Frame analysis: Obama, Palin

by CarlD

As I’ve been writing the preceeding series of posts on Sarah Palin I’ve been using my usual feeds and WordPress’ suggestions to do some further reading, daisy-chaining an unsystematic sampling of reactions to Palin’s candidacy. By the happy accidents of mindless word-association this reading has included reactions to Obama’s candidacy. If you’ll trust my powers of synthesis for a moment I think I can hazard a hypothesis I find interesting about what they have in common, perhaps as an occasion for conversation.

I start from the fact that both are engaged in the normal political business of framing, which most basically involves attempting to engage or create an alignment between a stereotyped self-presentation and the stereotyped interpretive schemata of possible constituencies. They’re working on looking familiar in positive and motivationally effective ways. I’m talking here mostly about the basic framing of them-as-candidates, not so much any particular policy position or counterframing of their opponents.

My hypothesis is that for each of them, the effective frame for their target audiences is unintelligible to people outside that audience. In order to make good sense to their crew, they have to come across wonky to everyone else. Although this is true to some degree in all mass democratic politics, it is accelerated into the uncanny and polarized in this case because Obama is a highly-educated black man and Palin is a conservative woman.

I should say here that my own first impression of Obama is that he is one mighty smart and effective fella who consistently addresses issues of substance. This first reaction is because our frames align. The way framing works is by using a pleasantly familiar self-performance to recruit my own interpretive prejudices to fill out the picture. My Obama is accordingly a bunch of stuff I think already, which I assume he also thinks because he’s activated that bundle of associations by correctly framing his impression on me. This is accomplished through word choice, delivery (pronunciation, accent, tone, rhythm, emphasis, etc.), non-verbal cueing, appearance (clothing, grooming, style), and so on. In particular, Obama has a good feel for the cadences of the civil rights sermon in his speeches, which will stimulate the salivation of any liberal; while in his more conversational mode he plays with words like a guy who reads a lot, and clips with a nicely urban rhythm. (Although I grew up in the country, I’ve spent my adult life in the city.) As is often the case with this stuff, the successful outcome is that I think Barack is ‘like me’; and I like him back.

To get clear of this pre-rational first impression I’ve got many accumulated strategies of self-irony and reframing. They come from letting other people teach me to look sideways at what I take for granted. Specifically, I take seriously the negative reactions to Obama, ranging from invective to puzzlement, to the effect that he has nothing of substance to say. When I look at Barack’s speeches and debate performances, which I have enjoyed and admired, I can’t disagree with this. They are long on generalities and exhortations, short on specifics and practicalities. Of course short campaign performances are not the place to look for substantive positions. Turning to his record and his actual policy proposals, they’re fine, in a generically centrist kind of way. Nothing too upsetting, nothing too exciting, and not a lot of clarity about how to get there from here. So to go back to my first impression, I am totally giving this guy the benefit of the doubt. That’s framing.

While I’m not well justified in being deeply impressed with Obama (yet), the same review has turned up nothing that would justify readings of him as an extreme leftist (my dissertation is on communists, I know those when I see them), a Muslim terrorist, or any other kind of active threat to our democracy. Substantively he’s pretty much your standard Democrat, disagreeable perhaps, a little on the green side, but not at all frightening. Where does that stuff come from? Racism looks like a good answer this time around, and there’s some of that. But I remember a lot of fretting about the doom John Kerry represented, and you don’t get any whiter than John Kerry. The fact is that from deep inside the constellation of Republican frames (social conservatism, neo-conservatism, libertarianism, market fundamentalism) there’s nothing any Democrat as such can say that doesn’t sound scary insane. When Democrats look like socialists, no wonder the specter of real communists produced mass hysteria early in the Cold War. Boo! Happy Halloween!

This is reciprocal. I have friends who see Hitler behind every neo-con and the menstrual hut behind every social conservative. I have a friend who’s pretty sure Sarah Palin is the worst thing for women since footbinding. Like Helen of Margaret and Helen, she just doesn’t have a frame that can make sense of Palin; or rather, the frame she has makes Palin look demonic. And it’s not that she’s considered the alternatives and decided against them; she simply can’t see another way of seeing. Which is an admirable position of integrity, in my view, but disabling in a more analytical frame.

This demonization is unavoidable for Palin, perhaps even productive; because she’s framing herself for her own audience, that fraction of the Republican constellation who on the fringes understand themselves to be embattled by the sinister forces of godless leftism, yada yada, and toward the center oppose the selfishness of liberal ‘rights talk’ by framing individual property, rights and liberties in terms of virtuous participation in and obligation to historically continuous community. Therefore Bob Ritzema is quite right in a previous comment about one positive frame for Palin: she

represents not a new type of woman, but a very old type, one that many traditionalists would quickly recognize. From a Jungian perspective, she is an archetypal figure, one represented by such manifestations as the frontier woman and the Amazon. As I understand it, this is the woman who situates herself not behind the protective barriers of civilization but out where danger resides. She is strong in a direct, assertive way, not in the seductive, deceptive manner that is a common stereotype of women in patriarchal societies–and is respected as such, though sometimes feared as well. Space is created for her not only by her willingness to go beyond the confines of the protective-oppressive system of society, but also by some recognition that the men who are supposed to provide protection are not always adequate to the task. The Palin story seems to fit this prototype in lots of ways, e.g. living in Alaska, being a hunter, the “pit bull with lipstick” image, the Russian bear across the straits, fighting corruption, and refusing to accept earmarks.

Christina Hoff Sommers elaborates this frame historically in a short paper for the conservative American Enterprise Institute, nicely contrasting liberal and conservative notions of feminism:

The classical feminism of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries embodied two distinct schools of thought and social activism. The first, egalitarian feminism, was progressive (in the view of many contemporaries of both sexes, radical), and it centered on women as independent agents rather than wives and mothers. It held that men and women are, in their essential nature, the same, and it sought to liberate women through abstract appeals to social justice and universal rights. The second school, conservative feminism, was traditionalist and family-centered. It embraced rather than rejected women’s established roles as homemakers, caregivers, and providers of domestic tranquility–and it promoted women’s rights by redefining, strengthening, and expanding these roles. Conservative feminists argued that a practical, responsible femininity could be a force for good in the world beyond the family, through charitable works and more enlightened politics and government.

Of the two schools, conservative feminism was much more influential. Unlike its more radical sister, conservative feminism has always had great appeal to large majorities of women. By contrast, egalitarian feminists often appeared strange and frightening, with their salons and little journals.

Kay S. Hymowitz talks about “red-state feminism” and notes its opacity to urban liberal feminists. She rehearses Betty Friedan’s critique of “full-time motherhood as a ‘waste of human self’ and home as a ‘comfortable concentration camp'” and argues that in contrast,

central to Palin’s red-state appeal is her earthy embrace of motherhood. She differs from mainstream feminists in that her sexuality and fecundity are not in tension with her achievement and power. If anything, they rise out of them. Instead of holding her back, her five children embody her energy, competence, authority, and optimism…. “She’s a real woman, she’s a real feminist but she’s not strident—she’s like us,” Cheryl Hauswirth, a middle-aged mother from Wisconsin, told Politico writer Jonathan Martin. “She’s strong, powerful and opinionated, all the things a woman should be, while still retaining her femininity, her womanhood.”

Ah, so that’s what all that lipstick, winking and you betchas are about. (Thanks again to The Kibitzer for these last two references.)

Neither the celebration nor the critique of motherhood and domesticity are objective descriptions of womanhood; both are plausible frames for understanding women’s experience, and both fail completely to understand each other. Their contestation looks like a political matter, but the logic of framing has to do with tapping into prejudices that are pre-political. So ultimately reactions to Obama and Palin are diagnostic: what prejudices are we letting ourselves be jerked around with?

UPDATE: for lots more on political framing, in the context of a series of critiques of George Lakoff’s work on liberal and conservative metaphors, follow the links at Mixing Memory.

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3 Responses to “Frame analysis: Obama, Palin”

  1. The Palin-Alaskan-hunter frame (totem?) seemed fairly effective, at least among western rethugs. Capn’ McCain and Klondike Sarah, pioneers, vs the east coast bureaucrats (and BO and Biden are beltway bureaucrats, regardless of how effectively they marketed their bogus progressive politics). Campaign 2008: another bad western. That said, from an amoral perspective, the somewhat Himmlerian-primitive aspects of Palin at least entertained, and she has less blood on her paws than either McCain or BO, regardless of her biblethumping and uh cluelessness.

  2. Binary, I like that connection of frames to totems. Language games, epistemes, discourses. All ways of talking about systems to define and organize meanings.

    Re: the election, it was rural vs. urban all the way, so to call it a bad western is to say that McCain/Palin’s framing failed, or rather that it was one of those ironic late westerns like “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” in which a way of life majestically collapses. But as Marx said, when history repeats itself it’s tragedy the first time, comedy the second. So I couldn’t agree more with you about how entertaining Palin was, not least because of the fretting she inspired.

    Really enjoyed your post on Dan Everett. It’s so unusual for people to let themselves be taught something fundamentally new.

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