The framing of Adrian Dix

Media hear the B.C. NDP leader say big business should pay more taxes and brand him scary, hostile, and a ‘dour Stalinist.’ The Tyee‘s Crawford Kilian asks: What’s going on here? Reprinted in full with permission from The Tyee.

Even before Adrian Dix won the NDP leadership on April 17, he was being aggressively framed by the media. The effort ramped up rapidly that night and should continue right through to the next provincial election.

By “framed,” I don’t mean he’s been falsely convicted of some crime (though that’s part of it). But our media are trying to put him in a context that makes him and his ideas unacceptable to most British Columbians — who have been boxed into a very small space by previous framing campaigns.

Consider some of the media takes on Dix since his election as leader:

Mike Smyth: “…too much like Glen Clark was — a union-backed class warrior, hostile to business, who polarized British Columbians.”

The Province: “He scares the heck out of tens of thousands of voters, who believe a Dix-led government means higher taxes, out of control government spending and anti-business policies that will gut investment and slow the economy and job creation.”

The Vancouver Sun: “Adrian Dix must prove he’s no longer yesterday’s man.”

Gary Mason: “Mr. Dix is preparing to embark on a risky strategy that involves driving a wedge between the haves and the have-nots…”

CTV News: “Dix appealed to the party’s left-wing base of community activists and labour unions, while Farnworth was seen as a moderate who would move the party closer to the centre…”

All these observations are meaningless because they depend on meaningless terms — loaded words and phrases that audiences have been trained to jump at: “unions,” “hostile to business,” “polarize,” “higher taxes,” “gut the economy,” “yesterday’s man,” “driving a wedge,” “left-wing,” and “activists.”

How does the Province know Dix “scares the heck out of tens of thousands,” when most British Columbians know nothing about him except what the media tell them? And if they believe he’d do all those wicked things, are they correct in their beliefs, or have they been fooled yet again?

And have the haves and have-nots been living in chummy solidarity until this guy showed up to spoil their fun?

How frames are built

Framing is the art and science of setting the terms of debate, and thereby of ensuring who’ll win the debate.

The North American frame from the 1930s to the 1970s supported liberal policies involving a strong central government. These policies enabled governments to mitigate the Depression, fight and win a world war, and then launch a postwar golden age of full employment, high salaries, and working-class families that could send their kids to college.

These policies had been anathema to a small number of right-wing intellectuals and businessmen in both the U.S. and Canada, but they couldn’t get their ideas into the frame. Starting at about the time of Barry Goldwater’s failed run for the U.S. presidency in 1964, some seriously far-right individuals and groups began to take steps to remedy that.

In their 1996 book No Mercy: How Conservative Think Tanks and Foundations Changed America’s Social Agenda, Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic argued that right-wing funding supported a generation of right-wing intellectuals and journalists who effectively criticized “big government,” “big unions,” “special interest groups,” and liberals in general.

The right-wingers also endorsed Reagan Republicans, Thatcher Conservatives, and, eventually, a Canadian splinter group called Reform. In the process, they demolished the liberal frame and moved the frame sharply to the right. Those who had been a ludicrous lunatic fringe were now The Right. The old right were now the Moderates. The liberals were the new Ludicrous Fringe.

In a witty twist on the liberal myth of progress, where tomorrow is always better than today and yesterday was howling barbarism, the right now framed the liberals themselves as “yesterday’s men.”

The real class warriors

Good framing often involves attacking the other side for your own bad behaviour. No one was better at wedge issues and polarization than Socred premier and class warrior Bill Bennett, who provoked 60,000 British Columbians into marching around the Socred convention at the Hotel Vancouver in 1983.

Similarly, the Gordon Campbell Liberals blamed the Glen Clark NDP for economic mismanagement, though B.C. did better in the 1990s than it has since 2001.

The far-right framing of American political discourse is now so tightly screwed into the wall that Barack “Audacity of Hope” Obama is now to be both pitied and scorned.

Harper’s mastery of framing

On the Canadian national scene, Stephen Harper has done brilliantly at framing our own discourse into a tiny cameo, which he wears as a lapel pin.

Consider his bravura performance in 2008, when his own over-reaching provoked the Liberals, NDP and Bloc into forming a coalition. Such coalitions have governed parliamentary democracies for centuries; Harper’s own party is a coalition of Reformers and Progressive Conservatives. It’s a feature of parliaments, not a bug.

But by straight-faced misrepresentation of parliamentary government, Harper managed to turn “coalition” into a dirty word. Never mind that he was himself the leader of a coalition. Never mind that he supports a government in Israel that exists only thanks to being a coalition, or that other friendly governments like the U.K. and Australia are also coalitions. In Canada, a coalition was now outside the frame.

His success depended on the media accepting it, and they have. Instead of laughing Harper out of every press conference where he uses the term, the Canadian media have reported his usage of “coalition” as if it were to be found in the Oxford Dictionary: “n. an assembly of Satan’s spawn; a team of assassins; a convention of pimps.”

But our media, as abject as the Americans’, treat Harper’s framing as the only way to think about the term. You would think highly educated journalists had all been in a coma during Grade 10 Civics.

Orwell 101

Orwell, of course, foresaw Stephen Harper and our media. “Doublethink” by 1948 was already a routine form of dealing with politically inconvenient reality, whether in the Soviet Union or in the (framed) “free world.” And Orwell knew the media would eagerly report that “We have always been at war with Eastasia!”

Any evidence to the contrary would go down the memory hole, along with Gordon Campbell’s drunk-driving bust and Christy Clark’s unconstitutional 2002 laws.

When, just after Dix became NDP leader, a Province headline dubbed him a “dour Stalinist”, the Globe and Mail’s Rod Mickleburgh countered with a level-headed perspective, noting “unless I’ve missed some dusty, archival memo… Mr. Dix does not endorse executing his opponents, collectivizing agriculture in the Peace River, or sending Jenny Kwan to the Gulag. He is actually a supporter of democracy, businesses making a profit and Stompin’ Tom Connors’s The Hockey Song.”

What then to make of this rush to frame Adrian Dix as a “dour Stalinist” for policies that would have made him a moderate Liberal circa 1970 (when the Sun and Province were pretty good papers)?

It just reflects what “doubleplusgood duckspeakers” too many of our media have become, in Orwell’s terms — quackers of meaningless clichés that drag the public’s consciousness down to their own sad level.