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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

“Lesser of two evils”

Voting dilemmas & framing

“Choosing the lesser of two evils isn’t a bad thing. The cliché makes it sound bad, but it’s a good thing. You get less evil.”
— Noam Chomsky (attributed)

Every few years, we get a vote. We call it “democracy”, and it’s so important that we’ll even bomb other countries into adopting a pretense of it. So, please indulge me by considering this “framing” dilemma:-

Imagine: For decades, governments (regardless of party) aid the rich, blame the poor, start wars, erode basic freedoms, etc – all the nasty fascistic/unprogressive* stuff. The only real voting “choice” is between different “party presentations”, eg:

• Party 1: “Progressive is good. We’re progressive.” [Second claim is false]
Party 2:Unprogressive is good. We’re unprogressive.” [Second claim is true]

Accepting that this is just a fairy tale from my imagination (and nothing to do with reality), who would you vote for? (Assume you’re forced to vote).

Many would probably vote for Party 2 on the basis that at least it’s not lying about progressive ideals (among other things). I encountered something like this during the Bush/Gore US election – some on the left would say: “Let Bush win! At least his fascist tendencies are out in the open”.

To continue with the malign fairy tale, Party 2 wins and promotes the “unprogressive is good” message relentlessly. Fear, intolerance, competition. Everything is framed in that way for decades, until people lose the cognitive ability to conceptualise in progressive frames. The authoritarian/unprogressive becomes “common sense” and “normal”.

The unprogressive policies were always a given with both parties (for “structural” fairy tale reasons – The Evil Corporation™, etc). But the dominant framing wasn’t a given. Only Party 2′s framing has warped people’s minds to the effect that even “working class” people are starting to think in the frames/metaphors previously used only by the wealthy conservative.

(The heroine/hero of the tale ponders the significance – if any – of this to the “lesser of two evils” voting dilemma…)

Luckily it’s only a nightmarish fantasy. In the real world, minds don’t get warped – people think for themselves, with facts and stuff. Of course. Still, it’s disturbing to see cognitive scientists like George Lakoff having similar fantasies. In his nightmare, conservatives have been…

“…instilling their worldview and their deep framing over thirty-five years – changing a lot of brains, and by repetition, making those changes permanent. […] As a result, progressive messages don’t take root, because the soil was prepared for conservative messages, not progressive ones.”
(Lakoff, The Political Mind, p239)

* I’m not keen on the term “unprogressive”, but I tried using other terms, and they didn’t quite work in this context.

UPDATE (24/10/2016) – Noam Chomsky has now co-written a full rationale for “voting the lesser evil”. It’s available here and also on Chomsky’s official site, here.

Written by NewsFrames

October 24, 2012 at 8:04 pm

4 Responses

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  1. Another excellent post Brian. We’ve had more than thirty years of free market fundamentalism and I can’t see things changing much. It’s hard being a genuine leftie.


    October 24, 2012 at 8:21 pm

  2. Aprops ‘The Political Mind’ (on new understanding of how the brain works, and what it means for voting), I found the following line from Lakoff’s book to be resonant:

    “Our democracy is in danger.That danger has its roots in money, power, social structure, and history, but its ultimate source is in the brains of our citizens.”

    You mention the “heroine/hero” of the tale, but I feel like I’m playing the fool’s role much of the time. Certainly we’ve been taken for fools.

    Andre SC (@Andre_Serov)

    October 25, 2012 at 8:27 am

  3. Thanks for the feedback, John & Andre. Nice to know there are some takers for this material, even though it’s still a minority interest (despite the huge commercial success of Lakoff’s ‘Don’t Think of an Elephant’).

    As anyone who’s studied the literature on Frame Semantics knows, it’s about thinking in new ways. The problem with this is that many (perhaps most) people would rather read material that simply confims what they already know. So it’s a balancing act of combining the familiar with pointers to the new. It’ll take a while.


    October 25, 2012 at 9:50 am

  4. Can I vote for you Newsframes? Do you claim to promote frame-less news. While framing all the time? Or is framing good. And you will frame away?

    Keep up the superb work.

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