Obama, Gates and Lakoff: The Perils of 'Framing'

"Framing" refers to the employing of narratives, rather than facts, to describe an event or phenomenon. Its purpose is to contextualize a subject matter in a way that illustrates the validity of something the frame-maker wants to show. The theory behind framing, and the practice of the device in a political context, is put forward by University of California at Berkeley professor and Democratic Party strategist Dr. George Lakoff. Lakoff attends Party strategizing sessions, including one in early 2005 that planned the successful Party counteroffensives against Bush on Social Security reform and federal judges. President Obama's reaction in the Gates affair illustrates how Framing works, as well as the pitfalls attendant to its use.

 "Framing" comes from the Cognitivist paradigm on knowledge and knowing. Cognitivism holds that the human mind is reactive rather than reflective; it is a device that depends for learning and making decisions not upon any independent analytical capabilities the brain may possess, but rather on how the brain's physiological processes have internalized what has been fed into it by its environment and the opinion-making agents that operate in, and decipher, that environment.

Rationality, Lakoff says in The Political Mind, published in 2008 by Viking, resides not in observing and deliberating upon facts, but rather in the pictures we have of ourselves and our world, pictures Lakoff calls, in addition to "frames," "narratives." These pictures we incorporate in the form of roles we play and have others play, roles that have a dichotomous nature. Roles The Political Mind mentions include Hero, Villain, Helper and Victim. He writes that they "are instantiated physically in our brains. We are not born with them, but we start growing them soon, and as we acquire the deep narratives, our synapses change and become fixed." "We cannot understand other people without such cultural narrative," he goes on, "but more important, we cannot understand ourselves."[i][1] Roles, he says, "give meaning to your life."[ii][2]

 In addition to giving meaning to our lives, "Framing" is also the technique of putting the "right" context in place so that in political combat the liberal Democratic side wins. With the publication of his best-selling Don't Think of an Elephant in 2004, Lakoff became an instant hero to Democrats in Congress. Tom Daschle when he was the Senate minority leader asked him to participate in the Democratic legislative caucus's strategy sessions. Representative George Miller offered to disseminate Don't Think of an Elephant to the entire Democratic House membership, and the book became, as journalist Matt Bai described, "ubiquitous among Democrats in the capitol."[iii][3] Lakoff explicitly declares that Republicans and conservatives threaten democracy: "In its moral basis and its content," he writes, "conservatism is centered on the politics of authority, obedience, and discipline. This content is profoundly anti-democratic, whereas our country was founded on opposition to authoritarianism."[iv][4] To deal with conservatives he says progressives should "make the progressive version of (the ideas of freedom, equality, fairness, and opportunity) uppermost in the public mind."[v][5] And the way to do this is to repeat the progressive version of issues multiple times: "Say things not once, but over and over. Brains change when ideas are repeatedly activated."[vi][6] 

The progressive narrative on fairness holds that the United States is a racist place structurally; that the American population is overwhelmingly a majority white population, and that this majority status automatically infers indifference and even hostility to minorities. It is a frame explicitly political in content; Democrats and progressives can never be guilty of racism. President Obama's first book, Dreams From My Father, describes his search, as a middle class man of mixed parentage born and raised in multi-racial Hawaii and Indonesia, for the image of himself he should internalize. He doesn't accept the progressive frame automatically; he writes honestly as a man somewhat isolated and alienated  racially, a man going from one stage of life to another, looking for the role he should see for himself, and the roles toward himself he should see others playing.

 In Dreams From My Father Obama writes about the images his white grandparents held about blacks, and of the various insults he received by whites acting out the racial images they carried. He also describes the Black Nationalist narrative, doing so in cost-benefit terms, analyzing the fallacies and utilities of the "Blacks as Victims" against "Whites as Oppressors" template. One thing he concludes is that "race-baiting could make up for a host of limitations."[vii][7] He ultimately decides to reject the Black Nationalist frame, in part because it "corrupted both language and thought, (and) made us forgetful and encouraged fabrication, (and) eventually eroded our ability to hold either ourselves or each other accountable."[viii][8]

It was the Black Nationalist template that Professor Gates employed against officer Crowley in Cambridge - a template that encouraged Dr. Gates' over-reaction to events and led to Obama to insert himself very publicly into the issue and on the wrong side of what actually took place. Gates claimed he was unhappy over his treatment by Sgt. Crowley and said he was the victim of racial profiling. "This is what happens to black men in America," he allegedly said.[ix][9] Obama echoed the imagery when he said police "acted stupidly," and by needlessly mentioning the "long history in this country of African-Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately." That the Black Nationalist template of Crowley as a Racist depicted fiction was revealed when it became known that the officer had an exemplary record on race relations and carried a recording that the police union says backs up his version of events. When Obama told reporters later that he "could have recalibrated (his) words differently, and added that Gates "probably overreacted," he was admitting that it was progressive frame, and not reality, that fuelled his initial erroneous comments. Obama's correction of the record was welcome, but the damage to Crowley's reputation and the reputation of the Cambridge police had already been done. In simply inviting Gates and Crowley to the White House for a beer, he fails to address framing as a practice, and thereby allows innocent people to continue to be negatively branded in the future.

After their success in defeating Republican proposals to overhaul Social Security, Nancy Pelosi crowed about the "Roll-of-the-Dice" imagery the Democrats used to de-legitimize Bush's reform plan. "We branded them with privatization," Pelosi said, "and they can't sell that brand anywhere. At the beginning of this debate, voters were saying that the president was a president who had new ideas. Now he's a guy who wants to cut my benefits."[x][10] President Obama as an activist and a Senator present during the battles of 2005 certainly knows about the power of framing as a political weapon.

Now, ostensibly, he also understands something about the device's artificial and unpredictable nature.

[i][1] George Lakoff, The Political Mind, (New York: Viking, 2008), pp. 33-4.

[ii][2] Ibid., p. 33.

[iii][3] Matt Bai, "The Framing Wars," New York Times Magazine, July 17, 2005.

[iv][4] Lakoff, p. 68.

[v][5] Ibid. p. 115.

[vi][6] Ibid. p. 116.