Saturday, March 7, 2015

"Right to work" isn't a frame - it's a brand

Matt Lewis at the Daily Beast is thrilled that Right To Work legislation is passing in Wisconsin, but his analysis of its success is complete gibberish:
Language is important, and you know your framing has worked when your opponents use it, too. “Right to work is desperately wrong for Wisconsin,” Wisconsin's Democratic leader in the Assembly recently complained.
His battle was lost before he finished saying it. Who could be against the right to work?
Answer: the people who are openly opposing it, mentioned in every preceding sentence. This is a direct contradiction, and it isn't just a symptom of bad writing: it reflects underlying problems in the notion of "framing" in general.

On one hand, people who talk about framing insist that an effective frame should be difficult to contest - that is the entire point. It's what, we are told, makes RTW so majestically clever: the way it transforms a technocratic point of labor law into an epic battle between tyrannical government and industrious freedom. The right side of such a battle should be patently obvious, and no one who has been persuaded by the framing should be inclined to oppose it. Framing succeeds not by winning arguments, but by preempting them.

And yet RTW has hardly preempted anything - as Wisconsin demonstrates by Lewis's own account. Not only are its opponents still fighting, but they are fighting in precisely the way that framing is supposed to prevent. They fight on the political right's own carefully calibrated terms and openly call RTW "desperately wrong". Lewis seems to think this impossible or at least unlikely, but that's precisely what is happening.

The explanation is simple: framing doesn't work. Everyone knows exactly what RTW means: it's a policy of prohibiting union security agreements. People don't support RTW because they've been cleverly fooled by some elaborate rhetoric gimmick; they support it because unions are unpopular, and because there's a systematic incentive to try to free-ride on the benefits won by unions without paying unions dues. RTW opponents are able to plausibly argue against this because unions still maintain a baseline of support throughout the nation, and because some people appreciate the importance of union security agreements. The controversy is more sophisticated than some crude argument over a right to work, and people understand it because, contrary to the partisans of framing, people are not in fact idiots.

So what good is framing? Lewis is explicit about this: "you know your framing has worked when your opponents use it, too". In other words, the criterion of success is not winning the argument; it's just going viral, like a catchphrase.

This makes plenty of sense from a marketing perspective. If you're a PR firm, a campaign consultant, or a political columnist, your job isn't to win: it's to publicize your product in order to get business. Frank Luntz is probably happy enough when Scott Walker signs anti-union legislation into law, but that's not what pays the bills. He wants people using his catchphrase - even his political opponents. When you stop thinking of "framing" as a linguistic magic trick and start thinking about it as a marketing gimmick, the RTW brand is much easier to understand.