Framing the Future

How Progressive Values Can Win Elections and Influence People

Bernie Horn (Author)

Publication date: 01/07/2008

Framing the Future

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Bernie Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why

Polls consistently show that most Americans are progressives at heart. By margins of at least two to one, we favor affordable healthcare for all, even if it means raising taxes; want federal action to combat global warming; support stricter gun control; don’t want Roe vs. Wade overturned; and the list goes on. So why is it so hard for progressive candidates to win elections?

Because, says Bernie Horn, most progressives don’t know how to explain their ideas in ways that resonate with “persuadables”—the significant slice of the electorate who don’t instantly identify as Democrats or Republicans. These are the voters who swing elections. There’s been a lot of theoretical discussion about framing lately, but Framing the Future isn’t theory—the concepts outlined have been used successfully by progressive candidates across the nation, even in such conservative bastions as Montana, Arizona, and Florida.

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why, as a result, the usual progressive approaches are practically designed to fail with them. He offers a crash course in the nuts and bolts of framing and shows how to use three bedrock American values—freedom, opportunity, and security—to frame progressive positions in a way that creates a consistent, unified political vision that will appeal to persuadable voters. He even offers advice on specific words and phrases to use when talking about a variety of issues and ideas.

Polls consistently show that most Americans are progressives at heart.  By margins of at least two to one, we favor affordable healthcare for all, even if it means raising taxes; want federal action to combat global warming; support stricter gun control; don’t want Roe vs. Wade overturned; and the list goes on. So why is it so hard for progressive candidates to win elections?

Because, says Bernie Horn, most progressives don’t know how to explain their ideas in ways that resonate with “persuadables”—the significant slice of the electorate who don’t instantly identify as Democrats or Republicans. These are the voters who swing elections. There’s been a lot of theoretical discussion about framing lately, but Framing the Future isn’t theory—the concepts outlined have been used successfully by progressive candidates across the nation, even in such conservative bastions as Montana, Arizona, and Florida.

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why, as a result, the usual progressive approaches are practically designed to fail with them.  He offers a crash course in the nuts and bolts of framing and shows how to use three bedrock American values—freedom, opportunity, and security—to frame progressive positions in a way that creates a consistent, unified political vision that will appeal to persuadable voters. He even offers advice on specific words and phrases to use when talking about a variety of issues and ideas.

 

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Overview

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Bernie Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why

Polls consistently show that most Americans are progressives at heart. By margins of at least two to one, we favor affordable healthcare for all, even if it means raising taxes; want federal action to combat global warming; support stricter gun control; don’t want Roe vs. Wade overturned; and the list goes on. So why is it so hard for progressive candidates to win elections?

Because, says Bernie Horn, most progressives don’t know how to explain their ideas in ways that resonate with “persuadables”—the significant slice of the electorate who don’t instantly identify as Democrats or Republicans. These are the voters who swing elections. There’s been a lot of theoretical discussion about framing lately, but Framing the Future isn’t theory—the concepts outlined have been used successfully by progressive candidates across the nation, even in such conservative bastions as Montana, Arizona, and Florida.

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why, as a result, the usual progressive approaches are practically designed to fail with them. He offers a crash course in the nuts and bolts of framing and shows how to use three bedrock American values—freedom, opportunity, and security—to frame progressive positions in a way that creates a consistent, unified political vision that will appeal to persuadable voters. He even offers advice on specific words and phrases to use when talking about a variety of issues and ideas.

Polls consistently show that most Americans are progressives at heart.  By margins of at least two to one, we favor affordable healthcare for all, even if it means raising taxes; want federal action to combat global warming; support stricter gun control; don’t want Roe vs. Wade overturned; and the list goes on. So why is it so hard for progressive candidates to win elections?

Because, says Bernie Horn, most progressives don’t know how to explain their ideas in ways that resonate with “persuadables”—the significant slice of the electorate who don’t instantly identify as Democrats or Republicans. These are the voters who swing elections. There’s been a lot of theoretical discussion about framing lately, but Framing the Future isn’t theory—the concepts outlined have been used successfully by progressive candidates across the nation, even in such conservative bastions as Montana, Arizona, and Florida.

Drawing on rigorous polling data and his own experience as a veteran political consultant, Horn explains how persuadable voters think about issues and make political decisions and why, as a result, the usual progressive approaches are practically designed to fail with them.  He offers a crash course in the nuts and bolts of framing and shows how to use three bedrock American values—freedom, opportunity, and security—to frame progressive positions in a way that creates a consistent, unified political vision that will appeal to persuadable voters. He even offers advice on specific words and phrases to use when talking about a variety of issues and ideas.

 

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Meet the Author


Visit Author Page - Bernie Horn

Bernie Horn has worked on real-world politics and public policy for the past 30 years as a lawyer, legislative assistant, lobbyist, political consultant and policy director.  For the past six years he has been the Senior Director for Policy and Communication at the Center for Policy Alternatives (CPA), a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. His latest CPA publications are the Progressive Platform for the States 2006, a 272-page candidate briefing book covering 115 state issues, the Progressive Agenda for the States 2006, a 300-page book that lays out 50 of the most innovative solutions being debated and enacted in the states, and Progressive Policy Models for the States 2006, a 298-page handbook containing 123 model bills.

From 1990 to 2000, Horn was President of Strategic Campaign Initiatives, Inc. (SCI), a political consulting firm that helped elect and reelect hundreds of federal, state and local officials. SCI also helped win issue advocacy campaigns for gun control, tobacco taxes, and health care, and against casino gambling and restrictions on abortion. SCI's primary business was creating direct persuasion mail for progressive candidates. The firm also produced radio ads, sold voter lists, and conducted polls. 

Between 1988 and 1994, he served as Federal & State Legislative Director, Legislative Counsel, State Legislative Director, and Director of Strategic Planning and Policy for Handgun Control, Inc. (now called the Brady Campaign). He served as one of the chief lobbyists for the Brady Bill, drafted and lobbied for the federal ban on semiautomatic assault weapons, and conceived the federal ban on handgun sales to minors. He has also served as campaign manager and issues director for two congressional campaigns. He lives in Washington, DC.

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Table of Contents



Preface

Introduction: The Emerging Progressive Majority

Part One: Our Moment in History
1 What We Believe
2 What’s Holding Us Back?
3 The Winning Message

Part Two: The Mechanics of Persuasion
4 Targeting the Persuadables
5 How Framing Works
6 How Values Work

Part Three: The Progressive Toolbox

7 Freedom, Opportunity, Security
8 Talking About Our Philosophy and Ourselves
9 Talking About Government
10 Talking About the Economy
11 Talking About Hot-Button Issues

Conclusion: An Action Plan for Activists

Resource: Survey Research

Notes
Index
Acknowledgments
About the Author
About the Center for Policy Alternatives

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Excerpt

Framing the Future

INTRODUCTION
The Emerging Progressive Majority

Most Americans are progressive on most issues. By margins of at least two to one, our fellow citizens believe corporations and upper-income people are paying too little in federal taxes; oppose repealing the federal estate tax; favor quality, affordable health care for all “even if it means raising your taxes”; support the idea that the federal Medicare program should negotiate prescription drug prices directly with pharmaceutical companies; want federal action to address global warming; would require auto manufacturers to make cars more energy efficient; say laws covering the sale of handguns should be more strict; think labor unions are necessary to protect workers; believe that gays and lesbians should be able to serve openly in the military; and do not want the Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade.

That’s the good news. Here’s the bad. Most Americans also support traditional conservative principles—limited government, lower taxes, free markets, and personal responsibility. (You’ll see the polling data in Chapter 4.)

In other words, a large group of Americans favor both progressive policy and conservative philosophy. As a result, they may side with either progressives or conservatives, depending on how a political question is framed. These Americans are usually called independents, undecideds, uncommitteds, swing voters, or ticket-splitters. But in this book, they’re called persuadables, because that’s the important thing about them—they’re not part of the progressive/Democratic or conservative/Republican base; they can be persuaded to join either side.

You may well be asking, if they’re so darn persuadable, why have they sided with conservatives so often? During the past four decades, we’ve suffered through twenty-eight years of Republican presidents and “enjoyed” only twelve years with Democratic presidents. From 1994 to 2006, we had a U.S. House of Representatives that was not only controlled by Republicans, but dominated by right-wing extremists. During the same period, the U.S. Senate was only a little less reactionary. Why? Unlike partisans, persuadable voters are usually more interested in a candidate’s philosophy than her list of policy positions.


The Solution

This is not a battle that can be won with a single strategy, a silver bullet. But progressives can go a long way toward altering the balance of power if we agree on and espouse an attractive progressive philosophy. Then voters would favor both our policies and our principles.

This book suggests such a philosophy. The short version is “freedom, opportunity, and security for all.” Chapter 1 explains each of these three concepts, and Chapter 3 lays out the results of a nationwide poll which found that “freedom, opportunity and security for all” is enormously popular among both persuadables and partisans. Most important, it is the only progressive message that outpolls the generic conservative philosophy.

Let me be clear. I am not suggesting that progressives change their positions on public policy. I am saying that there are specific words that represent progressive values, that these values fit together into a coherent vision of a progressive America, and that by using these values, we can communicate our principles in a way that persuadable voters will understand and appreciate. In short, we need to use values to describe our vision—that’s framing the future.

In politics, framing is employed in three ways. An issue can be framed, the way right-wingers have presented the federal estate tax as the “death tax.” A political campaign can be framed, the way Clinton strategists presented the 1992 presidential race as a question of “the economy, stupid.” Or a whole political philosophy can be framed, the way conservatism has been presented as the ideology of “small government, lower taxes, strong military, and moral values.”

Freedom, opportunity, and security can be used in all three situations. It can help progressive candidates defeat their conservative counterparts, help progressive advocates enact legislation, and help rank-and-file progressives win day-to-day arguments.


It’s an Emergency!

There’s no doubt that George W. Bush’s administration has been a catastrophe, and that historians will one day rank him as one of our nation’s very worst presidents. That’s why the next few elections are so critical—the very soul of America hangs in the balance. We’ve got to take back America, and soon, before solutions to national and global problems slip beyond our reach.

But winning elections in the coming years won’t be easy. Despite progressive victories in 2006, the next few elections will be razor close. You can tell by looking at the last few.

In 2000, Vice President Al Gore held all the trump cards. He could claim responsibility for eight years of peace and prosperity. He was smart and flush with accomplishments. His opponent was the tongue-tied son of an unpopular former president. And yet Al Gore won only a bare majority of votes and ultimately lost the election. But if the ballots of just 538 Florida voters who intended to vote for Gore had been counted—Al Gore would have been elected.

In 2004, Senator John Kerry was a terrible standard-bearer. He was as cold as a dead log in the snow. His campaign was as limp as a wet paper napkin. George Bush had all the powers of incumbency, all the money of America’s super-rich, all the party discipline of an authoritarian-style regime—in wartime! And yet, Kerry almost won. If just 59,301 Ohioans had been persuaded to vote for Kerry instead of Bush—less than 0.05 percent of the Americans who voted that day—John Kerry would have been elected.

In 2006, Democrats won control of the United States Senate based on a squeaker in Montana. If a mere 1,782 Montana voters had supported Conrad Burns instead of Jon Tester, the Senate would have remained in GOP hands. The House contest wasn’t quite as close. Still, Republicans would have maintained control if they had won just sixteen more seats. Looking at the closest races, if fewer than 50,000 well-placed voters had switched their support from the Democratic to the Republican candidates, Dennis Hastert would still be Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.

And think about what it took for voters to finally embrace the Democrats in 2006: a wildly unpopular president prosecuting a wildly unpopular war; monumental deficits and debt; attempts to destroy bedrock programs like Social Security; corruption on a grand scale (House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Rep. Duke Cunningham, Rep. Bob Ney, and the scandal ignited by lobbyist Jack Abramoff involving Congress, the White House, and Christian conservative Ralph Reed). And even with all that, would Democrats have won if not for the sexual appetites of Congressman Mark Foley?

Here’s some advice for progressives: don’t count on another sex scandal. We get that lucky only once. We’re going to have to win the next election the old-fashioned way—by persuading American voters that progressives have better ideas. Now—what ideas?

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Endorsements



“When progressives communicate our values, we win the hearts and minds—and elections! Framing the Future explains how to do just that.”

—Congresswoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz


“Every football player requires a playbook from their coach. For public servants with progressive values, author Bernie Horn is our coach and Framing the Future is our playbook.”

—Congressman Kendrick B. Meek

“This is a great book! Bernie explains values and framing in a practical way that every activist can use. If you liked George Lakoff’s Don't Think of an Elephant, you'll love this."

—Celinda Lake, President, Lake Research Partners, and coauthor of What Women Really Want: How American Women Are Quietly Erasing Political, Racial, Class, and Religious Lines to Change the Way We Live

“Bernie Horn’s Framing the Future is a brilliant analysis of political processes and communication and an essential tool kit for every progressive politician, activist, and interested voter!”

—Thom Hartmann, Air America Radio host and author of Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America's Original Vision

“Bernie has been a campaign manager, a media consultant, a policy director and—most dear to my heart—one of the chief lobbyists for the Brady Bill. His book is based on decades of hard-nosed political experience. And believe me, Bernie really knows his stuff.”

—Sarah Brady, Chair of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence and author of A Good Fight

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