‘Framing’ Democratic Deliberation

            I had a thought provoking conversation with two colleagues in the Institute this week concerning the growing sophistication of the field of communications studies in frames analysis. Such efforts seek to identify the core epistemic-scale understandings of targeted populations or groups and to develop rhetorical strategies that will be most likely to cause individuals within them to change or at least to consider such assumptions. These efforts may also seek to reinforce epistemic understandings when that seems desirable to those pressing a communications claim. The reader may react by saying individuals have been seeking to persuade their fellow human beings to adopt their points-of-view throughout human history. Indeed, Plato offered a dialogue on the subject some 2,400 years ago, The Gorgias, in which Socrates encountered an ethically rudderless rhetorician who was quite proud of his ability to persuade all he met to change their perspective to accord with his own. Socrates exposed how superficial, not to say demeaning, such an orientation was as he questioned his prideful acquaintance. Persuasion, however successful, without substantive and ethical or moral moorings is a particularly sordid form of communication and is inherently disparaging of its audience.

            But if one’s aspiration is to gain assent, or perhaps a vote, and that choice gains you power or a material advantage, all that matters, rhetorical cynics and Socrates’ sparring partner might say, is whether the communicator gained the “other’s” assent or support and the fact that he or she misled or manipulated to do so is only a part of the game. The ends justify the means. It should also be said, prideful manipulators and unethical cynics notwithstanding, this sort of communications strategy can be well intended. We might all cheer, for example, if an especially effective ad campaign persuaded all Americans involved in unprotected sex with possible HIV infected individuals to discontinue such behaviors. So the picture is by no means a simple one.

            Nevertheless, it is quite difficult to encourage human beings to consider their core or framing assumptions and values. To do so without manipulation and while honoring their agency, even when their values may be causing or reinforcing conflict or are perhaps repugnant, is still more difficult. This is the terrain in which many change-oriented democratic leaders and would-be peace builders find themselves. And these individuals encounter still another, less obvious difficulty that may be illustrated by a fascinating fact in the current Presidential campaign. A recent survey found that 15 percent of Republicans in Ohio supporting their party’s current standard-bearer, Mitt Romney, believed that their candidate was responsible for the death of Osama Bin Laden. An additional 47 percent of the GOP partisans responding to that poll were not sure whether Mr. Romney or President Obama was responsible for the death of the infamous terrorist leader. In short, more than three fifths of the Republicans surveyed could not or would not attribute the death of Bin Laden to the individual most responsible for it occurring, President Barack Obama. That is, even in the face of massive publicity and news, these partisans could not ascribe this singularly noteworthy action to the President. The explanation for this turn is that the emotional and ideological devotion to their chosen candidate and their unwillingness to allow a contrary fact to mar their vision of the role of their selected contender so clouded these partisans’ judgment that they simply could not accord the President such standing. Their emotional devotion colored their capacity for equanimous judgment and acted to reinforce their existing predilection and framing values.

            Another interesting current policy example of this phenomenon concerns the nation’s recovery from its recent deep recession. Republican partisans continue to believe, and indeed the Romney campaign is predicated ultimately on just such claims, that the pace of private sector job growth following this last recession was lower than that following previous recent economic downturns. In fact, the reverse has been true, but fiscally strapped governments at all levels have not hired at historical rates and instead have laid-off thousands of employees, offsetting private sector gains. But believing otherwise fits partisans’ already existing inclinations and so most GOP party members long ago embraced the view that private sector job growth has been especially anemic and have blamed President Obama for the supposed difficulty.

            Given this demonstrable proclivity, all that political communicators must do to encourage such partisans is to press claims in accord with their existing values and these individuals likely will not only be supportive, but also actively reject any other option, given the emotional and intellectual filters in place to protect their choices. In light of this disposition and likely outcome, would-be elected leaders can offer sweeping claims that are values consonant and not worry about their core partisans’ support, however unfounded or injudicious such advocacy can be. When assertions from any source are contrary, filtering will nevertheless protect committed partisans from the discomfiting effects of those statements, as those GOP voters in Ohio demonstrated.

            This apparently very human propensity is significant and potentially worrisome for it points up just how difficult it is to secure a measure of reasoned deliberation concerning political matters among committed partisans of all sorts. When this fact is coupled with candidates’ and/or campaigns’ carefully crafted attempts to mobilize around emotions and by “shaping” messages, as Socrates’ interlocutor once did, to persuade, rather than to inform, it suggests just how high the hurdle to disciplined consideration of political matters may be for many voters. Candidates could help alleviate this situation, of course, but they have no incentive to do so since their principal aim is to offer a narrative that will garner votes, rather than to inform. And, as my conversation with my colleagues suggested, candidates’ understanding of how to do that is deepening each day. The question is whether voters of all stripes can become sufficiently informed and self-reflective so as to address and overcome the ever more sophisticated juggernaut of communications claims specifically designed to appeal to their most closely held values and to accord with their “natural” filtering mechanisms. Voter capacity to do so will determine the quality of democratic deliberation in this and coming electoral cycles and thereby the quality and character of their regime’s governance. Judging from those GOP voters recently polled in Ohio, at least, this challenge is not yet being met.