The battle to frame perceptions of political parties

In the film Vice, a biopic about Dick Cheney, there is a scene in which a Republican researcher is addressing a group of political operatives about inheritance taxes and how they need to be framed as ‘death taxes’ – a framing which ensures any negative campaign appeals to a much wider audience than the wealthy who would be most affected.

The brief scene captures what has become a truism in the Anglosphere. Right wingers are better at framing policies than progressive parties.

Framing theory, perhaps best explained in George Lakoff’s 2005 book Don’t Think of an Elephant about how you can frame your values or views to persuade the public of a viewpoint, provides a basis for understanding how the Right has managed to convince majorities that they are better economic managers and at national security than progressives.

Overcoming the problem is an urgent priority for the US Democrats, the ALP and UK British Labour although the last seems to be making some progress under a new leader and helped by Boris Johnson’s ineptitude. But what exactly should progressives do to solve the problem?

Joseph O’Neill in the NYRB (28 May 2020) has a rather superficial shot at it by focussing on short term messaging in campaigns and branding. He suggests that a “winning Democratic brand strategy would have two parts: a strategy for increasing trust in the party, and a strategy for diminishing trust in the GOP” citing as a parallel Coke and Pepsi advertising. It seems to be a long time since political operatives, and even longer since political commentators, thought in terms of brand let alone in the US where the concept is harder to implement because there is no one set of brand characteristics that epitomise either party.

His analysis is correct in one respect however, in that the diverse ‘sub brands’ of the parties provide ample opportunity for negative campaigning – racist Republicans and allegedly radical leftist Democrats. And the Trump brand, which constitutes the Republican brand at present, may well be a major negative in the November elections.

One strong point O’Neill makes in the context of negative campaigning is the irony “that essentially Marxist insights into culture – into the operations of cultural capital and coded meaning – have been best understood and deployed by the Right.”

Another recent answer is in the new book The Art of Political Storytelling by Philip Seargeant which takes an old idea and seeks to bring it up to date. Of course, narrative has been critical to success from the Greeks until today but the rub is in the nature and framing of the narrative.

In all this, there is one significant insight into contemporary narrative, brand and political conventional wisdom – the elite is redefined by the Right as the culturally aware educated and liberal while the left has failed to build on the concept that the elite are the rich and the powerful. As some commentators have observed the Right has effectively turned Richard Hofstadter’s The Paranoid Style in American Politics on its head.

The late Albert O. Hirschman also systematised thinking about three tactics which can be employed to combat progressive policies. The jeopardy thesis basically says the cost is not worth it and will endanger whatever we have already achieved. This is the anti-mining  and carbon taxes argument. The futility thesis says that some problems are so large that they can’t be solved. This counsel of despair is not that favoured by anyone of any persuasion in government because it’s not an appealing sound grab in an era when governments are always promising to fix thing. A modern variation is ‘this will take time’ and the proverbial ‘let’s not rush into this’ is something most people mutter some time or other. The perversity thesis is simply that reforms will damage the people they are supposed to help. Wage increases for the lowly-paid are always opposed on this basis. Another variation on the perversity thesis is to speak of vague, frightening and unquantifiable “unintended consequences.”

Hirschman also turned his attention to flaws in progressive narratives and suggested they took three forms: the synergy illusion that all reforms work together rather than competing; imminent danger – the need for action is urgent to prevent a crisis (environment policy); and, history is on our side.

Not having advised on a major political campaign since the mid-1990s it might be rash to suggest what the ALP should do now. But the ALP has had some experience with branding – It’s Time and Kevin 07 – brought success but in the latter it was brief when the public discovered they had bought an Edsel and not a Maserati and the Murdoch media unleashed its almighty negative campaigns. Trying this tactic with Albo is probably a bit hard but it could be done in terms of the concept of reputation management – that you earn trust by aspiring to authenticity and practising transparency.

As far as narrative is concerned, in the last Federal election Bill Shorten failed to meld the ALP’s disparate policies into a coherent narrative although it is more probable that his loss was due to the fact that the public, like many in the ALP, simply didn’t trust him. Despite that the ALP needs to spend more time thinking about the narrative and how policies fit into it rather than the other way around.

Beyond that there is no simple answer but there are some lessons from recent successes. The first is the easiest – a massive online negative campaign hammering away for the years until the 2022 election on Prime Ministerial evasions and all the things Liberal Government has got wrong in the areas of waste, corruption, dodgy funding, cruelty such as Robodebt and refusal to act on climate change.

To this can confidently be added the probable erosion of any gains Morrison has made in personal popularity (if not apparently transferring to Liberal-National polling) by the anger of the inevitable left behinds as a result of future ‘snap back’ policies.

The second, is – despite the failures of the Get Up campaigns – to get back to the ground door to door game which was so successful for the Andrews Government and which converted its first win into a second term landslide. The model is there it just needs to be adapted a bit.

The third is to adapt the only sensible thing Jeremy Corbyn did, before self and party immolating, is to avoid the usual parliamentary tactical games and be seen to be using parliament to talk about vivid examples of the life and problems of ordinary people as a means of illustrating policy failures and policies.

And despite Hirschman’s concerns about flaws in progressive narratives imminent danger has always been a good one – if recently deployed more often by the Right than progressives – but it might still have life in it for progressives who can frame it effectively.