Wave Goodbye to Orwell: Framing Lessons from The Onion

A recent Onion article describes Paul Ryan giving earnest and realistic advice to low-income workers, in line with the policies he is promoting and in tune with his values. This style of describing an opponent’s policies and values truthfully, avoiding their Orwellian misdirection without adding your own mockery or snark, is worth exploring as a framing technique.

{ Part of a series on framing: practical approaches and examples. }

The Onion lifts the Orwellian veil and imagines Paul Ryan giving earnest and realistic advice:

“GOP Recommends Americans Set Aside Income From One Of Their Jobs To Pay For Healthcare Under New Bill.”

A liberal friend commented that “it sounds exactly like the kind of things Paul Ryan is already saying.” But this isn’t accurate. The Onion describes what liberals hear when our media describes his policies, but it is not how he frames healthcare himself.

The Onion’s mock report rings true: it’s straightforwardly Ryan’s policies and his values applied to the real world. But I’ve never heard Republicans or progressive activists frame the Republican health care plan this way: with clarity, without exaggerations or team-identifying “#resist” hashtags, simply taking the values actually felt by Republicans to realistic conclusions.

When Republicans frame healthcare, they avoid words about poorly-paid people working. In their world, “the poor” consume, for example by buying iPhones. But in Republican stories the poor do not work. They certainly do not work two jobs. The Republican frame implies that work will give them freedom, and that less consumption will solve their problems, but the real lives of the working poor are never explored.

Instead, Republican conversations about healthcare engage in magical thinking about how each step will “lower prices even more” without consequences.

Ryan’s discussions of health care never include practical recommendations on how citizens might have to adjust to the new plan. This Onion article is factually accurate — people with low-paying jobs will need to add another part-time job, perhaps stick their kids in front of the tv and hope for the best, to pay for their healthcare. But it is also true to Republican values of hard work, while most of the liberal attacks pretend that Republicans, in their hearts, are motivated by something more directly evil. That comes across as cartoonish and changes few minds.

So why not say it? Why don’t Democrats and their allies describe the Republican plan as this article does: follow the Republican plan and the Republican belief that the hard work of an individual can solve every problem without outside help, and show what that means in the real world.

The Onion has lifted the Orwellian veil off the Republican plan, without resorting to cheap parody or a cartoonish misrepresentation of Republican intentions. They are describing the Republican values of hard work in an unregulated market made manifest in the real world. That true story is cutting comedy.

Democrats and allies should explore this as a framing approach. Use active listening, be able to describe Republican values as well as they can. Tell the story while adding neither our disparagement nor their fog. Tell a story of healthcare that matches Ryan’s actual, undistorted beliefs, his desire for people to work harder, as it would really work. Don’t tell people what to believe. Whether it is enough or not, all we have is our story; our judgement won’t be welcome and won’t help.

My Democratic feed has been full of numbers — not stories — of how many millions of people will lose health care. We might say “older women earning less than $50,000 will lose,” but rarely describe a person with a name and history. Bring those people — real or fiction but with names — up again and again, week after week. (Remember “Joe the Plumber”? Any Democratic equivalents?) No Democratic frame takes each step of Ryan’s policies and explains, gives an example, of how each step that “will lower prices even more” takes away a needed service. Admit the cost savings and describe the impact, just so.

If Republicans want a strong work ethic, what does this mean for a family who works at Republican-contributor Walmart? If they want cost savings, where will those savings come from? Be willing to admit the positives next to the negatives: yes, my healthcare costs went up under Obamacare because some people with pre-existing conditions were added to my pool and are now insured too. Don’t describe them just by income level: don’t say “People who make $40,000 per year.” Start with a story of people living their lives in a particular way. Pull listeners out of abstractions. Say: “this is what Paul Ryan wants a young couple where both parents work at Walmart to do.”

Don’t exaggerate: describe a healthy person who will pay less at the same time you describe someone with a pre-existing condition who will lose their coverage. Leave no points for them to pick apart. Footnotes with numbers are great, but they’re not the core story.

Unmuddle the Republican story — without any snark at all. Don’t call Paul Ryan whatever you think of him. Tell the story of what he believes and what he is doing. When you want to rally your friends and rally the base, then fire and brimstone are fine. When you want to slowly attract people who voted for Trump but might not next time: No paper tigers. None of your opinion. If your story doesn’t make people furious, keep working on it, or let it be one of many steps. When your opinion goes farther than your story convinces your audience, you lose them.

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Here is what Ryan actually says, choice and freedom:

The American Health Care Act lowers premiums, stabilizes the market, and gives people more choice and freedom. https://t.co/Ohx3SMsEtK pic.twitter.com/di1ZSUyJf2
— Paul Ryan (@SpeakerRyan) March 13, 2017

Originally published at www.cognitivepolitics.org on March 16, 2017.