Framing Blunder 1: Attack a likable opponent
In theory, a Senate hearing is supposed to be nothing more than a carefully crafted show to shape public perception. The stakes for the hearing last night were enormous. Republicans have a small window of opportunity to install an extreme conservative Supreme Court Judge who can block every progressive legislation for the next 40 years. There’s only little problem: The guy is being accused by several women to be an alcohol abusing sexual predator.
So what do you do? How do you solve this problem? The classic Republican approach is following one of Roger Stone’s Rules: Attack, Attack, Attack, Never Defend. They knew they had to discredit the female accuser. But they had two big problems:
- Mrs Ford is a Professor in Psychology. A woman who can’t be out-bluffed. She’s tough as a nail.
- The similar case of Anita Hill, who accused a Supreme Court Judge in 1991, had taught them that a group of old male Senators, attacking the credibility of a victim of sexual abuse, resulted in both a PR and an electoral nightmare
Framing blunder 2: Misjudge the setting
They had figured it all out: They would avoid making this mistake again by letting a female prosecutor doing the questioning of Mrs Ford. And they would do the questioning of Brett Kavanaugh. The spectacle that followed was a disaster. A hand grenade exploding in their face. As fans of political framing it reminded us of watching a Bruce Willis movie with your friends, eating popcorn and yelling at the scream. This is what happend:
- First of all the prosecutor turned out to be an ice cold woman. The contrast with the decent and likable Mrs Ford couldn’t be sharper.
- As a result the Senators in the back looked like a bunch of cowards for not daring to do the dirty work themselves.
- The contrast with Brett Kavanaugh was enormous. He acted agitated, bothered, offended, throwing all kinds of accusations at everyone, interrupting senators, etc. Let’s say that he did a great job in confirming the image of a high school bully called Brett. Not the kind of temper you want for a Supreme Court judge.
- Mrs Ford did a brilliant job in speaking in System 1 terms. She captured the imagination, which is way much powerful than talking to the rational mind. When she was asked about the strongest memory of the abuse she painted an incredibly powerful image: ““Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the uproarious laughter, and their having fun at my expense. I was underneath one of them while the two laughed. Two friends having a really good time with one another.”
Framing blunder 3: Don’t Think of an Elephant
The most disastrous part had yet to come. Republican Senators tried to help Kavanaugh by posing all kinds of questions about his drinking behaviour. That would allow him to deny the accusations. But one of the first rules of political framing, named after the essential book by George Lakoff: Don’t Think of an Elephant. If you repeat the frame, even if you try to deny it, you make the frame stronger. The classic example of this is when President Nixon said: I am not a crook. That’s the moment when his days were over. He got stuck with the word “Crook”.
Now picture this: A group of old Republican Senators, who kept asking questions to Kavanaugh about sex and alcohol. The more they asked the worse he sounded. They asked him if he ever passed out. If he ever woke up not knowing where he was? How much of a drinking problem does he really have? It was a gift that kept on giving. The only conclusion you could think of when watching this spectacle: This guy is guilty.
More Behavioural Design Thinking on Framing:
The consumer behind the rise of Trump (English)
Power Talk: How framing reality determines our perception (English)
Campagnes zijn smerige Framing oorlogen (Dutch)
Hoe progressieven moeten leren Framen (Dutch)
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