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About media framing • (written by Brian Dean)

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“Weaponised” political framing – do you really know which side you’re on?

weaponised-trump-halftone-newsframesIn the early 1990s, years before I had an internet connection, I read The Hacker Crackdown – an insightful journalistic account (by pioneer cyberpunk novelist Bruce Sterling) about the paranoid, heavy-handed reaction of the US authorities towards young computer hackers. From the countercultural perspective of the time, the hackers were seen as the “good guys”. (More on Sterling’s take on current events below…)

Fast forward to late 2017:- Recently leaked emails show that Wikileaks sought political favours from Donald Trump in exchange for helping his presidential campaign. Evidence for complex, multi-pronged Russian interference in the 2016 US election has become overwhelming, seemingly irrefutable. Reality Leigh Winner languishes in jail, largely unknown and unpraised, unlike Edward Snowden. Unfortunately for her, the NSA document she allegedly leaked (which documented attempts by Russia to hack US election infrastructure) didn’t reinforce the preferred narrative of the two prominent co-founding editors of The Intercept, Glenn Greenwald and Jeremy Scahill,  who, as a result, appeared to be less-than-enthusiastic relayers of the “persecuted whistleblower” story in this case.

Their narrative – fairly relentlessly pushed by Glenn Greenwald on social media – held that “the whole Russia thing” was largely a hysterical conspiracy theory promoted by “libs” and “Dems” seeking to blame anyone but Hillary Clinton for her election loss. Greenwald has also (until now) aggressively defended Julian Assange against accusations of collaborating with the Trump campaign and/or Russia.

Greenwald, Scahill and many other mutually-referencing influential left social-media commentators use a collection of old, familiar ‘left’ tropes to frame the unfolding events. Namely:

1. Anti-establishment vs The Establishment (“liberal” establishment in this case)
2. “Ordinary people” vs The Elite
3. Heroic outsiders/whistleblowers vs The Corporate Media
4. Unjustly maligned “official enemies” vs The Malign Western/US “Deep State
5. Etc…

These binary political frames/categories, which I once found valid enough for high-level commentary, now look indurated – they seem inadequate for making sense of the fast-moving fractal-like chaos and complexity evident in 21st century political culture. At worst, I see these frames placing a kind of archaic tribal drag on attempts at a more sophisticated, empirical, up-to-date understanding of the political-social-media transformations occurring. Being simple, binary and readily internalised as “true reality”, they also seem prone to being co-opted and “weaponised” by starkly unprogressive interests. The obvious case in point: billionaire businessman Donald Trump, with funding and help from billionaire hedge fund CEO, Robert Mercer, ran successful sub-campaigns based on these traditionally ‘left’ anti-elite, anti-establishment, anti-media frames.

(The same appeared largely true of Brexit. I’ve written previously on how Glenn Greenwald and others bought the whole “left-behind ordinary people” anti-elite framing of the Leave campaign – apparently because it confirmed and reinforced the ways they were already thinking/generalising about politics from the perspective of these overworn ‘left’ tropes).

Weaponised: floating signifiers & hyper-generalisation

One problem of old-skool* ‘left’ political framing is a certain overuse of big floating categories (“liberal”, “elite”, “establishment”, “media”, etc) onto which pretty much anything nefarious can be projected. A demagogue’s populist rhetoric – parroting such hypnotic signifiers – easily sets up angry either-or, them-&-us territorial binary framing – but aligned with the demagogue’s interests. Steve Bannon used this type of rhetoric a lot during the Trump campaign and earlier (“There is a growing global anti-establishment revolt against the permanent political class at home, and the global elites that influence them, which impacts everyone from Lubbock to London” – Bannon to NYT, 2014). Breitbart, RT.com and Infowars, etc, also used it, blurring the lines between anti-establishment ‘left’ and so-called alt-right.

Why would you want to reinforce this framing? Unfortunately, a lot of influential ‘left’ commentators spend much of their time doing just that – overgeneralising about “libs”, “Dems” and “mainstream media”, as if these were bad uniform actors or fungible entities, and as if assigning inherent nefariousness to these big group abstractions were an act of deep truth-telling. There almost seems to be a tacit conceit that this constitutes true radical-left activism. I regard it as radical stupidity when it reinforces the “weaponised” political memes designed to put someone like Trump in power.

“Ordinary people” vs The Elite

As the story goes, “ordinary people” were fed up with the elite-run system. Trump, and Brexit, triumphed because of uprisings of discontent which united regular folks against the establishment elites. As a logical extension of this story, we shouldn’t be blaming Trump/Brexit for the long-standing evils/failures of the establishments which led to Trump/Brexit – our wrath should instead still be directed at those establishments (which are now in a battle with Trump/Brexit).

The Occupy movement expressed “the ordinary vs the elite” in terms of the 99% vs the 1%, which makes sense if you’re talking about the distribution of wealth. But it makes no sense if you’re talking about the distribution of political opinion. There is no uniformity of belief within the 99% – no common viewpoint which explains material discontent in political-value terms. The 99% – the “regular folks” – remain just as bitterly divided as ever when it comes to values/viewpoints/allegiances. The statistical correlations between things such as income level, class and voting preference remain just as weak and questionable as ever – even in the age of Trump/Brexit.

With so little empirical support for this “ordinary people” story, why do influential ‘left’ commentators argue as if this framing represented the real truth? You can validly argue, in the case of Brexit, that the Leave campaign in fact appealed to nationalist elitismthe British vs the non-British. That’s a fundamentally different framing than “ordinary people united against elites”. The rightwing UK tabloids have been full of this xenophobic, divisive elitism for years – in the form of endless attacks on immigrants, European bureaucrats and politically-correct liberals, etc.

Trump’s appeal to social elitism

Trump used “ordinary guy” anti-elite rhetoric, but his campaign spent a lot of time connecting with various subcultures (sizeable in voter numbers/influence) that have their own particular forms of social elitism. According to Joshua Green’s book, Devil’s Bargain, Steve Bannon’s business background gave him (Bannon) insight into the huge online communities that formed the audiences of sites such as Breitbart:

“Yet Bannon was captivated by what he had discovered while trying to build the business: an underworld he hadn’t known existed that was populated by millions of intense young men (most gamers were men) who disappeared for days or even weeks at a time in alternate realities.”

“While perhaps not social adepts, they were smart, focused, relatively wealthy, and highly motivated about issues that mattered to them, their collective might powerful enough to wreck IGE’s business and bend companies such as Blizzard to their will. As he would later confirm, this luciferous insight gave him an early understanding of the size and strength of online communities, along with an appreciation for the powerful currents that run just below the surface of the Internet. He began to wonder if those forces could be harnessed and, if so, how he might exploit them.” (Joshua Green, Devil’s Bargain)

Bannon took it further, according to Green. He “envisioned a great fusion between the masses of alienated gamers, so powerful in the online world, and the right-wing outsiders drawn to Breitbart by its radical politics and fuck-you attitude”. Bannon said that Fox News’ audience was geriatric and that political campaigns needed to connect with this younger demographic, with its own form of in-group elitism.

Angela Nagle has a wonderful take on the elitism of various online communities that supported Trump. In her book, Kill All Normies (chapter 7), Nagle first mentions the ubiquitous framing of Trump’s victory as reflecting the views of “ordinary people” who felt “left behind” by aloof liberal elites. She cites Thomas Frank as one of the most insistent purveyors of this frame – but then she turns this idea upside-down:

“Although the idea that ordinary people felt alienated by political correctness was not uncommon in right-wing rhetoric, there was also quite a remarkable shift from a subcultural elitism to a sudden proletarian righteousness, or even a bit of noblesse oblige, as though the right had been making Thomas Frank’s argument all along. In reality they had been making pro-inequality, misanthropic, economically elitist arguments for natural hierarchy all along.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)

As Nagle remarks, before the “ordinary people” narrative became common on these ‘new right’ online communities, Milo Yiannopoulos could be seen in photo-shoots wearing a “Stop Being Poor” T-shirt (a quote from Paris Hilton, apparently). Nagle argues that while Trump’s supporters are busy rewriting history, it’s important to remember that Trump’s young rightwing online “vanguard” had long been characterised by “an extreme subcultural snobbishness toward the masses and mass culture”.

“Anti-establishment” weaponised memes

I’m old enough to have partaken (at least remotely) in the left cyber-utopianism that flourished in the 1980s and early 1990s. This brings me back to Bruce Sterling and the reading I submersed myself in at the time (mainly to provide an escape from a tedious 9-5 office job). Timothy Leary, having been at the heart of the psychedelic revolution, was now writing – ahead of his time – about the liberating potential of personal computers; Robert Anton Wilson was writing genius-level surreal social satire with an eye towards progressive change aided by technology. R.U. Sirius produced an impressive magazine called Mondo 2000 – an entertaining journal of this techno-utopian current.

The subversive, countercultural “question authority” type memes seemed sweeter back then. Even the notion of “fake” mostly had an innocent ring to it, to me at least. Conspiracy was fun to think about. Russian meddling was merely “reds under the bed” paranoia – seen mostly in conservative newspapers or spy novels, perceived by most as something quaint from an earlier era.

It seems a bad idea to exaggerate the new 21st-century Putin type of Russian influence – one wouldn’t want to blame it for all the weirdness happening in elections. But, equally, it seems a really bad idea to be in denial about it – or to play down its importance – given the abundance of evidence for it on countless fronts. Consider something I stumbled across from R.U. Sirius recently (from a conversation with Douglas Rushkoff):

“If you follow some of the ideological discourse from people who are really influential in Russia, it’s postmodernism and Operation Mindfuck in the service of amoral raw power and political strategy. I know secondhand that there are people in Putin’s mindtrust who have read their Leary and their Discordianism and so forth and they are following a chaos strategy for disrupting the American consensus… or however you want to phrase the collapsing neoliberal order. And not collapsing towards a good end.” (R.U. Sirius, in conversation with Douglas Rushkoff)

This brings us to another point made by Angela Nagle – that 60s/70s-style countercultural transgression created a kind of void into which any ideology can now flow, as long as it appears anti-establishment and contemptuous of mainstream values. Nagle argues that whilst it was originally “left-cyberutopians” who were optimistic about the shift from old establishment-media control of politics to “leaderless user-generated social media”, the reality of this has enabled the right, not the left, to take power:

“The online environment has undoubtedly allowed fringe ideas and movements to grow rapidly in influence and while these were left leaning it was tempting for politically sympathetic commentators to see it as a shiny new seductive shortcut to transcending our ‘end of history’. What we’ve since witnessed instead is that this leaderless formation can express just about any ideology even, strange as it may seem, that of the far right.” (Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies)

Tearing down is easy

The emerging digital, decentralised media and politics make disruption and destabilisation easy to achieve. This appears to be the Pandora’s Box of 21st century politics – as Bruce Sterling puts it, these modern disruptive movements are “fatally easy to assemble” and “almost never have the aim of promulgating rational programs for legislative action”. But the changing technological landscape enables such movements to seize power shockingly quickly and relatively cheaply.

Tearing down, taking apart, dismantling, removing, sweeping away, “draining the swamp” – these metaphors seem to be favoured by both alt-right and radical left, with regard to an existing establishment/system seen as rotten to the core. The framing isn’t about building or progress in Karl Popper’s sense of piecemeal democratic improvement – it’s about take-down, dissolution, “cleansing” and “purity”. The binary frames listed above (eg anti-establishment vs establishment) tend to reinforce these stark either-or, all-or-nothing approaches to politics.

Bruce Sterling – who is certainly no apologist for western imperialism/hegemony – puts it this way:

It’s the same phenomenon over and over, just with different branding: the Arab Spring, Occupy, Gezi Park, Euromaidan, the Ukrainian Civil War, Brexit, and now Donald Trump – except the last two have garnered legislative power. These miasmas appear anywhere save for the managed democracy of Russia and inside the Great Chinese Firewall, which is why both those powers now concentrate on spreading mayhem outside their borders. And whenever they do, they’re always electronically rapid. This means that they are spontaneous and therefore rantingly demagogic, unprepared for power, and tend to be poorly thought-through. Their political results are generally awful. (Bruce Sterling, Notes on the 2016 US election)

The bottom line, for me, is that progressive ‘left’ framing needs to evolve, starting with the big hackneyed tropes I describe above. As Angela Nagle eloquently concludes (in Kill All Normies): “When we’ve reached a point where the idea of being edgy/countercultural/transgressive can place fascists in a position of moral superiority to regular people, we may seriously want to rethink the value of these stale and outworn countercultural ideals.”

(*As for my own unfashionable old-skool ‘left’ stances: I ferociously opposed Bush’s Iraq war – back when Glenn Greenwald supported that catastrophic invasion. I campaigned for Universal Basic Income back in the 1990s, when it was unfashionable and largely seen as hopelessly utopian. Contrast that wonderfully positive, progressive idea with the horribly libertarian nastiness that Edward Snowden expressed in 2009, when he wrote that the elderly “wouldn’t be fucking helpless if you weren’t sending them fucking checks to sit on their ass and lay in hospitals all day”. Choose your heroes carefully.)

Note: I’ve also put this article on Medium.com

Written by NewsFrames

November 22, 2017 at 12:55 am

Populist right – the mass appeal of “strict father” framing

trump-top-compGeorge Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics, popularised the idea that ‘rightwing’ politics stem from a particular moral worldview, which Lakoff called “strict father framing”. Lakoff’s work unearthed, as it were, the cognitive root of prototypical “conservative” beliefs on a wide range of issues (from gun control to economics, from sex and abortion to war and the death penalty).

When I first read Moral Politics, it felt like a series of lightbulbs switching on inside my head. This was partly because I’d spent a lot of time modestly satirising ‘rightwing’ media views (eg for my Anxiety Culture zine), and I’d been particularly interested in tabloid newspaper obsessions with “spiralling crime”, “scroungers” and “red tape” obstructions to free-market “competitiveness” and “efficiency”. I didn’t know what united these particular ‘rightwing’ obsessions, but there seemed to be a common mindset behind them. Simply labelling them ‘rightwing’ or ‘conservative’ didn’t tell you what these views had as a common thread.

Lakoff’s cognitive theory seemed incredibly good at explaining and predicting the ways in which these views form – and how they all fit together – on all kinds of unrelated issues. The other side of the theory (nurturant framing), meanwhile, provided insights into my own ‘progressive’ views.

Why the rise of the populist right?

I’ve explained in a previous piece why I tend not to buy the “standard” explanations for the victories of Trump and Brexit. It’s not that mass hardship, inequality and animosity towards “establishment elites” (etc) aren’t big factors. It’s just that they don’t account for the mass appeal specifically of populist right (including hard-right) views. Over 60 million Americans voted for a billionaire who has expressed beliefs ranging from the ominously authoritarian to the violently fascist. This didn’t happen by default.

Before Brexit, in 2015, the Conservatives were voted back into UK government after years of painful economic austerity instituted by… the Conservatives. At the time, the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade documented how the rightwing press had “played a significant role in the Tory victory”. Although never expressed in the following terms, the role they played was to put a nationalist variant of “strict father” framing all over their front pages, regularly, on issues such as immigration, “stolen” jobs/benefits and interfering foreigners (eg EU bureaucrats). Meanwhile, Barack Obama said part of Trump’s success was down to “Fox News in every bar and restaurant in big chunks of the country”.

But beyond documenting mass discontent with the status quo and stating that the ‘rightwing’ media played a role, what else…?

No ‘leftwing’ model to explain ‘rightwing’ mass appeal?

For obvious reasons, most ‘left’/’liberal’ commentators don’t want to talk in terms of the “ignorance” or “stupidity” of the masses. They also don’t want to portray the majority as bigots (or “deplorables”), or patronisingly assert that the gullible public has been “brainwashed”. So what does that leave?

Most of the explanations I’ve read have simply concentrated on blaming “the liberal media”, the greed and aloofness of establishment elites, the failures of the Democratic campaign, the “liberal media”, the unpopularity of Hillary Clinton and the “liberal” media.

Did I mention “the liberal media”? I’m not even sure what that term commonly refers to anymore. Obviously something homogeneous and bad. Trump supporters, the ‘alt-right’, Corbynistas and the ‘radical’ left all seem to agree on the fungible awfulness of “the liberal media”.

But none of this explains the appeal of a specifically hard-right alternative. For that we need something else. Lakoff’s Moral Politics offers the best model that I’ve seen, to date, for understanding this phenomenon – and it has the advantage of being rooted in cognitive science. Even better, it gives us precise keys to understanding political language as well as worldviews. And it doesn’t require any postulating of mass stupidity, immorality or bigotry in order to account for the mass appeal of “the other side”.

I think the “strict father” frame thesis provides important clues to what is happening right now – crucial for the ‘progressive’ ‘left’ to understand. If you don’t have time to read Lakoff’s Moral Politics (or his shorter Don’t Think of an Elephant!), here’s my summary of how the “strict father” frame fits together. I’ve kept it non-technical and left out the jargony cognitive linguistics – it just gives an outline, a flavour of the frame itself…

The “strict father” frame

“Fear triggers the strict father model; it tends to make the model active in one’s brain.”
– George Lakoff, ‘Don’t think of an elephant’, p42

Lakoff makes the case that conservative moral values are based on a “strict father” upbringing model, and liberal (or ‘progressive’) values on a “nurturant parent” model. We all seem to have both models in our brains – even the most “liberal” person can understand a John Wayne film (Lakoff uses Arnold Schwarzenegger movies as examples of the ‘strictness’ moral system).

In the ‘strict father’ moral frame, the world is regarded as fundamentally dangerous and competitive. Good and bad are seen as absolutes, but children aren’t born good – they have to be made good through upbringing. This requires that they are obedient to a moral authority. Obedience is taught through punishment, which, according to this belief-system, helps children develop the self-discipline necessary to avoid doing wrong. Self-discipline is also needed for prosperity in a dangerous, competitive world. It follows, in this worldview, that people who prosper financially are self-disciplined and therefore morally good.

This framing complements, in obvious ways, the ideology of “free market” capitalism. For example, in the latter, the successful pursuit of self-interest in a competitive world is seen as a moral good since it benefits all via the “invisible hand” of the market. In both cases do-gooders are viewed as interfering with what is right – their “helpfulness” is seen as something which makes people dependent rather than self-disciplined. It’s also seen as an interference in the market optimisation of the benefits of self-interest.

Strictness Morality & competition

A ‘reward & punishment’ type morality follows from strictness framing. Punishment of disobedience is seen as a moral good – how else will people develop the self-discipline necessary to prosper in a dangerous, competitive environment? Becoming an adult, in this belief-system’s logic, means achieving sufficient self-discipline to free oneself from “dependence” on others (no easy task in a “tough world”). Success is seen as a just reward for the obedience which leads ultimately to self-discipline. Remaining “dependent” is seen as failure.

Competition is an important premise of Strictness Morality. By competing in a tough world, people demonstrate a self-discipline deserving of reward, ie success. Conversely, it’s seen as immoral to reward those who haven’t earned it through competition. By this logic, competition is seen as morally necessary: without it there’s no motivation to become the right kind of person – ie self-disciplined and obedient to authority. Constraints on competition (eg social “hand-outs”) are therefore seen as immoral.

‘Nurturant’ framing doesn’t give competition the same moral priority. ‘Progressive’ morality tends to view economic competition as creating more losers than winners, with the resulting inequality correlating with social ills such as crime, deprivation and all the things you hope won’t happen to you. The nurturant ideal of abundance for all (eg achieved through technological advance) works against the primacy of competition. Economic competition still has an important place, but as a limited (and fallible) means to achieving abundance, rather than as a moral imperative.

While nurturant morality is troubled by the fear of “not enough to go around for all”, strictness morality is haunted by the fear of personal failure, individual weakness. Even the “successful” seem haunted by this fear.

‘Moral strength’

Central to Strictness Morality is the metaphor of moral strength. “Evil” is framed as a force which must be fought. Weakness implies evil in this worldview, since weakness is unable to resist the force of evil.

People are not born strong, the logic goes; strength is built through learning self-discipline and self-denial – these are primary values in the strictness system, so any sign of weakness is a source of anxiety, and fear itself is perceived as a further weakness (one to be denied at all costs). Note that these views are all metaphorically conceived – instead of a force, evil could (outside the strictness frame) be viewed as an effect, eg of ignorance or greed – in which case strength wouldn’t make quite as much sense as a primary moral value.

It’s usually taken for granted that strength is “good” in concrete, physical ways, but we’re talking about metaphor here. Or, rather, we’re thinking metaphorically (mostly without being aware of the fact) – in a way which affects our hierarchy of values. With “strictness” framing, we’ll give higher priority to strength (discipline, control) than to tolerance (fairness, compassion, etc). This may influence everything from our relationships to our politics and how we evaluate our own mental-emotional states.

‘Authoritarian’ moral framing

We’re constrained by ‘social attitudes’ which put moral values in a different order than our own. Moral conflicts aren’t just about “good” vs “bad” – they’re about conflicting hierarchies of values.

For example, you mightn’t regard hard work or self-discipline as the main indicators of a person’s worth – but someone with economic power over you (eg your employer) might. To give an example of how different moral hierarchies lead to conflicting political views, consider welfare. From the ‘progressive’ viewpoint, welfare is generally regarded as morally good – the notion of a social ‘safety net’ appeals to a moral hierarchy in which caring and compassion are primary values. Strict conservatism, on the other hand, tends to view welfare not just as an economic drain, but as immoral. You get a sense of this when it’s framed as “rewarding people for sitting around doing nothing”. Here are the steps in ‘strict’ moral logic which lead to the view that welfare is immoral:

1. “Laziness is bad”. Under ‘strictness’ morality, self-indulgence (eg idleness) is seen as moral weakness, ie emergent evil. It represents a failure to develop the ‘moral strengths’ of self-control and self-discipline (which are primary values in this worldview).

2. “Time-wasting is very bad”. Laziness also implies wasted time according to this viewpoint. So it’s ‘bad’ in the further sense that “time is money”. Inactivity and idleness are seen as inherently costly, a financial loss. People tend to forget that this is metaphorical – there is no literal “loss” – and the frame excludes notions of benefits (or “gains”) resulting from inaction/indolence.

trump_book3. “Welfare is very, very bad”. Regarded (by some) as removing the “incentive” to work, welfare is thus seen as promoting moral weakness (ie laziness, time-wasting, “dependency”, etc). That’s bad enough in itself (from the perspective of Strictness Morality) – but, in addition, welfare is usually funded by taxing those who work. In other words, the “moral strength” of holding a job isn’t being rewarded in full – it’s being taxed to reward the “undeserving weak”.

Thus welfare is seen as doubly immoral in this system of moral metaphors. (Donald Trump uses typical ‘strict father’ framing on the issue of welfare. He believes that benefits discourage people from working: “People don’t have an incentive,” he said to Sean Hannity during his campaign. “They make more money by sitting there doing nothing than they make if they have a job.”).

“Might is right”

In ‘strict father’ morality, one must fight evil (and never “understand” or tolerate it). This requires strength and toughness and, perhaps, extreme measures. Merciless enforcement of might is often regarded as ‘morally justified’ in this system. Moral “relativism” is viewed as immoral, since it “appeases” the forces of evil by affording them their own “truth”.

“We don’t negotiate with terrorists… I think you have to destroy them. It’s the only way to deal with them.” (Dick Cheney, former US Vice President)

There’s another sense in which “might” (or power) is seen as not only justified (eg in fighting evil) but also as implicitly good: Strictness Morality regards a “natural” hierarchy of power as moral, and in this conservative moral system, the following hierarchy is (according to Lakoff’s research) regarded as truly “natural”: “God above humans”; “humans above animals”; “men above women”; “adults above children”, etc.

So, the notion of ‘Moral Authority’ arises from a power hierarchy which is believed to be “natural” (as in: “the natural order of things”). Lakoff comments:

“The consequences of the metaphor of Moral Order are enormous, even outside religion. It legitimates a certain class of existing power relations as being natural and therefore moral, and thus makes social movements like feminism appear unnatural and therefore counter to the moral order.” (George Lakoff, Moral Politics, p82)

In this metaphorical reality-tunnel, the rich have “moral authority” over the poor. The reasoning is as follows: Success in a competitive world comes from the “moral strengths” of self-discipline and self-reliance – in working hard at developing your abilities, etc. Lack of success, in this worldview, implies not enough self-discipline, ie moral weakness. Thus, the “successful” (ie the rich) are seen as higher in the moral order – as disciplined and hard-working enough to “succeed”.

‘Erosion of values’ & ‘moral purity’

Media hysteria sometimes calms down a little. But it only takes one horrible crime or indication of ‘Un-American’ behaviour (etc) to set it off again. Then we have: “erosion of values”, “tears in the moral fabric”, a “chipping away” at moral “foundations”, “moral decay”, etc. It shouldn’t be surprising that these metaphors for change-as-destruction tend to accompany ‘conservative’ moral viewpoints rather than ‘progressive’ ones.

Associated with moral ‘decay’ is the metaphor of impurity, ie rot, corruption or filth. This extends further, to the metaphor of morality as health. Thus, immoral ideas are described as “sick“, immoral people are seen to have “diseased minds”, etc. These metaphorical frames have the following consequences in terms of how we think:

1. Even minor immorality is seen as a major threat (since introduction of just a tiny amount of “corrupt” substance can taint the whole supply – think of water reservoir or blood supply. This is applied to the abstract moral realm via conceptual metaphor.)

2. Immorality is regarded as “contagious”. Thus, immoral ideas must be avoided or censored, and immoral people must be isolated or removed, forcibly if necessary. Otherwise they’ll “infect” the morally healthy/strong. Does this way of thinking sound familiar? (This framing has taken scaremongering forms in the Brexit and Trump campaigns).

In Philosophy in the Flesh, Johnson & Lakoff point out that with “health” as metaphor for moral well-being, immorality is framed as sickness and disease, with important consequences for public debate:

“One crucial consequence of this metaphor is that immorality, as moral disease, is a plague that, if left unchecked, can spread throughout society, infecting everyone. This requires strong measures of moral hygiene, such as quarantine and strict observance of measures to ensure moral purity. Since diseases can spread through contact, it follows that immoral people must be kept away from moral people, lest they become immoral, too. This logic often underlies guilt-by-association arguments, and it often plays a role in the logic behind urban flight, segregated neighborhoods, and strong sentencing guidelines even for nonviolent offenders.”

Enemies everywhere, everything a threat

There’s a lot to fear from the perspective of ‘strictness morality’: the world’s a dangerous place, there’s immorality and “evil” lurking everywhere – an ever-present threat from the “foreign” and “alien”. And any weakness that you manifest will be punished. Even the good, decent people are competing ruthlessly with you, judging you for any failure.

In a way, this moral framing logically requires that the world is seen as essentially dangerous. Remove this premise and strictness morality ‘collapses’, since the precedence given (in this scheme) to moral strength, self-discipline and authority (over compassion, fairness, happiness, etc) would no longer make sense.

Rightwing media (tabloid newspapers, Fox News, etc) appear to have the function of reinforcing the fearful premise with daily scaremongering – presumably because it’s more profitable than less dramatic “news”. But this repeated stimulation of our fears affects us at a synaptic level. The fear/alarm framing receives continual reinforcement, triggering the ‘strict father’ worldview, making the model more active, more dominant in our brains.

Update (23/1/2017) – see George Lakoff’s comments on Trump’s inaugural speech. Lakoff says “Trump is a textbook example of Strict Father Morality”, but he also gives some clues on Trump’s weaknesses and how to defeat him (for example, Trump is already a “betrayer of trust” – seen as a big sin in strict father morality).

Written by NewsFrames

December 16, 2016 at 9:34 am

Frames-based autopsy of Trump/Brexit calamities

trump-farage-top-comp23 Nov 2016On Twitter, I’d predicted victories for Trump and Brexit. Nothing clever about that – you only had to open your eyes to the mass appeal of populist ‘right’ framing (what Lakoff calls the “strict father” view) and take seriously the influence of the seemingly absurd elements of the mass media that have reinforced this framing over decades.

Anti-liberalism rising… on the ‘left’

Large sections of the US/UK ‘left’ have been looking elsewhere – mostly occupied with critiquing the “status-quo” “liberal” establishments and media. It’s often difficult to distinguish this common strand of ‘left’ framing from populist-right rhetoric, and I see the ominous consolidation of a populist anti-liberal consensus, whose hyper-generalised assertions tend to benefit demagogues.

Here’s an example of what I mean, from an RT.com article by John Wight:

This is why no one should mourn the demise of the Western liberal order either in the US or across Europe. It has failed, and failed utterly, destroying communities and decimating the lives of millions at home, while creating chaos and instability across the world.

While Donald Trump’s election may not be the solution to all the damage and chaos wrought, it resounds as a rejection of cultural values that amount to lecturing a man on his lack of political correctness and manners while he is drowning in a swamp with no way out. (John Wight, RT.com, 14/11/2016)

Many influential commentators have taken a similar line. I’ll focus on examples from Glenn Greenwald and Wikileaks (Julian Assange) in what follows.

A few important points to remember:

Firstly, the rightwing conservative perspective on various issues is deeply held and very common among so-called “ordinary people” (ie non-elite rabble like you and me). As Lakoff writes, “There are at least tens of millions of conservatives in America who share strict father morality and its moral hierarchy. Many of them are poor or middle class…”. And, as a study that used YouGov survey data found, around half of Britons have “authoritarian populist” views.

Secondly, these conservative/”strict father”/authoritarian beliefs generally don’t arise out of a reaction to, rejection of, or animosity towards liberalism or liberal elites. Rather, the latter (rejection of liberal values/institutions) is typically a corollary of holding rightwing/conservative beliefs. This is explained at length in Lakoff’s book, Moral Politics.

Consider that much of Trump’s popularity arises not from “the failure of liberal establishments”, but from the fact that he expresses certain populist-right beliefs forcefully and without shame.

To put it another way, consider that the successes of Trump and Brexit resulted primarily from the culmination of decades of powerful reinforcement of rightwing frames (including animosity towards liberal “political correctness” on issues such as immigration, etc). Actual failures of “the liberal establishment” may have been factors too, although presumably they were also present as factors when Obama was elected on two occasions.

“Ordinary people”

A lot of people – from Paul Dacre, Nigel Farage and Donald Trump (on the right) to Glenn Greenwald, John Pilger and Julian Assange (on the left) – have explained the Brexit and Trump victories in terms of a revolt by “ordinary people” against establishment elites – and particularly against “liberal elite” media.

Although widespread anger, frustration, etc, seemed obvious factors in the voting, I find this notion of mass revolt, or “backlash”, specifically against “liberal media” and “liberal institutions” to be unsupported by the evidence. I’ve read all the polls and studies I can find, but I see nothing in them to support this view (although that doesn’t necessarily make the view wrong).

Those making these claims – usually media types themselves – have a certain relationship (or obsession) with parts of the media which they seem to project onto the general public. Glenn Greenwald, for example, writes at length about the “petulant”, “self-serving”, “condescending”, “smug”, “self-satisfied” (etc) liberal-establishment media. It seems a valid enough subjective take on elements of that media, but Greenwald supposes that not only do masses of voters think and feel the same way, but that they base their voting choice on this supposed rebellious feeling towards an aloof establishment and commentariat.

Long before Glenn Greenwald “explained” the Brexit (and, later, Trump) victories in these terms, I heard the same “explanation” from Nigel Farage (UKIP) and Paul Dacre (Daily Mail editor). It was the routine response from Farage, Dacre, et al, whenever they were accused of fomenting xenophobia and bigotry.

Here’s an example from Paul Dacre (the framing, to my mind, is strikingly similar to Greenwald’s later piece on Brexit):

[…] the Mail constantly dares to stand up to the liberal-left consensus that dominates so many areas of British life and instead represents the views of the ordinary people who are our readers and who don’t have a voice in today’s political landscape and are too often ignored by today’s ruling elite.

The metropolitan classes, of course, despise our readers […] These people mock our readers’ scepticism over the European Union […] They scoff at our readers who, while tolerant, fret that the country’s schools and hospitals can’t cope with mass immigration.

In other words, these people sneer at the decent working Britons. (Paul Dacre, ‘Why is the left obsessed by the Daily Mail, Guardian, 12/10/2013)

Rhetoric works best if it contains at least a small element of truth. With repetition and reinforcement, the small “truth” becomes a bigger, more generalised, widely applied and accepted explanation of things. I never bought this “ordinary people” rhetoric from Dacre or Farage, and I’m unlikely to start buying it from popular voices on the left.

My experience as part of “the masses”

Where I live and roam in the UK (North West England and North Wales), the “liberal media” seems relatively invisible, eclipsed by the tabloids. Not only is there no mass backlash against “the liberal media”, there seems to be no “mass” awareness of it at all – it doesn’t appear to be on people’s radar. Perhaps the closest thing to a mass audience getting agitated at the UK “liberal media” is the reaction that (I imagine) occurred when Eddie Izzard repeatedly interrupted Nigel Farage on BBC1’s Question Time.

On the other hand, I imagine that masses of people get angry or annoyed when they read in the Daily Mail about the latest “barmy liberal political correctness”. But that’s not the actual “liberal media” they’re getting mad about – it’s mostly an invention created by the Daily Mail, which “the masses” are reading about in the Daily Mail.

Ask a random person at the bus-stop for their views on Brexit (as I did on numerous occasions) and nine times out of ten you hear the framing of the Daily Mail, Express or Sun regurgitated back to you. That doesn’t mean uniformity of opinion in terms of agreeing or disagreeing, pro- or anti-, etc. It means the issues on people’s minds, and the terms in which those issues are discussed, tend to reflect what’s in their faces on a daily basis. The tabloids are everywhere in-your-face – their print circulation dwarfs the so-called “liberal” newspapers. In addition, masses of people are exposed to their front pages at supermarkets and newsagents. For every reader of the “liberal” Guardian there are at least 23 readers of the rightwing tabloids (Sun, Daily Mail, Express).

UK media & Brexit

If Glenn Greenwald’s sweeping attribution of views and feelings to UK/US voters appears unsupported, his claim of a UK media “united against Brexit” is demonstrably wrong. Here’s what he wrote:

Though there were some exceptions, establishment political and media elites in the U.K. were vehemently united against Brexit, but their decreed wisdom was ignored, even scorned. (Glenn Greenwald, The Intercept, 25/6/2016)

The exact opposite appears to be true. The Sun, Daily Mail, Express, Daily Telegraph, Sunday Times and Sunday Telegraph were all in favour of Brexit. Counting the dailies (not Sunday editions), that’s over 65% of the circulation of national UK newspapers campaigning for Britain to leave the EU.

According to a study from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, which looked at 928 articles focused on the referendum, over a two-month period, “45% were in favour of leaving, with only 27% in favour of staying in the EU (19% of articles focused on the referendum were categorised as ‘mixed or undecided’ and 9% as adopting no position.)”

The Reuters Institute adds:

Positions vary greatly between newspapers. The Daily Mail included the most pro-leave articles followed by The Daily Express, The Daily Star, The Sun and The Daily Telegraph, while the newspapers including the most pro-remain articles were, in order, The Daily Mirror, The Guardian and The Financial Times.

It seems staggering that Glenn Greenwald’s long piece on Brexit doesn’t even mention the role of the rightwing tabloids in influencing the framing of the EU debate. This had been an important factor not only in the run-up to the referendum, but for years prior, in the form of regular headlines focusing on the EU and migrants in relentlessly negative terms.

The idea that the vote in favour of Brexit resulted from a popular rebellion against a UK media that was “vehemently united against Brexit” seems one of the most bizarre inversions of what we know, empirically, that I’ve ever read from a respected journalist on the ‘left’.

US media & the presidential election

Greenwald was on slightly better-supported ground when he said “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump”. This is another overgeneralisation, but at least it’s in the right direction (US newspaper endorsements for Hillary Clinton apparently dwarfed those for Donald Trump).

It’s interesting to note, however, that prior to the US election, Greenwald, Assange and others claimed that with a media and establishment “united against” him, Trump wouldn’t be permitted to win. Those are Julian Assange’s actual words (in an interview with John Pilger): “Trump would not be permitted to win”. Incidentally, Greenwald’s quote, in full (my bold emphasis), was: “The U.S. media is essentially 100 percent united, vehemently, against Trump, and preventing him from being elected president.”

Wikileaks’s Twitter stream, meanwhile, seemed like a de-facto branch of Trump’s campaign. Virtually its entire output, for long periods, consisted of attacks on Hillary Clinton and reinforcements of a generalised anti-liberal framing. When someone asked Wikileaks if they’d be pleased if Trump won, this was their response:


After asserting that the US media was preventing Trump from winning, Glenn Greenwald had to use a different logic to explain why Trump won (my bold emphasis):

And so, when people saw the media basically trying to coerce them or dictate to them that they should turn their backs on Donald Trump, that they should vote for Hillary Clinton, I think a backlash ensued, where people believed that the media was being unfair, and were not going to you take marching orders from these media institutions, that they also have come to regard as fundamentally corrupt. And, unwittingly, I think that played an important role, as well, in ensuring that he could win. (Glenn Greenwald, Democracy Now!, 10/11/2016)

So, rather than preventing Trump from winning, the US media “played an important role” in ensuring that he could win (by being so coercively and unfairly united against Trump, that “a backlash ensued” from the “people”). It’s pretty much the same logic that Greenwald used to explain the Brexit victory.

Meanwhile, I haven’t seen any empirical support for Greenwald’s claims that the Trump and Brexit victories were caused largely by a voter backlash against a “condescending” establishment media. Of course, that hasn’t stopped this narrative from being widely published, circulated and adopted as the “truth” by pundits across the political spectrum.

One can see why the notion is so appealing. Few people (even among liberal elites) would deny that it has at least a small degree of truth to it. And it avoids the “Trump’s supporters are all bigots” nonsense, while freeing us from the need to find another explanation for Trump’s mass popularity. Last, but not least, it appeals to a strand of anti-liberal sentiment which is already present on both ‘right’ and ‘left’.

In fact, if I were Vladimir Putin, it’s the very narrative I’d instruct my covert western media operatives to disseminate. (That’s a joke).


I have a lot of time for insightful ‘left’ critiques of ‘liberal’ media/institutions – just as long as they’re not the hyper-generalised, hackneyed kind of critiques that depend on crude reifications of “ordinary people” against homogeneous “elites” (I counted no less than 44 uses of the words “elite” and “elites” in Greenwald’s Brexit article*). The “people vs elites” frame (particularly when it’s associated with generalised contempt for “liberal” establishments and media, as is often the case in the Trump/Brexit contexts) seems to be most popular – and most effective – with populist-right movements (not just in the US/UK).

Which is why I find it so ironic (and perplexing) that Glenn Greenwald would write the following:

Elite denunciations of the right-wing parties of Europe fall on deaf ears. Elites can’t stop, or even affect, any of these movements because they are, at bottom, revolts against their wisdom, authority, and virtue. [My bold emphasis]

Is that really what these movements are, at bottom – revolts against elites? Do they not have other, more relevant, defining characteristics? Do people really sign up in droves to particularly rightwing movements and demagogues specifically because of the failures of establishment elites?

A combination of common sense, modest knowledge of cognitive frames, and some empirically based findings on Brexit/Trump voting preferences, tells me that this is not the main reason why people choose to support the hard right. One of the more interesting findings on reasons for voting preferences comes from Eric Kaufmann, professor of politics at University of London, who analysed vote “predictors” – ie qualities which tell us whether someone was likely to vote in favour of Brexit, Trump, etc.

Kaufmann looked at data from the EU referendum and the US presidential primaries, and found that knowing a person’s income or class would only marginally increase the probability with which you could predict how they’d vote. In other words, inferences about voting patterns made from these basic demographics tend to be feeble at best. However, knowing something about a person’s values and attitudes (as opposed to their material circumstances) considerably increased the probability that you could predict how they’d vote. Two of the biggest predictors were a person’s attitude towards immigration and their view on the death penalty. (These attitudes, incidentally, correlate with whether a person has a strong “strict father” moral outlook, in Lakoff’s model).

One obvious way of interpreting this is that the likelihood of someone voting in favour of Brexit (or Trump) is not a measure of how badly they’ve been materially affected by the failure of elites. It’s not primarily about whether they’re the “left behind” class, the “people with nothing to lose”. On the contrary, it’s more about whether they have conservative or “strict father”/authoritarian beliefs.

Given such an interpretation of the findings, the question should perhaps be: What is it that so powerfully reinforces these ‘rightwing’ authoritarian beliefs in our society – to the point where institutions, and even our notions of “common sense”, are shifting so dangerously?

To quote Lakoff, from The Political Mind:

It is time to give a name to a practice that conservatives have engaged in for the past three decades but progressives have not. The practice is “cognitive policy.” A cognitive policy is the policy of getting an idea into normal public discourse, which requires creating a change in the brains of millions of people. […]

It is explicit, well organized, and well funded. Its aim is to change brains in a conservative direction. And it has been working.

* Including some occurrences of the word in quotes from others included by Greenwald.

UPDATE (23/6/2017) – Ironically, Nick Clegg’s reported take (in The Guardian) on the Brexit vote and the rise of rightwing populism has a far greater ring of truth to it than Glenn Greenwald’s (particularly with respect to the role of the rightwing tabloid UK press).

Written by NewsFrames

November 23, 2016 at 9:22 am