March 12, 1996
The right’s enormous Success in framing the American public debate is based not just on isolated issues, but on in overall definition of what the debate is about. The purpose of this guide is to suggest ways that progressive community-based advocacy groups can reframe the right’s definition of the debate-ways that can connect with deeply-held Values and understandings of the American people. It is designed to help advocates frame their views for the media, develop educational programs and materials for their constituents, and talk to their fellow citizens in meetings and informal discussions.
The right draws on themes that are rooted in democratic political tradition and widely shared by the American public. But the right develops these themes in one-sided ways that violate basic democratic principles, important public beliefs, and the interests of the great majority of Americans.
The guide starts by outlining ten essential elements of the right’s story. Then for each it suggests appealing ways to respond. It presents brief messages (<<) and questions (?) designed to help those bombarded by right-wing rhetoric to think about issues in new ways.
THE RIGHT’S STORY NEEDS REFRAMING
Behind the specific policies advocated by the right there lurks, if not a big lie, , then at least a whopper of a story:
(1) Elitist liberals, who believe in using government to solve every problem, have applied government power to impose their ideas on the American people. (2) Politicians, especially Democrats, taxed the people and gave the money to bureaucrats and special interests-who made sure they got reelected. (3) The burden of government taxes and regulations grew immensely. (4) Government programs were inevitably wasteful, corrupt failures. (5) These programs made their beneficiaries dependent, looking to government instead of to themselves for their well-being. (6) Liberals appealed for support with a class warfare ideology-attacking the rich, rather than encouraging them to make the investments on which everyone’s well-being depends. (7) Liberals also cynically played on sympathy for the unfortunate people their programs were alleged to help. (8) Meanwhile, government became so large and powerful that it threatened the very freedom of ordinary citizens. (9) The liberal, big-government agenda betrayed American political traditions. (10) Fortunately, the American people have begun to revolt against domination by big government and to demand change-the transfer of power from the government to citizens and communities.
The effectiveness of this story-it might also be called a myth, worldview, or frame-lies in its “rhetorical jujitsu.” To attack the myth is to confirm it. To simply argue for government, for example, is to paint oneself as the, cry “elitist liberal” or “tax-and-spend politician” the story portrays and condemns. How can the right’s opponents dismantle the right’s story and replace it with something better, rather than confirming its definition of the debate?
(1) Elitist Liberal Agenda
“Liberal elites believe ordinary Americans aren’t always capable of making sound decisions for themselves elves. They feel it’s better to let Washingtons’ best and brightest’ make decisions. That is why they have spent nearly a half century erecting a protective ‘’nanny state’ on the banks of the Potomac. “
–Restoring the Dream The Bold New Plan by House Republicans
Don’t confirm the right’s definition of the “sides”
The right’s story frames a debate with two sides: (1) elitist liberals who support big government, vs. (2) conservatives, who advocate for ordinary people, their values and interests, against the government’s power grab.
Efforts to argue within this frame only reinforce it. To present the alternative to the right as advocating “more government” is to walk into this trap. Instead, progressive advocacy groups should be leaders, not targets, of the public’s legitimate concern about the failures and abuses of government.
<<Message: We oppose the right, not because we are “for government,” but because the right’s program is destructive to the values and interests of the people.
Communities fighting for their needs aren’t “elitists” or “politicians”
Progressive community-based advocacy groups have a special role to play in countering the right’s message. Voluntary groups contradict the right’s stereotypes of who its opponents are. They are neither politicians nor bureaucrats nor “big-government liberals.” They are community-builders working to better their communities, often at considerable personal sacrifice. The public has considerable respect for voluntary community groups who are actually working in communities to deal with societies’ problems.
>>Message: The people criticizing the right’s program aren’t only “elitist liberals” but community-based people working to better their communities.
? Question: Who is fighting 4ainst bureaucracy and unaccountable authoriiy right–wing politicians or community–based advocacy groups?
Defend collective action
The Republican Party’s recent book Restoring the Dream argues that “Private initiative is what has propelled America to greatness, not collective action.” Rather than just defending government, progressives should point out the need for collective action, of which government is just one expression.
? Are our democratic system, our economy, our communities, our families just the product of individuals, or did they take people working together–collective action–to create?
People have to act together to meet their needs. They can use many vehicles to do so, including grassroots organizations, political parties, and local, state, and national governments. These vehicles, including government, are essential for people to get what they need. Maybe a few rich people can send their kids to private schools, buy whatever books they wish to read, acquire the world’s great art for their homes, and go to fancy private clinics when they get sick. But for most of us, the choice is to have public schools, libraries, museums, and health care or none at all. Government is one way we provide these things for ourselves.
Advocate more democracy, not more government
The right’s attack on government is really an attack on the power of the people to make collective decisions‑in short, an attack on democracy. It should be called the “dismantle-democracy right.”
The cure for the problems of democracy is more democracy. That means making government accountable to the people-not eliminating democratic government.
As progressive community-based advocacy groups we are fighting for more democracy. We are out there every day trying to make government officials and programs accountable and seeing that every possible dollar goes to those who really need it.
(2) Tax–and–Spend Politicians
“The Democrats own the federal bureaucracy lock, stock and barrel…. Theoretically, the civil service consists of disinterested professionals serving the, publics interest. In fact, the bureaucrats are the Democrats’ Ninja army . . . They have lavished power, money and perks on the bureaucracy, and the animal does not bite the hand that feeds it.
Government officials should be held accountable
While generalized trashing of elected officials and government employees is wrong, progressives know the public is right to be concerned about government accountability.
Like all the rest of us, government officials, elected representatives, and politicians are capable of pursuing narrow self-interests in the place of our common interests. They, like all of us, need to be held accountable. But they, like the rest of us, also can make a contribution to the common well-being, and should receive respect and support when they do so.
Right–wing politicians also tax and spend
Polls show that the public is skeptical regarding politicians in general, not just liberals. Right-wing politicians are still politicians. They are subject to the same pressures and temptations as others. Their programs and actions deserve the same scrutiny for self-interest as they demand for liberals.
? Why do right–wing politicians who clamor for smaller government support huge spending increases for prisons and the military? Do you third, it has anything to do with who supports their campaigns
(3) High Taxes and Costly Regulation
“Every time a regulatory agency issues a new rule that increases the cost (If a product or service to consumers, it has effectively imposed a new or higher tax. .
The right shifts taxes from corporations and the wealthy to the rest of us
Since 1960, taxes on corporate income have been cut from 23 percent to only 10 percent of all federal taxes. Taxes on the top I percent of the population have been cut so much that they paid $83 billion less in 1992 than they would have at 1977 rates. Tile rest of us have had to pick up the burden. If the corporate share were returned to its 1960 level, we could eliminate the budget deficit, expand needed services, and still have a tax cut for most Americans.
? If the right thinks taxes on ordinary people are too high, why do they focus on the capital gains tax, which would mostly benefit those with a kit of capital?
Who pays for lack of regulation?
Some regulations benefit corporations, some benefit workers, consumers, and the environment. We’re not for regulations in general, just for those that benefit the people and their environment.
Lack of proper regulation can impose huge costs on people. For example, reduced regulation of savings-and-loan associations cost taxpayers hundreds of billions of dollars
? Would you prefer that airlines, rather than the government determine what safety equipment is required for airplanes?
? Do you think eliminating the minimum wage is likely to raise or lower your own income?
? Do you think abolishing OSHA will increase or lower the chances of your getting sick, or injured on your job?
? Do you think right–wing politicians oppose government restrictions on children’s smoking because they are for individual freedom or because they get big bucks from the tobacco industry?
(4) Wasteful, Corrupt, Failing Programs
“The life cycle of welfare bureaucracy…goes something like this: Congress writes a law. Regulators draft rules that restrict the liberties of the people who give and receive aid–hoping to prevent fraud and waste. Opportunists find the inevitable loopholes in the code. Others soon pour through the breach. The public loses confidence in the program, hut since the entire system eviscerates beneficiaries sense of responsibility, nobody can step in and fend off the chaos. Walk through a broken–down housing project, and you’ll see.”
Recognize government imperfections
Government, like other human institutions, is not perfect. Keeping government accountable takes constant vigilance. So does ensuring that officials don’t extend their power for their own purposes. The cure for poor government is not less government but better government.
Point out the failures of “private” institutions
Lack of accountability and abuse of authority are common in corporations. The worst government scandal is small potatoes, for example, compared to the lack of oversight that allowed 28-year-old derivatives trader Nicholas Leeson to lose $1.36 billion and bring down Barrings, Britain’s oldest bank.
Question conservative programs
Before they try to take the mote out of their opponents’ eyes, right-wing politicians Should address the logs in their own eyes. Many of their programs are blatant efforts to channel funds to their political supporters. Block grants, for example, don’t get money to the people or give them control of what is done with it. Instead they empower state governments and bureaucracies that are often more corrupt and incompetent than Washington.
? Do You think Republicans in Congress are channeling money into block grants to states to make the programs run better or to channel the money to the Republican politicians who control most of die state governorships?
(5) Fostering Dependency
“The welfare state … has gobbled up more than $5 trillion, imposed billions more in regulatory costs and has generated misery– splintered families, crime–plagued neighborhoods racial tensions, mediocre schools and the like.”
Advocate community not dependency
Most Americans don’t believe society is or should be composed of totally independent individuals who don’t depend on anybody for anything. They believe in individual rights and responsibilities, but they also believe we have responsibilities to each other, that each of us has responsibilities to society and that society has responsibilities to each of us.
The right talks a lot about responsibility, but actually encourages people to shirk their social responsibilities. It thereby undermines the links that hold society together. People need a sense of inclusion, and of mutual benefit, to make society work.
Our individual lives depend on society. If society becomes unlivable for some, we will all be deeply affected. If we don’t help today’s young people, they will be unwilling to help us when we are old.
? Do you want your country to be a society where –we help and support each other, or just a collection of individuals?
? Do you think the image of the frontierperson represent the appropriate model for contemporary American life?
Jobs are the best answer to dependency
There’s no way people can be independent if they can’t find a job. Yet conservative economists now call an official unemployment rate of 6 percent “natural” and desirable-consigning tens of millions to the “dependency” the right so condemns-while maintaining that “government can’t create jobs.”
Most people believe that all who can should work, and that work should be available for them. Despite their skepticism about government, polls indicate that most Americans believe the government should be the employer of last resort, providing jobs when none are available.
It is the responsibility of government to see that all who want to work can find decent employment.
Progressive community-based advocacy groups are developing local jobs programs. Adequate government support for such programs is the solution to “welfare dependency.”
? When a corporation decides to downsize and an employee is thrown out of work, is that person’s subsequent descent into poverty a “failure of personal responsibility”?
(6) Class Warfare Ideology
“The Democrats pursued a liberal class–warfare ideology, which called far raising taxes on the, rich.
People are right to resist domination by wealthy and corporations
The share of the nation’s wealth possessed by the richest 1 percent of U.S. families increased from 31 percent in 1983 to 37 percent in 1989. Today, this richest 1 percent owns more than the bottom 90 percent.
Three hundred corporations now own an estimated one-quarter of the productive assets of the world. Of the top 100 economies in the world, 47 are corporation search with more wealth than 130 countries.
Nothing is more appropriate than to struggle against the privileges of the rich and powerful.
When the right condemns “class struggle ideology ” arc, they saying the American people should accept the existing division of wealth and power?
The right makes class warfare– on behalf of corporations and the rich
? Do you believe that, left to themselves, the heads of global corporations will do what’s best for you? For your country? For the world?
? Does weakening government empower you? Or does it empower those with the money and clout to take advantage of it?
(7) Bleeding Hearts–Exploiting Compassion
“Listen to the gushing words o the bleeding hearts [who call for] more social welfare of schemes… Bleeding g hearts tolerate killers and thugs.
Americans are more compassionate than the right is telling them
The right’s message is that those who need help are bad, irresponsible people who should be blamed for their condition. This perspective contradicts widely-held ethical and political values.
The right’s contempt for compassion violates basic moral and religious values. Did they miss Sunday School the days the parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus’ words “As you have done it unto the least of these, so you have done it unto me,” and his instruction to “Love thy neighbor as thyself” were taught?
? Do you think the contempt for compassion expressed IV many right–wing commentators expresses your highest religious and moral values?
As progressive community-based advocacy groups we arc attempting to embody basic moral values of caring and compassion in our daily life, work, and society. We ask the government and our fellow citizens to help with the task.
(8) Government Threatens Freedom
“[The real problem is] the pervasive power now claimed by Federal, state and local agencies–power that us increasingly undermining citizens ‘freedoms. In recent decades, millions of Americans have lost the Tight to control their property, to modify their homes, to own a weapon for se!f–defense, to raise their children as they think best, to learn about new medical treatments and to live without interference from undercover government agents looking to create a crime. ”
Recognize that government power can threaten people’s rights
In the face of right-wing rhetoric, it is easy to regard fear of government power as just a smokescreen for conservative interests. To avoid this pitfall, progressives must show our concern is real by recognizing and protesting abuses of individual rights, even when the victims are our political enemies.
Progressives have their own powerful tradition of advocacy for limited government and opposition to government abuse. We are strong and consistent supporters of civil liberties against government and private attack because communities need them to understand and to organize.
All people must defend civil liberties against abuses of government power.
The right abuses government power for its own purposes
The right is not composed of consistent anarchists who oppose all government-far from it. The right rarely criticized the use of the police, FBI, and military to illegally harass and even kill black militants and opponents of the Vietnam War‑but they made a national issue when such illegal force was used against religious cults and white supremacists. In many areas the right wants more government intervention in people’s lives-for example, by transferring the decision of whether to have an abortion from an individual woman to the government.
The power of global corporations is a greater threat to freedom
People indeed feel powerless-and they are right to do so. But the main reason they are powerless is not because government is powerful but because global corporations dominate both government and the economy.
(9) Big–Government Agenda Betrays Democracy
“Jefferson believed that the best government is that which governs the least…Jefferson . . . would be appalled by the volumes o rules and regulations the federal government has conceived to complicate the lives o ordinary citizens …Surely he never thought that a citizen of free America could be fined for killing a blunt–nosed leopard lizard in the process of building a new house or for filling in a frog pond to obtain more cropland. “
Democratic government is part of the democratic tradition
In the Declaration of Independence, Jefferson wrote that “governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. . . . it is the Right of the People . . . to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”
Government is a legitimate part of the democratic tradition. It is a means people have created to further “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” and they should use it as such.
Collective eights and action are part of the democratic tradition
The Declaration of Independence explicitly asserts what it calls “Rights of the People” as well as those of individuals. While it declares that governments are instituted to secure the rights to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” it describes the creation of governments as an act of peoples, not of unconnected individuals. The Constitution of the United States begins “We the people of the United States”-not “We the persons of the United States.”
(10) Empowering Citizens and Communities
“[The goal is] to empower parents so they, not the state, might decide where their children should be educated…. [When schools are no longer government-run] they will reflect the will and the people, and the needs of the nation and its children, and not that of a tiny elite who think they, and only they, know what is best”.
Reclaim the stolen language of empowerment
In the past, conservatives generally trumpeted free enterprise and the free market as the alternative to government. While this remains a core belief for many, the public argument made by the right today is far different. (Perhaps their pollsters are telling them something the rest of us ought to know.) The right now speaks primarily in terms of transferring power not to the market but to citizens and communities. Typically, the Republican Party’s Restoring the, Dream states: “To transform the $1.6 trillion public enterprise in Washington into a citizen-responsive, cost-efficient operation, we must topple its massive bureaucratic structures and instead return money and power back to states, communities, and citizens themselves.”
Progressive community-based advocacy groups need to make clear that they have long been the real advocates of returning money and power back to communities and citizens.
Community empowerment requires government cooperation
Progressive community-based groups should make it clear that they favor programs like Head Start that use public resources to help local groups provide for the needs of their communities. They should advocate this kind of model as much as possible to meet such pressing needs as health care, education, and jobs.
Community empowerment is meaningless unless communities have resources. Government is a proper’source of resources for communities.
The right’s policies weaken and destroy communities
The right’s claim to empower citizens and communities is a fraud. Their policies and purposes actually empower global corporations and the wealthy.
? If the right is for the empowerment of communities, why does it f ight laws that make corporations tell communities what polluting chemicals they are using?
? Does replacing government with the market empower ordinary individuals–or corporations?
Support people’s demand for change
The right claims to express the idea of and desire for “change.” It has labeled its opponents as defenders of the status quo. Progressive community-based advocacy groups know better than anyone how desperately people want and need change. They should articulate-not offer themselves as a target for-public discontent.
Progressive community-based advocacy groups are not defenders of the status quo. They arc advocates for a very different kind of future, one in which the well-being of all people and their environment is assured.
All over the world people need change. They arc organizing themselves to get it. What’s the change? Getting control over the power and resources they need to solve their problems. That’s our vision. That’s democracy.
THE STORY REFRAMED
For hundreds of years, Americans and other people all over the world have been fighting to establish democratic control over kings, corporations, undemocratic governments, political machines, and other uncontrolled centers of power. They have used all kinds of means-community organizations, political parties, unions, government, even revolution-to assert the power of the people.
That struggle for democracy continues today Giant global corporations increasingly dominate the peoples, economics, and governments of the world. Meanwhile conditions of life for most people are deteriorating. That is why people are organizing to get the power and resources they need for their well-being.
Today the people are forced to fight against the global corporations and the one percent of the population who control the lion’s share of power and resources. They are fighting to make governments accountable to the people, rather than the bought-and-paid-for servants of corporations and the rich.
Some of those who oppose democratization are afraid the people will take away their wealth and power. Others want to impose their own views and values on those they disagree with. A “dismantle-democracy” movement-dubbed conservatism or the right-seeks to weaken the tools the people use to assert their power. It attacks government, unions, and community-based advocacy groups. But communities are organizing themselves and joining together to fight back and to create a decent future for themselves, each other, and the planet we all must live on together.