Frame Analysis: The Art of Politics

by | March 4, 2016 |

Note: I first took up the subject of frame analysis in The Articulate Executive II and here I repeat a few of the comments I made in that blog. My argument and some examples are from George Lakoff’s Don’t Think of an Elephant!

We’re in high political season, and we’re all awash in rhetoric. Or, at least, those of us watching are awash – and I certainly am. I’m engaged in the debates and commentary as much as a citizen as I am as a linguist.

My topic here is not the mud slinging, which is predictable and boring. Much more interesting is analyzing the frames swirling around.

Frame Analysis

Frames are mental structures shaping the way we see the world. They are, in fact, the most important brain structures shaping our politics. Frames are not necessarily the direct content of messages; rather, they are the latent structures for interpreting the content.

For instance, the phrase tax relief frames taxes as an affliction. The two-word phrase invokes the idea, without stating outright, that taxes are a burden.

Alternatively, a banner over a public project Your tax dollars at work! frames taxes as an investment in the future. Your tax dollars at work! got us our interstate highway system, our scientific and medical establishments, our communications system, the Internet, our airline system, our space program, our public schools and universities, which are all things we need – not relief from.

Whatever your perspective, you need your own frame to be in place in order to make your point.

Another way of saying this is: the brain does not register a not. It registers the frame of the not. Nixon’s saying “I am not a crook” accepts the frame that he’s a crook.

Enter Trump. He effectively framed Bush as “low energy.” Bush tried tentative statements to the effect that he had energy – but no amount of protestation on Bush’s part could work, because the moment he commented on his energy he had accepted Trump’s frame.

In the second debate, when Bush went after Trump at one point, Trump said, “Hey, you’re showing more energy. I like that.” Bush was momentarily speechless – and with good reason. Trump had reactivated the low energy frame by attributing more energy to Bush.

In her speech after winning the South Carolina Democratic primary, Clinton argued, “We don’t need to make America great. America has never stopped being great. But we do need to make it whole .… Instead of building walls, we need to be tearing down barriers.

It was an applause line, but it was also a mistake. Why invoke Trump’s frame by asserting America has never stopped being great? The phrase Make America great again hovers over, under and around her words.

And Trump easily dealt with it the next day by mocking the phrase make American whole again and wondering what it means. Note how he inserted the word again into her phrase, thereby also reasserting his.

Now, it’s not as if Trump doesn’t fall into others’ frames. Rubio made a joke about Trump’s tiny hands, and Trump couldn’t let it pass. He declared that people always said he had such beautiful hands. He would have done better to ignore it.

Just this week, Trump tweeted about the Governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who defended Romney in 2012 for not immediately releasing his tax return.

Trump tweeted: The people of South Carolina are embarrassed by Nikki Haley!

Haley tweeted at Trump: Bless his heart.

Spot on, Haley. That’s how you do it. Good frame analysis. She didn’t accept Trump’s frame. Instead, she effectively reframed the exchange with that most trenchant of sweet Southern expressions.

The Urban Dictionary entry for Bless your heart is the following:

a. This is a term used by the people of the southern United States … to express to someone that they are an idiot without saying such harsh words.

b. “You are an idiot but I like you and care about you so I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”

Little Billy: I am 6 years old (only holds up 4 fingers)
Scarlet: Oh honey, bless your heart, but that’s only 4 fingers.
Little Billy tries again: I am 6 years old (this time holds up the same 4 fingers and 4 more on the other hand)
Scarlet: Child….Bless you and your momma’s heart.

Trump is a master of framing. All politicians can take a lesson from him, even Trump himself sometimes.

Frame analysis determines everything in politics.

See also: All My Language Blogs

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This post was written by Julie Tetel Andresen

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