Author’s Note: I, ironically, made a framing mistake by taking the perspective of a Democrat in this post. As a result, it has been perceived by some as partisan which deflected from my point that it is hard to deliver a substantive message involving a complex topic with facts and logic to those that hold a frame that is inconsistent with that message. That means that it is vital to control, as much as possible, the frame (which is often summarized and even controlled with a label) that the audience brings to the discussion. As my kids would say, “my bad.” I’ve posted a companion post that will make the framing point in a nonpartisan way that I hope will make the central point without distraction.

Democrats always seem to lose the all-important framing battle, and they are on the verge of losing another as Republicans tee up the “socialism” specter and attach it to many of the Democrats’ proposals.

Republicans are really good at framing. They are just too clever, too disciplined, and too comfortable with simplistic framing. Consider mandates around Obamacare (vs. patient protection or affordable choice), pro-life (an apparent winner over pro-choice), second amendment (vs. mass shootings), and more. Firms and brands can learn from this approach.

Differences in Perspective & Taxation Framing

Consider the difference in perspectives on taxation driven by a phrase that frames the discussion. “Tax relief”—an extremely effective Republican frame—which engenders the metaphor of a hero who is relieving people of a burden with tax cuts. “Tax as investment in the future,” on the other hand, produces the image of roads built, children educated, and a defense force enhanced. And “tax as dues” is a metaphor associated with paying your fair share for services benefiting you and others like you. Each frame influences the discourse by implicitly altering the objectives. Once a frame like “tax relief” is in place, the argument is all but over, any facts or logic will be ignored or distorted.

Being able to frame the discussion by imposing a perspective that’s driven by a label is key to winning—whether it’s a divisive political argument or a tough brand battle. The linguist, George Lakoff (“Don’t Think of an Elephant,” White River Junction, VT, Chelsea Green, 2004), observes that winning the framing war with respect to a brand, object, or issue will dictate perceptions, attitudes and behavior—no matter what the logic and evidence may say. Strong frames or perspectives smother and distort rational information processing.

Reducing the Impact of the “Socialism” Frame

What can Democrats do to prevent or reduce the impact of the socialism frame? What doesn’t work is to argue that what is being proposed is not socialism. Even worse is to argue that socialism is misinterpreted and explain what it really is. If you accept their frame, you just dig yourself a bigger hole.  Rather, the task is to find the right frames and use them consistently.

A primary frame should be around the social problem that needs attending—climate change, inequality, mass shootings, health care availability, or restrictions on voting. When the problem remains the focus and frames the discussion, it is more difficult to dismiss solution options. It should be so prominent that it compels the audience to consider solutions. The detractors are then on the defense.

The solutions also need to be carefully framed so that they do not get submerged by the “socialism” frame. The role of the frame should be to guide evaluators to look at the solution through its strengths and not its limitations. So, something like market-based carbon prices (the word tax should be avoided) or Medicare buy-in, or access to the ballot box would provide a frame that, when accepted, leads the discussion.

Finally, it is critical to be persistent and disciplined over time about always using your frame and never that of the opponent. Make sure that no one deviates. Two framing areas the Democrats have done well is the “preconditions preventing insurance access” and “sensible gun control.”

Final Thoughts

If you lose the framing battle, you lose. Take a lesson from the Republicans: When building a brand or a public policy position, instead of arguing about its superiority, focus on framing the discussion so that competitors’ arguments are not heard because they don’t speak to the key element of the issue or brand decision.