Lessons in Anchoring and Framing From … George Clooney?

In a Time magazine Q&A, the actor gives a fascinating reply to the question “Are you disappointed in Obama?”:

I get angry at people who don’t stand for him, actually. If this were a Republican president, Republicans would say, “We were losing 400,000 jobs a month. We stopped it. We saved the car industry.” You could go down the list. Democrats should talk to Hollywood about how to posture some of these things. Say you’re about to get into tax loopholes. Instead of “loopholes,” say “cheating.” And then on the floor of the Senate, get up and say, “We’re not going to raise your taxes, but we’re not for cheating. Are you?” I just think Democrats are bad at that.

A few points: I assume the “people” he gets angry at for not standing for Obama are Democrats? If not … well … hard to imagine someone like Clooney getting angry at Democrats who didn’t “stand for” Bush.

Photo: csztova

Great point re the job loss and car industry! Perhaps not nearly 100 percent accurate, but still, a great point re how those accomplishments haven’t been framed as successes.

Should Democrats really “talk to Hollywood” about how to “posture” these things? My sense is that Hollywood is good at fleshing out fantasies and unrealistic narratives that we want to be realistic; to me, this is a different skill set than advantageously using framing and anchoring techniques.

But, on that last point — maybe I’m wrong! Because if Clooney can be said to represent “Hollywood,” then his take on the “loopholes” vs. “cheating” is as smart as anything any political consultant says.

Here’s the big question: are Democrats really just “bad at that” — i.e., using framing, anchoring, and loaded language to their advantage? I hear this meme more and more these days, including in a recent interview I did with Times editorial-page editor Andy Rosenthal for an upcoming radio program on media bias. Rosenthal, like Clooney, argues that Democrats are simply bad at fighting back against Republican efforts on something as simple as the “estate tax” vs. “death tax” argument. It’s not clear to me whether Democrats are supposed to be bad because they take the higher moral ground and refuse to roll in mud like this, or that they don’t have enough of a mean streak, or whatnot. But does anyone else here find this to be argument viable? Out of all the Democrats in the country, is there really no one who understands and is willing to successfully use framing, anchoring, and language tricks?


Or perhaps the ideas the Democratic Party is currently promoting simply aren't compelling to a majority of voters.


Democrats certainly do use framing to press points on economic issues ("increase revenue" rather than "raise taxes") and social issues ("pro-choice" is not really an accurate label since the other side is not "anti-choice," just like Democrats are not "anti-life" -- both sides try to frame the debate with their chosen term and neither can do so convincingly, which is why the NYT clunkily calls them "supporters/opponents of abortion rights" rather than using their preferred labels).

That's not to say that Dems are more or less effective at it as Reps, and Dems have Biden's legendary mouth working against them too.


I think the point is, "Why would democrats become "good" at advanced lying and bias when they have the media and Hollywood to do it for them?"

It's not as if the popular democrat memes don't already have wide and deep penetration into the society. They do.

You write, "My sense is that Hollywood is good at fleshing out fantasies and unrealistic narratives that we want to be realistic."

I'd say you need a lot more of the unreality and the fantasy pored over the heads of the credulous. Remember how successful "Hope and Change" were. You don't need realism. You need a popular new fantasy.


No they are lousy at it. The Republicans have been better for years (remember the Swift Boat-ing of Kerry).
You can be upset that the economy isn't better, but the Obama administration has done a poor job of highlighting their successes, esp. given the hand they were dealt.


Not necessarily Hollywood, but a liberal Frank Luntz perhaps. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frank_Luntz


I would assume democrats wouldn't use "tax cheating" because it goes against the corporations who fund their campaigns. Or these highly educated people are just dummies.


You make a good observation and comment on your statement: "Should Dems talk to Hollywood?"
"My sense is that Hollywood is good at fleshing out fantasies and unrealistic narratives."

You you end with open question that begs your analysis: "Out of all the Democrats in the country, is there really no one who understands and is willing to successfully use framing, anchoring, and language tricks?"

1. Of course, Dems know how to frame an issue. They are liberal, not ignorant.
2. As to the why they don't... you can't take a definitive stand on anything, because you are held responsible for the consequences of your actions. ie... the not-so-Supercommittee's "failure" has no consequences until 2013... another year... lifetime away... kick the can down the road... and each side can blame the other. It's too hard to face the issues and make real and unpopular decision.

Eric Morrow

Couldn't agree more. I wish the liberals weren't afraid to get together on some clever framing.


"Loophole" itself is just a dysphemism for "exclusion/exception/deduction/credit that Congress approved and I disapprove." As is the case with most dysphemisms, using it results in only a minor debasement of the language. Upping the dysphemistic ante with "cheating," on the other hand, is more threatening to intelligent discourse. I for one don't want "cheating" to become so debased that it means nothing more than "complying with the law."

Joan Akin

My opinion: At college, more Republicans learn marketing. Democrats lean towards humanities. They are, indeed, less adept at 'selling' an idea.


Who is better at framing an issue might be the wrong question.

It seems to me that nearly everyone with a casual interest or more in current events knows exactly what the Republican Party stands for. It also seems that no one knows what democrats actually believe in.

I don't think you could get a coherent response from anyone to the question, "What does Obama stand for?" If large number of voters cannot easily and succinctly answer this question, how can he possibly be re-elected? Perhaps Obama could dust off Nixon tactic and have The Secret Stuff I Believe In and promise to reveal the TSSIBI after the election.


This posting just calls out for that famous Will Rogers (attributed) quotation: "I am not a member of any organized party — I am a Democrat."


Language is important, the GOP's got it " are you for or against America!" Reminds me that fuel flow in early aircraft used to be regulated by a gauge that said "Rich" and "Poor", it was changed to "Rich" and "lean" because pilots used to use only the "Rich" setting; who wants to be seen as poor!

The GOP's lasting legislation: Patriot Act is nothing but a way of reducing American's rights. Talk about language manipulation

Hugo de Toronja

The absence of puppeteers, magicians, and rodeo clowns from this discourse is an affront to the democratic impulse every bit as harrowing as the Beer Hall Putsch.

Why should Hollywood "actors" be the only entertainers consulted when questions arise as to the health of the American commonweal?

Are we to believe that animal trainers and ventriloquists and lap dancers have no say in how we might best shield our country from the predations of totalitarianism?

You don't know Jack

Seems to me that whatever framing skills the democrats have will pale in comparison to whatever framing and final sound bites the various media organizations choose to use


The SmugCloud from Clooney's Oscar acceptance speech continues to foul the nation.

Why do people care about the opinion of someone so good at false behavior that he wins awards for it? I'd rather try to learn from the opinions of the slacker OWSers, at least they aren't professional poseurs.


The Democrats do use key phrases.
Such as Anti-abortionist vs. pro-choice.
How come the biased media does not refer to the debate as, pro-life vs pro-death or even pro-life vs pro-choice?


I've always seen the Democrats as being far, far better at these "framing" issues than anyone else, having inherited a lot of practical propaganda experience from the Communists & other leftists. After all, if they actually told the truth about most of their positions, no one would support them.

Consider a few recent examples, such as the re-framing of the US response to Islamic aggression (admittedly helped by that idiot Bush); the re-framing of the destruction of the Fukushima nuclear plants, which so far has killed no one, as a major nuclear disaster (while ignoring the rebuilding & resettlement of the tsunami zones); even Buffett's lie about not paying as much in taxes as his secretary.

Axel Kassel

"Great point re the job loss and car industry!" Really? GM and Chrysler factories weren't going to crumble during a normal bankruptcy proceeding. Instead, we got an end run around established processes, special treatment for unions, arbitrary shafting of debt holders, and a multi-billion-dollar bath for taxpayers. And even if GM and Chrysler had disappeared, presumably more orders would have gone to Ford and to the factories making Nissans, Hondas, Mazdas, Toyotas, Hyundais, and other cars here in the USA. The auto bailouts were as bad a policy as the bailouts for financial institutions: they disguised costs, transferred wealth for political gain, and encouraged future feckless behavior. Great point, my accelerator.

Mike Giberson

George Lakoff, in his book "Don't Think of an Elephant," argued the point that Democrats were worse than Republicans at framing political debates and so sensible (from the left's point of view) policies lacked support. I'm not sure there was much in the way of evidence for his contention that the right was better than the left on these issues.

Just on the face of it I would guess the opposite. Framing and anchoring are ideas developed mostly by academic psychologists, and academic psychologists as a group likely lean left of the political center in the U.S. I would have expected the ideas to filter into Democratic campaigns sooner and deeper.

One possible explanation might arise in the Moral Foundations Theory work by Jonathan Haidt and colleagues. Liberal moral values are heavily focused on reducing harm and promoting fairness. Conservative moral values recognize those values but also put weight on respecting authority and protecting purity. The broader range of values within the conservative sense of morality may give conservatives ways of appealing to voters that don't come naturally to liberals.