Tuesday, March 3, 2020

How Opinion Writers Frame Political Campaign Communication


We're in the thick of the 2020 Democratic Party primary campaign for US president and the media commentary has been full of metadiscourse about the candidates' communication. In this post I look at some of the different ways political communication is being framed in media commentary. I'm not reporting systematic research or claiming anything definitive. My "data" comes from casual browsing, mostly in The New York Times opinion section. Still, if we look carefully at how these largely mainstream liberal opinion writers frame their descriptions of campaign communication, we can notice important differences. This is a first excursion into a topic that needs to be explored more deeply, and I welcome your suggestions and critical comments.

A word first on framing and why it is important. Communicating about anything involves "framing" in the sense of selecting aspects of the thing to talk about from some point of view. Plenty of research has shown, for example, that how an issue is framed in the news can influence how audiences perceive the issue: what the problem is, who or what is to blame for it, and what should be done about it. You can frame a drug addition crisis by focusing on the bad choices of users, the greedy depredations of suppliers, or the root social causes of substance abuse, each frame promoting a different attitude and practical approach to the problem.

On a meta-level, we frame the communication process itself by focusing attention on certain aspects of communication, and that meta-framing too can have practical consequences. As I noted in an earlier post, criticism of war metaphors in public discourse tends to assumes that constant exposure to images of war and violence can actually make our communication practices more warlike. While some of that criticism may be overblown, in general it's reasonable to think that how we frame communication in metadiscourse constructs, in effect, conceptual models of communication that can shape our practices in better or worse ways. That's a good reason to look carefully at how media commentators are framing political campaign communication. Here are some examples.

War (or Fight)

We are indeed bombarded with war metaphors, pummeled with boxing metaphors. Even the word "campaign" has a military origin. Candidate debates are especially likely to be framed in images of violent conflict, recalling the conceptual metaphor, ARGUMENT IS WAR. Consider the following quotes by several New York Times writers about the February 19, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate debate in Las Vegas, in a special feature titled (of course) "Winners  and Losers of the Democratic Debate":
The gloves came off and she slayed. Warren sliced Bloomberg’s Achilles before he could get off the line, silenced him with his own non-disclosure agreements, and then rained hell on the rest of the field with a combination of vision, policy acumen and biting wit.
She came bloodthirsty and walked away sated, having repeatedly laid waste to Bloomberg and Buttigieg. 
Liz knew she was fighting for her life, and she brought her brass knuckles, nunchucks, chainsaw, multiple shivs and a big honking baseball bat. Bloomberg took the worst of it, but only Bernie escaped a serious beatdown. 
She dropped a nuclear bomb on Mike Bloomberg.  
She ground her heel into Bloomberg’s trachea from the first minute. 
Sanders won this debate because no one benefited more from the bloody dogpile on Bloomberg. Sanders gave as good as he got every time someone attacked him. Warren stole the show, but Sanders emerges unscathed and poised to maintain his momentum.
Her weakest debate, with tougher moderator questions and a war with Buttigieg that was more of a vicious, petty stalemate than the victory she needed.
Bloomberg might have bled out onstage if he hadn’t been so bloodless.  
He stammered and stumbled in the face of withering attacks from his rivals. 
This violent mode of description may be all in good fun, but it doesn't tell us much about the issue-relevant content of what was actually said in the debate. Instead of learning what Warren's "vision" and "policy acumen" consisted of, we learn that she "rained hell on the rest of the field" with them. Not all of the comments in the article are quite so content-free, but even the more substantive ones seldom entirely escape the war-fight frame. For example, here is columnist Maureen Dowd on candidate Joe Biden:
When he hammered Bloomberg for not letting women give their accounts of sexual harassment, he seemed to forget his own role in stifling accusers of Clarence Thomas.
It's a good point, but of course Biden didn't just "criticize" Bloomberg, according to Dowd, he "hammered" him.

Horse Race

Probably still the most common way of writing about election campaigns is the Horse Race frame. The campaign is a "race," the candidate's are "running," the most popular candidate at any moment is "the front runner," other candidates are "gaining momentum" or "falling behind" and eventually "exit the race," or more tragically may "collapse" on the track. In this frame there is a heavy emphasis on campaign strategy and organization, fundraising, opinion polls, and other quantitative indicators of popularity and, again, relatively little attention to policy-oriented discourse on issues.

This "horse race journalism" has been extensively studied and heavily criticized for a long time. The prevalence of this frame has been linked to such undesirable outcomes as voter cynicism and apathy, and low levels of issue-relevant knowledge. Some journalists, perhaps, have been listening to this criticism.

Policy Argument

In extreme contrast to the War-Fight and Horse Race frames, some commentary on campaign discourse entirely ignores the political contest and focuses instead on criticism of the candidates' arguments for their policy proposals. For example, here is Fareed Zakaria on Bernie Sanders in a recent Washington Post column"Bernie Sanders’s Scandinavian fantasy":
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) says that his proposals “are not radical,” pointing again and again to countries in Northern Europe such as Denmark, Sweden and Norway as examples of the kind of economic system he wants to bring to the United States. The image he conjures up is of a warm and fuzzy social democracy in which market economics are kept on a tight leash through regulation, the rich are heavily taxed and the social safety net is generous. That is, however, an inaccurate and highly misleading description of those Northern European countries today.
Zakaria goes on to show in detail that Northern European countries have changed in recent decades and now have proportionately more billionaires, less progressive taxation, and less regulated markets than the US, despite their generous social safety nets. The point is that Sanders' case for his policy proposals rests on an outdated image that ignores the compelling reasons why those countries no longer exemplify much of his agenda.

The Policy Argument frame is substantive in ways that critics of horse race journalism have called for, but it fails to capture the dynamics of campaign communication. For one thing, it ignores the voters.

Rhetorical Appeal

Consider the contrast between Zakaria's policy-focused criticism of Sanders and David Leonhardt's
argument why "Bernie Sanders Is Making a Big Mistake":
The art of peeling off voters — those in the middle or those who aren’t ideological — may be the most important skill in politics. It doesn’t require a mushy centrist policy agenda, either. Trump has made that clear. So, in earlier eras, did Ronald Reagan and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
How? By understanding that politics is inescapably performative. Voters respond to signals. They respond to gestures of respect from politicians who are willing to say, in effect: We may not agree on everything, but I see you and understand what matters to you.
The newly energetic American left has largely rejected this approach, choosing instead to believe a comforting myth about swing voters being extinct and turnout being a cure-all. It’s a big mistake.
This is not horse race coverage, nor does it focus on policy argument, but it doesn't ignore issues. In this rhetorical frame, communication is the art of appealing to an audience, and  politics is the art of building coalitions by appealing to groups of voters. Leonhardt's criticism is not that Sanders makes bad arguments for his policies but that he is failing to build the broad coalition he will need to win the presidency by appealing to groups of voters who may not align closely with his political ideology.

A fair amount of campaign commentary uses some version of this Rhetorical Appeal frame, focusing on how the candidates present themselves, what they are saying, and how it resonates or not with important groups of voters.

The Rhetorical Appeal frame has a dark side at a time when "alternative facts are becoming a reality," and its avatar at the moment is Donald Trump. In "Trump Is Waiting and He Is Ready" New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall explains the rhetorical appeal of Trump's right wing populism:
There is an additional way to explain why so many voters are willing to tolerate Trump’s lies: that on the issues that matter intensely to Trump’s most loyal white supporters, Trump defies norms of political correctness by telling his backers what they firmly believe is the truth — their truth — about race, crime and immigration.
In this view, when Trump vilifies immigrants (as The Washington Post put it “Trump’s most insulting — and violent — language is often reserved for immigrants”) or calls Baltimore a “rodent infested mess,” he is the populist right’s truth teller, and in this scheme politically correct liberals who denounce his comments are the liars.
A 2019 study, “Tell it like it is: When politically incorrect language promotes authenticity,” found that “being politically incorrect makes communicators appear more authentic — specifically, less susceptible to external influence — albeit also less warm.”
Hi-Tech Sophistry

If the Rhetorical Appeal frames focus attention on campaign messages and audiences, what I'm calling the Hi-Tech Sophistry frame focuses on the Machiavellian strategy and organizational-technical apparatus that generates and disseminates those messages. In this most cynical frame, effective campaign communication depends on money, organization, technology -- "hacking" the electorate with data analytics and social media as well as traditional media -- and a laser focus on winning unhampered by moral scruple. The theme of "winning" can link this frame to War-Fight, Horse Race, or Rhetorical Appeal discourses but with a heavy emphasis on strategic and technical prowess.

For example, Charlie Warzel in The New York Times explains how "Mike Bloomberg Is Hacking Your Attention"
Mike Bloomberg and his presidential campaign respect the fundamental equation governing the modern internet: Shamelessness and conflict equal attention. And attention equals power ... Since declaring his campaign late last fall, the former New York City mayor has used his billions to outspend his competition in an attempt to hack the country’s attention. It seems to be working — this column is yet more proof  ... At the heart of these tactics is a genuine shamelessness that fits perfectly not just with politics but also the internet at large. Mr. Bloomberg is unapologetic about — and unafraid to hide — the money he’s spending ... That transactional approach is an excellent match for online influencer culture ... The strategy plays up controversy at every available opportunity to generate attention ... The whole thing sounds Trumpian because it is. The Trump campaign was unabashed in 2016 and beyond about its plan to “flood the zone” with garbage or ragebait. The strategy worked in part because it engaged and energized his base ... For Democrats whose prime interest is defeating Donald Trump at all costs, this is exciting. But the strategy is also deeply cynical, exhausting and potentially damaging for those of us left to consume it ... [It] leaves a sinking feeling that shameless memes, Twitter dunks and toxic screaming into the algorithmic void have become politics as usual ... Or maybe it’s always been this way. After all, what is politics if not a long, well-funded attempt at hacking people’s attention?
Warzel's concluding comment suggests that hi-tech sophistry is merely an up-to-date version of traditional politics. It is what authentic politicians do, nothing to be ashamed of. Bloomberg's campaign projects "genuine shamelessness," and is "unapologetic about" and "unafraid to hide" the money it is spending. Money buys attention, and attention is power. In a polarized situation, many voters are attracted to politicians who are strong and ruthless fighting for their side.

Donald Trump's ruthless pugnaciousness appeals to his supporters. If, for Bloomberg, the message that matters is "I can afford to buy this message," it is so because it projects power and competence. In this frame, it counts against Bloomberg that, as Warzel puts it, Trump is "unencumbered by either shame or decency" while "there are lines Mr. Bloomberg will most likely not cross."

Another important difference is that Trump's supporters clearly believe he is on their side but it is unclear at the moment whether any significant group of voters will come to believe that Bloomberg is on their side. A limitation of the Hi-Tech Sophistry frame is that it doesn't explain how voters come to feel that a politician is on their side. For that, we need something like the Rhetorical Appeal frame.

Further Reading

Cappella, J. N., & Jamieson, K. H. (1997). Spiral of cynicism: The press and the public good. New York: Oxford University Press.

Craig, R. T. (2020). Models of communication in and as metadiscourse. In M. Bergman, K. Kirtiklis & J. Siebers (Eds.), Models of communication: Theoretical and philosophical approaches (pp. 11-33). London: Routledge.

de, Vreese, C.H. and Lecheler, S. (2016). Framing Theory. In The International Encyclopedia of Political Communication, G. Mazzoleni (Ed.). doi:10.1002/9781118541555.wbiepc121

Entman, R. M. (1993). Framing: Toward Clarification of a Fractured Paradigm. Journal of Communication, 43(4), 51-58. doi: 10.1111/j.1460-2466.1993.tb01304.x

Ordway, Denise-Marie. (2019). The consequences of ‘horse race’ reporting: What the research says. Journalist's Resource: Research on Today's News Topics.  https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/news-media/horse-race-reporting-election/

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