Are Politicians Causing Framing Fatigue Syndrome?

Mark Leibovich’s NY Times Magazine piece focuses on how politicians tip-toe around the challenge that arises when they change a position on a high-profile issue.  These sorts of changes lead to “framing wars” —  in anticipation of opponents crying flip-flop the politician might explain the change as evolved thinking.

Of course, there’s no way to know for sure what’s going on in the head of a politician; he might be shifting course in an attempt to bolster support, or his heartfelt beliefs might have changed.  That we can’t really know, in fact, is what makes framing potentially so effective.  Each frame offers a different lens for explaining the change.

Framing isn’t unique to politics.  PetsMart Charities, for example, doesn’t ask for donations to build animal shelters. Instead, it asks if you want to donate to help save homeless pets. Helping to save homeless pets is a very powerful frame indeed.

Although framing can be found in every domain, few other realms are as public and competitive as politics.  As a result, every frame on a political issue evokes an almost instant counter frame:

  • drilling for oil versus exploring for energy
  • inheritance tax versus death tax
  • universal coverage versus Washington takeover
  • right-wing power grab versus voter revolt

One might think that the effect of the constant back-and-forth framing and reframing serves as a kind of counterbalance that settles us toward the middle.  Perhaps.  But years and years of political spin / counterspin may be leading to framing fatigue. Because every frame leads to a counterframe we are becoming increasingly aware of the frames themselves.  And when that happens, all of the frames lose their punch.

If framing fatigue is on the rise, we should expect to see some straight shooters start telling it like it is without getting clobbered by their opponents.  Maybe that change is already taking place. Leibovich notes that when asked about the change in his position on immigration, Republican (and possible presidential candidate) Scott Walker refused to talk about evolved thinking:

My view has changed, I’m flat out saying it. Candidates can say that. Sometimes they don’t.”

Of course, straight talk isn’t the hallmark of politicians… left, right, or center.  But if voters are fatigued of the framing/ reframing wars, we should see more “flat out saying it” on the part of candidates, and more support for those candidates when they tell it like it is.

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