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Book Review: Framing the Debate – Famous Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections) by Jeffrey Feldman

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Twenty-five years of conservative rule in America has caused progressives to take a hard look at how their values were dashed to near obscurity. Ineffective paradigms of signing petitions and street protests have been shouted down by the wailing of Fox News correspondents and reactionary radio personalities like Rush Limbaugh and former Watergate burglar G. Gordon Liddy. Conservatives ably transformed the political debate using messages that appealed to the viscera of an undereducated, overly devout public entrenched in Calvinistic morality.

The messages that gave way to the reigns of Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush have now been scientifically dissected by linguists into “frames” which substituted a steady diet of political fiber from the left into empty-calorie morsels of moral insight from the right. Now, cultural anthropologist Jeffrey Feldman has taken framing to the next level, applying frames to famous presidential speeches in Framing the Debate: Famous Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Them to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections).

Framing the Debate is interesting to read if one is willing to accept Feldman’s interpretations of speeches and how presidents through the years have used language to connect the dots between themselves, government and morality. For instance, Feldman found that in President Bush’s 2002 “axis of evil” State of the Union address, Bush used the word evil or a synonym for it 5,100 times in his forty-eight minute speech.

This is the essence of framing, developing a concept and repeating it enough times until the concept seeps its way into the subconscious. Feldman makes clear that framing has been used as far back as Revolutionary War times, and likely longer than that. It is a devilishly simple way of having a profound psychological impact upon the masses. Feldman also takes the opportunity to explain the difference between framing and spin – framing being the creation of an argument, and spin the whitewashing of actions leading to cataclysmic results.

Feldman makes his case well, although like the framing he exposes, his investigations of speeches get a bit heavy-handed in parts. Still, it’s an important book for progressives, especially if they want to avoid the wonkiness of abstract policies and find the exact words to convey their ideals. Feldman’s ideas can be used by all progressives including candidates, editorial writers, internet bloggers, and those writing well-honed letters to newspaper editors. Unfortunately, the art of framing often means compacting broad thoughts to edible tidbits, but done correctly, users of frames can present their beliefs briefly and effectively.

Framing the Debate is less a book to be enjoyed than to learn from. It joins the pantheon of books penned by framing pioneer George Lakoff of the Rockridge Institute, who has provided an exceptional introduction to Feldman’s work. While framing is a small part of the work progressives can do to regain the nation, it is a vital one, and Feldman does great justice to an art that can inspire as much as it can enslave.

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