Framing the Debate

Framing the Debate
Jeffrey Feldman’s book, the Framing of the Debate: Famous Presidential Speeches and How Progressives Can Use Then to Change the Conversation (and Win Elections), looks at presidential speeches of both Republicans and Democrats, in historical order, to teach progressives how to identify and apply the frames implemented in the speeches. He shows these frames can be applied in speeches for politicians, in action for activist, and in dinner table debates for ordinary citizens.

He starts with George Washington’s First Inaugural Address by identifying the key words of the speech as, calling, country, humble, obedience, servant and voice; he identifies the strategy of the speech as, “Guest Star Citizen—Tell Your Story—No Pay.” He shows how these are used in constructing the humble servant frame. Washington claims to his audience, that they rule over him, not the other way around. Feldman explains that a politician might use this frame in a speech by referring to the country’s voice, personifying the country, “I have heard the voice of the country charging me to defend and strengthen social security.” Feldman explains that the activist could apply this frame when talking to others by explaining their personal calling to serve, what event inspired them to serve, the moment they knew they were “called” and what action resulted from that calling. Feldman shows that this same frame can be implemented in less structured dinner table debates by illustrating the concept of governing as service, instead of for personal enrichment. Washington refused to be paid for his service as president. This frame could be applied when discussing Congressmen who decline their raise until the minimum wage is raised.

With Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Feldman takes the opportunity to explain further the difference between the message, which is explicit, and the frame, which is implicit. Feldman says that, “To find the message, we need to look for the most important sentence or phrase. To find the frame, by contrast, we need to first pose a few questions about the speech, collect some key words, and then give voice to the unspoken logic that orders the entire speech. In particular, we need to look for any words that are repeated in a noticeable way, as framers repeat words in speeches not only to invoke the frame, but to draw are attention to it.” In the first line of Lincoln’s speech, he invoked the frame “We the People,” he emphasized that frame by repeating the word “people” three times in a row at the end of the speech.

With Harry Truman’s Inaugural Address, Feldman shows us how to change the frame, not allowing ourselves to become trapped in Republican framing. With Kennedy’s Inaugural Address, he explains the framing technique of repetition. Kennedy uses repetition of phrases and the use of key words in inverted phrases to draw us into the principle point he was making. Feldman uses Nixon’s Resignation Speech to illustrate the difference between framing and spin. Feldman says that, “Good framing in a speech prunes away distractions so that the vision grows fuller and more vibrant, giving the listener a better chance to appreciate the ideas being expressed. Spin, by contrast, distracts the listener through misdirection.” Ronald Reagan’s Farewell Address to the Nation, is used as an example of the story time frame, drawing the audience into the speakers story. Bill Clinton’s Second Inaugural Address is used to illustrate how a good beginning can orientate a listener to your point. Feldman finishes with George W. Bushes Second Inaugural Speech, showing how sheer volume of repetition can mentally condition a person to be receptive to a principle. Applying these tools with the participation, principles, and promise of the progressive movement can transform American political culture.

Feldman’s book has something to offer every Democrat, whether they are writing speeches, involved in grassroots movements, or just arguing in dinner table debates. His practical examples will ensure your success. Be sure to read this book before the next gathering of your family and friends.

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