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Nailing the frames of the Republican National Convention

Monday, August 30: All terror, all the time


(Bart Nagel photo)
•  August 30: All terror, all the time
•  August 31: Pull yourself up by your bootstraps — if you can afford the boots
•  September 1: Red-meat night frames Kerry
•  September 2: Freedom, liberty, freedom
George Lakoff, professor of linguistics at UC Berkeley, is filing daily dispatches analyzing the language used in the major speeches of the Republican National Convention. Lakoff is a senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute and the author of "Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think," in addition to books on linguistics, metaphors, and mathematics. He analyzes "framing," or the ways in which conservatives and liberals position issues to fit their respective moral worldviews. His latest book, "Don't Think of an Elephant: Know Your Values and Frame the Debate," will be published by Chelsea Green in mid-September.

The first prime-time speeches of the convention were devoted to framing the election in terms of September 11 and the "global war on terror" it sparked. Over and over, Arizona Senator John McCain and former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani invoked the horror of that day three years ago. With Giuliani's speech, you could practically feel the soot coming down. The frame was set by the visual background an engulfing image of the smoking ruins and the date writ large. The speech elaborated how we are to view the election. Here's the frame that emerged:

We're still in this thing. Here's the picture, here's the guy who was there, this is happening now. We're a nation at war.
And it's not just our war on terror, it's the global war on terror, equivalent to the war against the Nazis and the Cold War, which is why the speakers invoked Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, and Ronald Reagan. Our freedom is at stake. Freedom, freedom, freedom. Nothing is more important, no sacrifice is too great.
Therefore the leader we need must not only be strong and tough, but resolute, unyielding, unchanging, with no taste for "appeasement, accommodation and compromise." Bush, not the "flip-flopper" Kerry.

McCain's speech framed the Iraq War as an inseparable part of the Great War on Terror, a battle of Right versus Wrong, of Good versus Evil - a war of necessity, not choice. "We must fight; we must," he said, calling the Iraq war a "rendezvous with destiny" (quoting FDR on World War II) and arguing "there was no status quo to be left alone." The argument is that, although apparently Saddam Hussein didn't have weapons of mass destruction, he would have had them sooner or later. Exactly when isn't important, because as Giuliani said, Saddam "was a weapon of mass destruction himself." When the literal isn't there, the metaphorical will do.

Effective framing is equally about what's excluded from the frame. Frames, once established, are hermetically sealed. You can only think within the frame, only reason with what the frame allows.

When you focus tightly on something like the events of September 11 and a war between good and evil, you are choosing to omit other details and issues. For example, neither speaker once mentioned the name Osama bin Laden; al Qaeda was only mentioned a few times. The fact that both are still at large and functioning cannot be part of the frame celebrating our incremental victories in the "global war on terror" and the triumph of George W. Bush. Neither McCain nor Giuliani mentioned the thousand American soldiers killed in Iraq except in the most abstract terms, as heroes or sacrifices. The tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians who have been killed are also omitted, as are the new terrorists recruited as a result of the Iraq War. Halliburton is not mentioned, nor Abu Ghraib. Oil is not mentioned. There's no oil in the fight-for-freedom frame.

In the frame, people like us are good, and terrorists are just evil. There's no attempt to understand the causes of terrorism, why ordinary kids grow up to become terrorists. Although both McCain and Giuliani took pains to spell out that the bad guys were Islamic fundamentalists, those who had "hijacked a great religion," not ordinary Muslims, they excluded from the frame other kinds of terrorists, such as the Irish Republican Army or Timothy McVeigh.

McCain and Giuliani spoke of the terrorists as a faceless "they": "They fight to express a hatred for all that is good in humanity" (McCain). It's as if he and Giuliani were referring to a fixed, finite group, "'they' will hear from us," meaning we'll bomb them and then there will be fewer of them. Whether bombing may make it easier for terrorists to recruit new terrorists is not part of the frame. Giuliani invoked Yassir Arafat getting the Peace Prize as a joke, but the larger picture of the Israel-Palestinian experience has to be excluded: the Israelis have been going after the Palestinian terrorists militarily for years and they're just ending up with more and more terrorists, including women and children.

Interestingly, Giuliani's speech used September 11 to justify attacking failed states. Although terrorists are not a state phenomenon - they exist separate from governments and national boundaries - conservatives are trying to use the notion of the failed state to justify the only kind of war they know how to wage, which is against countries.

It is "critical to remove the pillars of support for the global terrorist movement," Giuliani said, and that support can take a very intangible form, such as "the lack of accountable governments. Rather than trying to grant more freedom, create more income, improve education and basic health care, these governments deflect their own failures by pointing to America and Israel and other external scapegoats." So, any government that cannot control its terrorists is evil. That's bad news for the countries Giuliani named - Iran, Syria, and the Sudan - but notice he didn't mention Saudi Arabia, a failed government from which Osama Bin Laden has drawn his wealth, whose businessmen support radical Islamic schools, and the country of origin of most of the September 11 terrorists.

There are many other things that are excluded from the official framing of the "global war on terror," such as oil, the economy, the deficit, health care, jobs, education, taxes, and the effects of global trade. The implication is that none of these things matter if every American is in mortal danger, even those in the swing states where there's little to no chance of a terrorist strike.

But rationality is not at issue here. People think in terms of frames. If this frame is accepted, all such "rational" arguments will be beside the point. Negating the frame would just reinforce it. The facts alone won't do the job.

If you don't want this frame accepted, you have to puncture it effectively by using what the public already believes (for example, that Iraq is a disaster area), and you have to offer a strong, positive alternative frame.

And fast.

George Lakoff's affiliation with the Rockridge Institute appears for identification purposes only.

Previous NewsCenter interviews with Lakoff:

• Linguistics professor George Lakoff dissects the "war on terror" and other conservative catchphrases, 26 August 2004

• Framing the issues: UC Berkeley professor George Lakoff tells how conservatives use language to dominate politics, 27 October 2003