have your kids come home safely from school.
  2. Acknowledging the right to hunt and protect your family from the start makes voters comfortable with progressives on guns.
  3. Make this about us (law-abiding citizens) vs. them (e.g., terrorists, gang members, drive-by shooters).
  4. Slippery slope arguments, often used against the progressive position, can be used both ways—majorities across the political spectrum have no desire to see the wrong guns in the wrong hands (e.g., criminals, the dangerously mentally ill, assault weapons that can×t be used to hunt).
  5. Use the language of common sense gun laws instead of •gun control.ö

Gay Rights Messages

Conservative Message: Marriage has always meant the union of a man and a woman. Activist judges, however, have begun redefining marriage by court order, disregarding both our most sacred traditions and the will of the people. I support protecting the sanctity of marriage and oppose gay marriage and civil unions. I don×t believe in discriminating against anybody. If gay people want to live an alternative lifestyle, that×s their choice, but we shouldn×t grant them special rights, and we shouldn×t grant legal status to their relationships, which undermine the institution of marriage. The well-being of children is best accomplished when they are nurtured by their mother and father, anchored by the bonds of marriage. Our laws and Constitution should respect the institution of marriage, and not grant legal recognition or benefits to anything other than that unique and special union of one man and one woman.

Progressive Message C: For most Americans, marriage is a religious term, not just a legal one, and we need to respect that. My faith teaches that marriage is between a man and a woman. But in this country, we don×t force one person to live by another person×s interpretation of Scripture. And politicians who stir up anger or disgust toward gay people or anybody else aren×t speaking from a place of faith. Gay people are people, and they×re children of God like the rest of us. They should have the rights all Americans have to a job, a house, or health benefits, and to choose who they want to spend their lives with without government interference. What we call their relationships under the law should be up to the people of each state, not the federal government, which has no business meddling in people×s private lives. And it×s up to pastors, priests, and rabbis to decide who they will or won×t marry, based on the teachings of their own faith.

Key points in messaging on gay rights:

  1. Emphasize people×s conscious values about treating people fairly and without discrimination; discrimination is both un-American and against the teachings of most people×s faith.
  2. Emphasize the distinction between marriage as a religious and a legal institution.
  3. Acknowledge first that you understand that many people consider marriage a religious term with a specific meaning, and you respect other people×s views.
  4. Make conscious voters× ambivalence about gay relationships.
  5. Talk about specific, concrete areas in which majorities are supportive of nondiscrimination such as in the workplace and housing, as way to discuss other issues like partner benefits.
  6. Remind people of what we all share as Americans, not what divides us.
  7. Avoid the words •sameö and •rights.ö

Immigration Messages

Conservative Message A: Illegal Immigration is one of the most serious problems we face as a nation. Our borders are broken and we need to secure them. Illegal aliens broke the law to come here, and they take away jobs from hard working Americans. They drain our tax dollars by getting government services without paying taxes. We need to build a wall across the border with Mexico and send illegal aliens back where they came from. We shouldn×t be giving amnesty to people who broke our laws to get here. It×s time to put Americans first. I×m tired of spending my tax dollars paying for people who aren×t American citizens and slipped across our borders illegally. We have to restore the rule of law, and you can×t do that if you give amnesty to lawbreakers.

Progressive Message G: We need to secure our borders and crack down on employers, who hire illegal immigrants. And people who come here need to learn our language, because if you can×t speak English then you can×t make it in this country and your kids will never know the American Dream. But politicians who say they are going to round up 12 million illegal immigrants who are already here aren×t telling the truth. We need a common sense solution that reflects who we are as Americans, a strong but compassionate nation. We should hire more border guards, prosecute illegal employers who exploit cheap labor and require people who crossed our border years ago to register, work hard, learn our language, obey our laws and pay extra taxes, so we turn illegal immigrants into tax paying citizens. So let×s solve this problem now. Tell politicians in Washington we×ve had enough of partisan bickering, and start dealing with the other problems we face; like spiraling prices, healthcare and the economy.

Key points in messaging on immigration:

  1. First establish with people in the center that you take the problem of illegal immigration seriously.
  2. People want practical solutions, not politics; it×s unrealistic to find and deport 12 million people.
  3. Emphasize law and order: any position on immigration should also include securing the borders and points of entry and cracking down on illegal employers.
  4. Use the language of requirement: Require (not allow) illegal immigrants to earn citizenship by obeying our laws and paying our taxes.
  5. Emphasize the big business component to the immigration problem: The reason we have illegal immigrants is because big business wants cheap labor. We need to bring business and labor together to decide what makes sense for legal immigration.
  6. What doesn×t work: relying on people×s sympathy and using euphemisms like •undocumented workers.ö

Economic Messages

Conservative Message: Americans are most inventive people in the world. The economy has taken a downturn, but many politicians in Washington have made things a lot worse by refusing to make President Bush×s tax cuts permanent and continuing to fund wasteful government programs rather than cutting spending and getting our budget under control. So rather than letting government get in the way of business with high taxes and burdensome red tape, we should allow Americans to keep more of their hard earned money, so they can create and innovate, and let the market do what it has done for generations: create prosperity for the American people. Making the tax cuts permanent for all Americans, reducing taxes on businesses, and cutting wasteful spending in Washington will expand the U.S. economy and create new jobs and opportunities and allow us to lead the way again in the world market.

Progressive Messages D: I want to see the words •Made in Americaö again. Becoming the world×s leader again in manufacturing and agriculture isn×t just essential to our economic security. It×s essential to our national security. Imagine if we×d had to fight World War II without manufacturing plants and American-grown food. I×m tired of calling the phone company and talking to a person in India, if I ever reach a person at all. It×s time we negotiate trade agreements that lift workers up, not bring the pay and benefits of American workers down to the level of Mexico and China. If we trade with a country whose workers don×t get health insurance, retirement, and safety standards like ours, we need to put a tariff on their products so American workers and businesses are playing on an even playing field. And if our companies ship jobs overseas, we should tax those goods when they come back to this country, so corporations will have an incentive to keep jobs here. It×s time to put America first again.

Key points in messaging on the economy:

  1. Emphasize middle class and working Americans (•It×s time we have an economy that works again for people who work for a living.ö)
  2. It isn×t the rich vs. the poor: it×s corporate special interests vs. against middle class families.
  3. People are worried and angry about the rising cost of living—tuition, gas, and groceries.
  4. People feel rightly insecure of their jobs, health care, and retirement.
  5. Take nationalism back with a populist message about trade, outsourcing, and American jobs. Phrases such as •I want to see the words ‘Made in America× again,ö garner broad support.
  6. Emphasize both protecting good American jobs with American benefits (and our manufacturing base) and retraining for the jobs of the future.
  7. Redefine family values as valuing families.

Tax Messages

Conservative Message: Some politicians think the government knows best how people should spend their hard-earned money. I think Americans ought to be able to make their own decisions, and the government should keep its hands out of our pockets. The philosophy of tax and spend has proven a failure. We need a tax system that is flatter, fairer, and pro-growth, where everybody pays the same low percent of their income and we don×t saddle businesses with taxes that make them unable to compete. Some say we can just raise taxes on the rich. But we shouldn×t be punishing Americans who do well by jacking up their taxes to pay for all the wasteful spending in Washington. Americans aren×t under-taxed, they×re over-taxed. We pay income taxes, business taxes, sales taxes, property taxes, capital gains taxes, social security taxes, and even death taxes. The real problem is that Washington spends too much money.

Progressive Message G: The last thing we need in the midst of a recession is to raise taxes on middle class Americans, who need more money in their pockets, not less. It×s time our tax code reflected the interests of everyday Americans, not special interests and their lobbyists. In the last few years, we×ve given oil companies billions in tax cuts while they×ve doubled the price of gas, and given millionaires hundred-thousand dollar tax cuts while giving the average American family $500. We×ve been spending over ten billion dollars a month in Iraq that we could have been spending here in America, and signing trade agreements that cost American jobs and industries. The question isn×t, •Who×s going to raise your taxes?ö It×s •Whose taxes are your elected officials going to cut, yours or their campaign contributors?ö We need to make our tax code fair to people who work for a living and start investing in America again.

Key points in messaging on taxes:

  1. Change the question from •Who×s going to cut your taxes?ö to •Whose taxes are they going to cut?ö
  2. Contrast the need for middle class tax cuts with tax breaks for special interests, oil companies, and the super-rich. Remind people of whom has benefited from the Bush tax cuts
  3. Emphasize practical concerns (skyrocketing prices, day care, college tuition) and the need to offset them.
  4. Emphasize simplicity, fairness, and accountability for spending. Reassure the middle class, then remind people why we need to invest in our country again.
  5. Take property taxes back from conservatives by suggesting offsetting federal tax credits, and tax credits for businesses (especially small businesses) that •do right byö their employees, including benefits, secure retirement, and cost of living increases.

Iraq Messages

Conservative Message: It would be a terrible mistake to pull out of Iraq before Al Qaeda in Iraq is defeated and before a competent, trained, and capable Iraqi security force is in place. If we leave now, a civil war could break out and spread throughout the region. We need to support our troops and win in Iraq, not cut off their funding and leave our troops in jeopardy. Iraq is now the central front in the war on terror, and we have to fight them there so we×re not fighting them here. But the surge is working, and the determination and sacrifice of our brave men and women is starting to pay off. Violence has decreased sharply, and Iraqis are stepping up to achieve stability and create a future for their country. We have made some mistakes so far, and finishing the job won×t be easy. But to pull out early would be a disaster for the Middle East, a dishonor to the sacrifices made by our troops, and a lesson to America×s enemies and allies alike that we lack the resolve of a great nation. America doesn×t buy peace through surrender.

Progressive Message I: Some politicians say that anyone who opposes another decade in Iraq doesn×t •support our troops.ö That×s playing politics with the lives of our soldiers. You want to know what it means to support our troops? Don×t send them to war unless it×s truly the last resort. Armor their bodies and their vehicles so they don×t lose their lives and limbs when they don×t have to. Give them as much time at home in the loving arms of their families as in the crosshairs of their enemies. And if they make the ultimate sacrifice for their country, returning home to shores they will never see, don×t whisk them into this country in the middle of the night because it×s bad for public relations. Do what every administration in the 225-year history of this nation has done to honor our fallen heroes: Proudly display their flag-draped coffins, so that all Americans can honor their lives and their sacrifice. And if you really want to support our troops, bring them home. It×s time for a responsible withdrawal, guided by our generals and conditions on the ground, not by politics.

Key points in messaging on Iraq:

  1. Acknowledge that there are no perfect solutions.
  2. Be clear on what ending the war will look like. The key term is •responsible and orderly withdrawalö.
  3. Brand those who talk about •surrenderö as playing politics or not understanding war.
  4. Contrast the effectiveness of our troops with the failure vision that has put them in the middle of someone else×s civil war with no exit strategy.
  5. Put the end goal center stage—taking care of our own country and letting the Iraqis take care of theirs.
  6. Emphasize how the war is diverting resources from threats in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
  7. Emphasize what the war is doing to military families.
  8. Emphasize the need to bring the parties to the table that have the most stake in the outcome—regional players and the Iraqis.
  9. Redefine what it means to •support our troops;ö progressives have a historic opportunity to retake the high ground on veterans.

National Security Messages

Conservative Message: In a dangerous world, protecting America×s national security requires a strong military. We face historic threats, from Islamic terrorists out to kill Americans because they hate our way of life, to a dictator in Iran trying to acquire nuclear weapons. America has the most capable, best-trained and best-led military force in the world, but we need to deal with dictators and madmen from a position of strength. The best way to keep America safe is to stay on the offense in the war on terror, so that we don×t have to fight terrorists here at home, and that means using every resource we have. We should deploy missile defenses to reduce the possibility of strategic blackmail by rogue nations. And we shouldn×t be tying the hands of the CIA when it comes to listening in on terrorists× phone calls, closing down Guantanamo, or giving rights to terrorists like trials in our courts. This is a war, and we should be fighting to win.

Progressive Message I: We can×t afford any more of the reckless foreign policy that has cost us over half a trillion dollars and thousands of lives over the last eight years. We need a foreign policy based on reality, not ideology. That means a responsible withdrawal of our soldiers from Iraq, guided by our senior military officers and conditions on the ground. It means finishing the job we should have finished after 9/11: destroying the Taliban, finding and killing bin Laden, and routing Al Qaeda out of the hills and caves of Afghanistan and Pakistan. It means rebuilding our alliances and restoring our reputation around the world. It means never again exempting ourselves from the international laws we led the world in creating. And it means leading in the development of clean, safe, alternative energy that will protect us from ever again having our economic and national security held hostage to unstable regimes that control the world×s oil.

Key points in messaging on national security:

  1. Progressives have a historic opportunity to retake national security.
  2. Americans want realistic ideas and goals in foreign policy, not ideology.
  3. Distinguish strength and decisiveness from recklessness.
  4. Start with emphasizing support for military strength before describing other forms of strength (e.g., tough diplomacy, intelligence).
  5. Talk about our leadership role in the free world. Leading the world by returning to fundamentals: military strength, strong alliances, tough diplomacy, and leading by our principles.
  6. Project strength, and you can win strongly with messages about civil liberties, but use concrete example (e.g., torture) and talk about freedom and American values, not civil liberties (which is too abstract).
For further information, please contact Drew Westen at Westen Strategies, LLC (; Michael Bocian at Greenberg, Quinlan, Rosner Research (; or Mike Lux at American Family Voices (

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