Mayor Pete “rejects the frame”

Democrats are historically bad at owning the message. This response from Mayor Pete tries to win it back.

This week (of October 12th) a 2019 statement from then-presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg went viral. 

This isn’t the only time that Democrats have answered this type of question (here’s Hillary Clinton doing it in a 2016 debate). But because this went viral — and because Mayor Pete’s answer is an unusually good example of controlling the message — I wanted to put out a short analysis.

You can see the full video, including Pete’s response and Chris Wallace’s question, on YouTube. 

A tweet sharing the text of Pete’s response went viral, and the image spread across other social media platforms as well. 

Pete’s response does three very smart things that are easy to miss — and that Democratic politicians (and the media) often miss:

  1. Challenge the premise (the “frame”) of the question

  2. Reframe the question by targeting a strong emotion

  3. Reframe the question AGAIN using a common conservative belief

“Rejecting the conservative frame” is, historically, a challenge

Conservative politicians and talking heads are very good at naming things. 

  • The estate tax becomes the “death tax” 

  • Gun safety becomes “gun control” 

  • The Affordable Care Act becomes “Obamacare”

“Partial-birth abortions” (which isn’t in any sense a medical term) get plenty of air time. “Welfare queens” are conjured as an imaginary exploiter of the system. Progressives are quickly and constantly labeled socialists. 

As cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues in The Little Blue Book (and across his writing), one of the biggest reasons that Democrats are bad at marketing is that they accept the conservative “frame.” Even when trying to argue against conservative positions, they use conservative language. 

Here’s how Lakoff describes the phenomenon.

“Liberal TV commentators tend to practice the same pattern. First they will recite a quote or show a film clip from a conservative, repeat the conservative claim out loud, and only then cite the facts contradicting the claim. Activists do the same. An Occupy Wall Street sign read, “Obama is not a brown-skinned anti-war socialist who gives away free health care.… You’re thinking of Jesus.” The problem is that what those reading the sign attend to are the accusations against Obama, not the negative. President Obama himself, replying to conservative health care attacks, repeatedly said, “This is not a government takeover,” thus putting the idea of a government takeover into the minds of those who heard him.”

It’s much easier to be opposed to “gun control” than it is to argue against “gun safety.” A “death tax” sounds ominous, which is why people came up with that name. An estate tax doesn’t sound like anything to get people up in arms. 

The challenge, as Lakoff writes, is that “Democrats are using a frame that appeals just to liberals and that does not undercut the cascades [brain activation] used by conservatives.”

In his book The Righteous Mind, moral psychologist Jonathan Haidt shows that liberals and conservatives tend to care about different things. Liberals are much more likely to respond to policies or statements that reduce harm; conservatives care more about messages related to autonomy. I wrote more about his work here.

Liberals create messages that liberals like. But that doesn’t win over conservatives.

When a Democrat responds to a hard question like Wallace’s, it’s easy to fall into the trap of only emphasizing what pro-choice means for women’s well-being. Mayor Pete makes that point, but takes his answer a step further. 

How Mayor Pete rejects the conservative frame — and then reframes his answer to appeal to conservatives

Let’s go through Mayor Pete’s answer, beat by beat.

"These hypotheticals are set up to provoke a strong emotional reaction.”

One of the most effective ways to reject a frame is to call attention to it. Mayor Pete calls attention to a leading question, which helps him redirect his answer. 

Note that Joe Biden did this as well in the first presidential debate. When asked about “court packing” (not “court expanding” or “court rebalancing” — notice the frame), Biden responded “whichever way I answer that question will become the story.” Rejecting the frame.

"So, let's put ourselves in the shoes of a woman in that situation. If it's that late in your pregnancy, that means almost by definition you've been expecting to carry it to term.”

By putting the listener in the woman's shoes, he forces a degree of empathy. This is the same principle as “don’t think of a polar bear,” which of course makes you think of a polar bear.

"We're talking about women who have perhaps chosen the name, women who have purchased the crib, families that then get the most devastating medical news of their lifetime, something about the health or the life of the mother that forces them to make an impossible, unthinkable choice."

Look at this language. Emotional language. Specific, easy to imagine visuals (a name, purchased a crib). One response on Twitter shows that this really is the language that breaks through.

Pete paints an empathetic picture and emphasizes the devastating effect on the mother. Notice also that he has shifted the frame from woman → mother. 

Still, that wouldn’t be quite enough to reach conservatives on its own. As Haidt’s research shows, Care/Harm is a message that liberals put more importance on than conservatives. 

"That decision is not going to be made any better, medically or morally, because the government is dictating how that decision should be made.”

“Because the government is dictating.” This is a conservative talking point! It’s a message that is often used to support conservative ideas and argue against progressive policies.

By rejecting the frame of the initial question, Mayor Pete avoids putting his foot in his mouth. He also calls attention to the frame itself, which makes it harder to ask follow-up “gotcha” questions.

By shifting his message to target a conservative ideal, he may just be able to win over the people sitting on the fence.