Framing War

Just a few associations in America with the word "war." It's powerful and should be used with care.
Just a few associations in America with the word “war.” It’s powerful and should be used with care.

“War” is a problematic word because of its many connotations. It evokes powerful positive and negative emotions and opinions that can vary widely among individuals and subcultures. For this reason, supporters of war often use euphemisms such as “action,” “conflict,” “force,” and “engagement with the enemy,” instead when they think it serves their interests to do so.

Politically, presidents have been awarded greater power and prestige during wartime. This may tempt some to engage in war unwisely, so it’s very important to try to ensure that war is entered only after the failure of extended good-faith diplomacy, the failure of good-faith efforts to address the issues with law enforcement, and the establishment that an attack by the other side is imminent or has already begun.

While the word "war" has many positive associations as well as negative ones, "deadly" connotes pain and death.
While the word “war” has many positive associations as well as negative ones, “deadly” connotes pain and death.

One way to do this is to speak of deadly conflict instead of war. This phrase emphasizes war’s deadly character. The peaceful prevention of deadly conflict should be a priority of all governments, including that of the U.S. What do you think?

I think it’s important to be careful about waging metaphorical wars on social problems such as drugs and poverty because they can’t be conquered with guns and armies. What do you think? Is there a different metaphor we could use?

Framing the Individual Mandate


This refers to the expectation of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA) that Americans that do not already have health insurance get it. Those that remain uninsured would pay a fine.

I think that supporters of the PPACA should avoid this phrase because it frames the expectation as big, bad government forcing people to do what they don’t want to do.

What if instead we frame having adequate health insurance as a civic duty? This duty helps ensure that all Americans can get the medical care we need . When we all have health insurance, we are taking care of both ourselves and our fellow Americans. That is right and responsible.

Shirking this duty would mean risking leaving medical bills unpaid and bankruptcy for ourselves. It also could mean higher costs for everyone else. This would be reckless and unfair. Because shirking imposes costs on others, it’s fair to charge a fine.

What difference would it make if we reframed this part of the PPACA from a mandate to a duty?
What difference would it make if we reframed this part of the PPACA from a mandate to a duty?

Instead of calling this part of PPACA the individual mandate, here are some potential alternatives:

  • The expectation of having health insurance (or health insurance expectation)
  • The duty of having health insurance (or health insurance duty)
  • The coverage expectation

What do you think this responsibility should be called?

Framing Progressive Government, Part 1

Wordle: Jonah Goldberg: Government Growth out of Control

As the word cloud of Jonah Goldberg’s recent column “Government Growth out of Control” shows, the article emphasizes the federal government, the president, and the individual. He objects to the FDA’s preliminary ban on trans fats  in processed foods by claiming that it’s a sign that liberals love to push people around. He summarizes the differences between liberals and conservative views of governing like this:

The difference, however, is that conservatives tend to see government as a necessary evil, and therefore see policymaking with some humility. Liberals tend to see government as a necessary good and see ordering people to do things “for their own good” as a source of pride, even hubris.

From a conservative perspective, telling people how to run their lives when not absolutely necessary is an abuse of power. For liberals, telling people how to run their lives is one of the really fun perks of working for the government.

Besides unfairly attributing bad motives to liberals, it deceives in at least the following ways:

  1. The ban affects giant agribusiness conglomerates, not people,
  2. It’s been known for a long time that trans fats are bad for health and unnecessary, and
  3. Only the conglomerates will miss trans fats.

The purpose of such an article is not to inform but to infect Americans’ minds with the idea that liberals and progressives are bad and not to be trusted with power. We have to defend ourselves against these attacks. According to Drew Westen, taking the high road and not responding means that conservatives’ view of liberals becomes the only one out there. He challenges progressives to speak up and tell our own story in our voice. That’s what this site intends to help progressives do. How about:

Progressives believe that in a democracy, government represents and serves the people. Rather than being a distant threat, democracy government has a responsibility to protect and expand the rights and wellbeing of its citizens. That can mean placing limits on harmful products. Thanks to the government’s attentiveness, we enjoy safe food and water. The ban on dangerous trans fats makes our food supply safer while preserving plenty of choice in the grocery store.

On those rare occasions when food gets contaminated, we know the government will punish the negligent company. Though it might seem nice to think that we wouldn’t need government protection, the food industry’s self-regulation has sickened and endangered Americans in the past. We’re not going back there!

How would you say it?

Framing Gun Control

The phrase "gun control" limits debate too narrowly and brings to mind Big Brother.
The phrase “gun control” limits debate too narrowly and brings to mind Big Brother.

NRA opponents have been emphasizing gun-violence prevention rather than talking about gun control. This is because gun-violence prevention is the movement’s goal. Gun control is only one means among many toward that end. “Violence prevention” wisely and accurately evokes the values of safety and security.

What should supporters of gun-violence prevention be called?

"Gun-violence prevention" brings hope and prudence to mind.
“Gun-violence prevention” brings hope and prudence to mind.

Debt Ceiling

The phrase "debt ceiling," while having a precise meaning in the congressional budget process, misleads the public when politicized.
The phrase “debt ceiling,” while having a precise meaning in the congressional budget process, misleads the public when politicized.

The phrases “debt ceiling” and “debt limit” are misleading. While they make it sound as if Congress were debating whether to spend more money, raising this limit merely allows the U.S. Treasury to pay the bills that Federal law has required it to pay. It’s like paying off a credit card: Any additional debt incurred by the government compared to last year has already been billed and therefore must be paid. Slate’s Matthew Yglesias explains.

Progressives should avoid using these phrases because they confuse the public about what is happening and serve the interests of opponents. Instead, they should explain that the issue is whether the government should continue paying its bills on time and in full as it has for more than 200 years. Demanding legislative concessions first is irresponsible and unpatriotic because it shirks the duty of Congress to protect the credit rating of the United States.

Should it be known as the pay-the-bills measure or the billpay OK? What do you think?

UPDATE: The Omaha World-Herald published a letter to the editor from me that reframes the debt ceiling as a billpay authorization.

Affordable Care Act

The phrase "Affordable Care Act" brings to mind money and commerce.
The phrase “Affordable Care Act” brings to mind money and commerce.

An abbreviation of the name of the new healthcare law, the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, this phrase defines the issue as the affordability of medical care. Use of this abbreviation has helped sow doubt about the law’s value following media reports that, while many Americans can expect lower health insurance premiums, others may see higher premiums.

Supporters should avoid calling the law by this name. Instead, when shortening the name, use the first two words, the Patient Protection Act. This directs the hearer’s attention away from money and toward the law’s moral mission: protecting Americans from abuse by health-insurance companies and from bankruptcy and other injury due to lack of adequate health insurance. This moral mission is what the law’s supporters should talk about.

I think it’s unwise to call the law Obamacare and will post about that this week.

The phrase "Patient Protection Act" brings to mind defending the vulnerable.
The phrase “Patient Protection Act” brings to mind defending the vulnerable.

Framing Judicial Nominations

For a long time, some Republican senators have accused President Barack Obama of trying to fill Federal courts with liberal judges. If that were all there was to it, it would be just routine partisanship. What makes it different is that they frame these judicial appointments as “court-packing.”

The phrase originates with a struggle between President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the Supreme Court, which had struck down several New Deal laws. In response, FDR proposed in 1937 adding six more justices to the Supreme Court’s nine for a total of fifteen. These appointments would have given his supporters a majority on the court. This was known as his court-packing plan. This plan was extremely controversial among both Republicans and Democrats and never passed.

Therefore, with the court-packing accusation, the story these senators are telling goes something like this:

The president is not satisfied to fill vacant seats in the judiciary. He wants to cheat. If we don’t stop him, our courts will be overrun with liberal, activist judges that will try to achieve victories for Obama through the courts that he can’t win through Congress.

In this story, of course, President Obama is framed as the villain while Republicans that try to block his judicial nominees are the heros.

The problem with this story is that it isn’t true. Obama has proposed nominees only to vacant positions, not to new positions. So why do they say it? The court-packing charge associates Obama with FDR, the radical Republicans bullies‘ ultimate foe, riling the base. It also sows doubt about the president’s intentions. And people that have heard only claims that he’s trying to pack the courts may believe it.

How do we prevent this? The best I’ve been able to think of is to call the claim a lie:

That’s a lie. The president is fulfilling his oath of office by appointing judges to vacant seats as the Constitution requires. Trying to stop him from doing his duty is obstruction of justice for Americans that have already waited too long for judges to hear their cases. As the saying goes, “Justice delayed is justice denied,” and that’s wrong.

In this story, the president is the hero for doing his duty to protect the right of accused Americans to a speedy trial. The villain is those that try to stop him. Obstruction of justice is a crime.

What do you think should be said in response to the “court-packing” charge?