By now you’re probably wondering where the strategy guidance comes in. We don’t presume to know everything that will be needed. We’ll provide many insights and ideas, as well as some process structure, but we’re also counting on the crowd to contribute in these areas (and others) as well. Our contribution comes from years working as cognitive scientists, social scientists, and political strategists. So we’ll get the conversation started by explaining how progressives can frame the debate and set the course for America in the next several decades.
You may be familiar with the work of George Lakoff, whose writings have brought frame analysis into the political mainstream. Several members of our team worked closely with Lakoff as Fellows of the former Rockridge Institute, analyzing political discourse and revealing value-laden frames that promote progressive and conservative ideology.
If you aren’t familiar with frame analysis, don’t worry. It is simply a set of research methods for revealing the mental models that constitute how people think about and understand the world. Frame theory arose in several different fields around the same time in the mid-1970’s to explain the inner logic of human thought—spanning the disciplines of psychology, robotics, linguistics, sociology, and media studies.
What is a Frame?
“Frames are the mental structures that allow human beings to understand reality—and sometimes to create what we take to be reality. [T]hey structure our ideas and concepts, they shape how we reason, and they even impact how we perceive and how we act. For the most part, our use of frames is unconscious and automatic—we use them without realizing it.”
Stephen Reece, in the field of media studies, gives this working definition:
“Frames are the organizing principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to meaningfully structure the social world.”
Frames are everywhere around us. They are the conceptual models in our minds that allow us to make sense of the world. We cannot have a coherent thought without them. There is no such thing as “choosing” to use frames, only a matter of being more conscious about selecting frames rather than blindly using them without knowing it.
What Do We DO With Them?
So how do we use frames to make America’s course a progressive path into the future? It helps to think of framing as agenda-setting, a common usage in the policymaking world. We want to set the context for action that places our ideals, our most pressing concerns, and our core values at the forefront of public discourse.
As an example, consider the Industrial Education Frame that is setting the scope of education policy in America today. This frame places emphasis on a core set of ideas about schools as places that can be run like factories, where knowledgeable students are products to be produced like widgets and built on the assembly line (thus the emphasis on developing technology-based “teacher proof” standardized lessons), and responsibility is understood through the lens of top-down authoritarianism (e.g., quality control is molding all students to pass the same state or national standards, which are measured with standardized tests, and teachers with students who make low scores are punished). The conservative agenda for public education is understood through this web of concepts that collectively represents a conceptual model for education reform.
As a progressive you probably recoil at the thought of schools set up as factories. Your values beckon a different understanding of education based on an intuitive sense that children are individuals who blossom, not machines that are can be built to order. You probably prefer to think of schools as a place to cultivate young minds, where teachers nurture the learning process and all children grow smarter and more engaged in civic affairs.
This understanding stems from the Garden School Frame that allows us to think about children as living beings who need proper nourishment and guidance to grow into healthy adults. It also provides a context for seeing teachers as valued professionals with a responsibility to both the children they teach and the larger communities those children will join as they become adults. Teachers are seen as both gardeners sharing the fruits of knowledge and stewards of the education landscape. (Learn more about the framing of education here.)
It is easy to understand why framing matters so much for politics. If the wrong conceptual model is used to understand political issues, it will be very unlikely that effective solutions get implemented. As long as education is thought of as a 19th Century industrial process we won’t get the 21st Century public education system we need and deserve. And these deeper assumptions do more than set the context for problem-solving, they also establish the right-and-wrong sentiments for what society should do and how people should be treated.
Throughout the last several decades, conservative frames have put up boundaries around our public discourse, and haven’t been seriously challenged by progressives. Because of this, conservatives dominate the agenda for policy-making in every arena from environment to economy, from national security to international trade, and from taxation and governance to the act of voting at the heart of our representative democracy.
Using Frames to Set Our Agenda
If we are to set a progressive agenda for the United States, we’ll have to learn how the debate has already been framed—and directly challenge the toxic mental models with frames of our own.
Luckily, the foundational work on this has already been done. The Rockridge Institute brought together thinkers and strategists who identified many of the central frames in political discourse. An archive of papers has been created on the Cognitive Policy Works website to preserve this legacy. And many frame analysts emerged on the scene (ourselves included) as beneficiaries of the unique training that this work provided. We are now engaging in the more difficult work of introducing frame analysis into the daily operations of progressive organizations.
You can participate in this vital endeavor by learning about frame analysis as a set of tools for:
- Deconstructing cultural narratives that establish our commonsense;
- Revealing the underlying modes of political thought that drive human behavior;
- Challenging the conservative agenda by calling out the harms of its logical conclusions; and
- Promoting a progressive agenda by framing the issues in a manner that reflects the character, core values, and collective identity of our movement.
To help get you started, consider these pairings of antagonistic frames that should be part of our agenda-setting discussion:
Conservative VS. Progressive
Are we a nation of rugged individuals, where each of us does everything on our own? Or are we comprised of strong families and communities, where we enable each other to succeed?
Is the essence of human nature that we are rational actors who make individual choices? Or is the essence of human nature that we are ecological beings embedded in a web of physical, cultural, and biological relationships that shape how we act in the world?
Is the primary role of government to be a strong authority figure that punishes wrong-doing? Or should government empower and protect us to promote human flourishing?
Are people inherently bad such that they must be disciplined to learn right from wrong? Or are people inherently social and learn right from wrong through role models in their community?
Each pairing of frames reveals a deep tension in how we might understand the world around us. As we consider what the American Story should be, we’ll chose which of these and other frames often does, as well as should be, primarily guiding our thinking in order to understand what it means to live in a good society.