In politics, “framing” is the attempt to alter reality by selecting words, slogans and tropes that convince the public to see the other side in a certain negative way. As Robert Entman explains, “To frame is to select some aspects of a perceived reality and make them more salient in a communicating text, in such a way as to promote a particular problem definition, causal interpretation, moral evaluation, and/or treatment recommendation for the item described.”
Framing is choosing the language, the words, the tropes that will produce the most lasting image in the minds of voters.
Framing Democrats and progressives
Everybody frames everybody with whom they disagree. Evangelicals frame progressives as “demons;” progressives frame evangelicals as “dummies.”
Google “Democrats as devils,” and the web blows up. Headlines scream: “It’s Almost Official: The Democrats Are the Party of the Devil;” “The Democratic Party is Satanic, Literally!;” “Devil for the Democrats?;” “It’s all in the details;It’s official: the Democrats are the party of the Devil”; “The Democrats Are Evil”; “Democrats Have Become the Party of Satan.” A cursory search produced more than 50 articles insisting that Democrats are devils.
The arguments of the “Democrats are devils” trope are working. Here are representative samples of the bombarding of the public with the major trope:
- “Democrats are intent on destroying America and your way of life. And there is no way to compromise with people who believe in the end of America.”
- “The cosmic truth of the matter is that high-level “DEMONcrats” are quite literally demon-infested creatures who are pretending to be human. This is not a metaphor. It is literal.”
- An exorcist ranted this week about how Democrats are “possessed and in league with the devil” and how they “want the same goals.”
Framing Republicans and evangelicals
Evangelicals, on the other hand, have been framed by liberals as dupes, dummies, backward hillbillies, rednecks, racists and ignorant. The primary pathos of liberal persuasion is shaming. Civil virtue has shamed evangelicals for not supporting gay marriage or feminism.
Shame is a primary liberal pedagogy. Since framing is an attempt at persuasion, it always intensifies what is perceived as the weakness of evangelicals and exaggerates those perceived weaknesses to the maximum.
“Shame is a primary liberal pedagogy.”
American historian David Blight says, “Liberals sometimes invite scorn with their devotion to diversity training and insistence on fighting over words rather than genuine inequality.”
Evangelicals, in other words, have reasons for deeming progressives as elitist and hypocritical. In the court of public opinion, perhaps it is hard to discern if liberal framing of evangelicals has stuck.
Emotional language works
George Lakoff, in The Political Mind, says progressives have been framed by conservative rhetoric that is deeply emotional and has powerful appeal for voters. Polls show that Americans support Roe v. Wade by large margins. But in conservative framing, abortion is still the go-to issue to show that Democrats and progressive Christians are undermining morality.
Likewise, 70% of Americans support same-sex marriage and 67% of Americans believe in evolution. Even 68% of Republicans support alternative energy development. Yet Republicans continue to win elections by opposing the issues that the majority of the nation supports. The frame job has worked.
Whereas once American Christians lived in the Methodist frame, the Baptist frame, the Episcopal frame, the Catholic frame, the Lutheran frame, or the Presbyterian frame, now conservatives have framed progressives as non-Christians. This has nothing to do with the affirmation of all these mainline Christians of the Apostles’ Creed. They are framed as non-Christian because of their positions on abortion, marriage and gender.
“Now conservatives have framed progressives as non-Christians.”
The valedictorian of the “progressive Christians are devils” class is Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas. Jeffress has framed all Democrats with the charge of paganism: “Well, apparently the god they worship is the pagan god of the Old Testament Moloch, who allowed for child sacrifice. The god of the Bible doesn’t sanction the killing of millions and millions of children in the womb, I think the god they are worshiping is the god of their own imagination.”
Jeffress has called Democrats “a godless party” and said “the God (Democrats) talk about is not the God of the Bible. It is the God of their imagination – a God who loves abortion and hates Israel, whereas the true God that most Jews and Christians are familiar with is a God who hates abortion and loves Israel.”
The problem with shaming
No one likes to be shamed, but shame is the primary product of the liberal frame job. Eve Sedgwick asks: “Can anyone suppose that we’ll ever figure out what happened around political correctness if we don’t see it as, among other things, a highly politicized chain reaction of shame dynamics?”
Political correctness becomes a pedagogy, a sweeping masterwork of shame designed to rip residual structures of degradation from speech.
Evangelicals often are confused when people lose jobs because of the use of “politically incorrect” language. They think they are making jokes, but when shamed by the new civil virtues of acceptance and diversity, they fight back. People get shamed, or lose their jobs, for example, when they believe they’re just having a little fun making fun.
The evangelical angst revolves into a mantra: “I feel unfree.” It would be cavalier to deny these are legitimate feelings. Evangelicals feel they are being denied freedom of speech.
One side’s framing is more effective
In the court of public opinion, the evangelical trope seems to stick to progressives; the progressive trope doesn’t stick to evangelicals as well.
Democrats and progressives have been framed, and the jury has returned the verdict and found them guilty as charged — not on the evidence but on the emotional appeals of the conservative testimonials.
“Democrats and progressives have been framed, and the jury has returned the verdict and found them guilty as charged — not on the evidence but on the emotional appeals of the conservative testimonials.”
In Will Campbell’s novella, Cecelia’s Sin, a group of Anabaptists face execution for their faith. The night before their anticipated arrest, they discuss that the authorities claimed they were “communists.” Goris tries to help Peter understand that it doesn’t matter that the charge of communism is false. “But they believe we are communist,” Goris said. “And that is enough. If they think we are seditious, we are seditious. That is what sedition is. It is what they say it is.”
No progress can be made in understanding the conservative appeal until we grasp that it’s about emotional arguments. Facts, truth, reality, policies evaporate like morning dew; emotions of rage, outrage and moral indignation stick like Velcro. The right-wing mantra possesses “contagious feelings.”
People catch feelings as easily as the common cold. Affect leaps from one body to another, evoking tenderness, inciting shame, igniting rage, exciting fear. Feelings not only spread, they “stick,” according to Sara Ahmed in The Cultural Politics of Emotion.
When these ancient feelings were attacked by a new civic virtue that promoted diversity, acceptance and a new ethical consciousness, conservative thoughts were dislodged and became unstuck. What has followed has been a furious denial of culpability.
The old evangelical paradigm, like a giant white egg, developed cracks and fractures, and panic ensued. The new pedagogy of antiracism, gender emancipation, queer emancipation, new horizons of political enfranchisement turned evangelicals into rebellious students unwilling to be taught by others. Confronted by new ethical paradigms designed to make persons more hospitable, more open, more sensitive, more thoughtful, more moral, evangelicals reverted to the old paradigms and attempted to patch the fractures and cracks.
Perhaps this explains the desperate attempts to revise American history and oppose science in the classroom. The epistemic foundations of evangelical faith are coming loose. Instead of claiming that evangelicals are resentful, Lawrence Grossberg says we should examine the terror of the humiliation of being a victim. One avoids the humiliation of loss and victimage by humiliating the other, by diminishing their status and capacity, destroying their sense of pride, reducing them to a lower state of being. Therefore, evangelicals have intensified attacks on gays, women, transgender persons, immigrants, scientists, historians, liberals. They have framed everyone as devils and demons.
“The evangelical feeling machine delivers a constant flow of emotional frames.”
The evangelical feeling machine delivers a constant flow of emotional frames. Like a chocolate fountain at a wedding reception, evangelical emotions pour forth to the public feelings, feelings and more feelings. What underscores evangelical argument is emotion.
The peril of progressives dismissing emotion
Progressives, on the other hand, mistrust emotion and at times make fun of emotional arguments as if Aristotle didn’t insist on its persuasive power. Progressives can come across as austere, thick-minded, stubborn and insistent on not exhibiting feelings. In place of emotional frames, progressives tend to use intellectual, scholarly, elitist frames.
Progressives are seen as the ones taking away the nation, taking away morals, history and the future. Conservatives insist they are the ones aligned with freedom and rights. They claim they are protecting the nation. Evangelicals feel justified in these claims when they think progressives are no longer taking the Bible seriously. Progressives would be better served by attempting to understand the evangelical frames.
What can progressives do? Perhaps the first move would be to stop playing the “frame game.” Instead of depicting evangelicals as enemies, return to seeking any possible common ground. Failing to find such an ideal place to stand, at least surrender the language of framing that labels evangelicals as dummies and rednecks.
Admit that conservatives have successfully won the framing war and progressives have failed. Then, develop and articulate a moral vision for the future of democracy. Instead of embracing conservative frames, progressives must construct their own frames. Stop pretending that conservative, evangelical morality is anything other than self-righteous moralism. Insist that the civic morality of acceptance comes far closer to the practice of Jesus than that of evangelicals. Defend democracy’s anchor institutions. And maintain professional ethics while refusing to buy the lie of the devil that God’s work can be accomplished with the devil’s means.
“Admit that conservatives have successfully won the framing war and progressives have failed.”
Progressives should stop trying to use conservative frames and instead use their own language: empathy, compassion, truth, hope, justice, grace, mercy, righteousness. Stop being afraid of emotional arguments. Frame arguments with legitimate emotional appeals. Always speak from moral vision. Progressive policies follow from the morality of empathy and hospitality.
Instead of dismissing evangelical arguments, do a deep dive into the abyss and learn to understand the power of the frame job that has turned progressives into “devils.” Be able to explain why conservatives believe what they believe without making fun of what they believe.
The great challenge for progressives is to keep the arguments from spiraling out of control into hateful, resentful emptiness. Kenneth Burke argues: “The process of human enlightenment can go no further than in picturing people not as vicious, but as mistaken.”
If evangelicals would speak of progressives as “misguided” instead of as “devils,” perhaps a small crack would occur in the door to make possible renewed conversations with one another.
It is time to break out of the cycle of framing, blaming and judging.
Rodney W. Kennedy currently serves as interim pastor of Emmanuel Freiden Federated Church in Schenectady, N.Y., and as preaching instructor Palmer Theological Seminary. He is the author of nine books, including the newly released The Immaculate Mistake, about how evangelical Christians gave birth to Donald Trump.
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