Framing the Debt Ceiling
The honor of America is at stake.
What does raising the debt limit have to do with masculinity or patriotism? To many people, “being a man” means doing what you said you were going to do. We know that this has nothing to do with gender and everything to do with integrity, but might the myths of machismo and patriotism give us a way to frame this public debate to conservative voters?
The public debate over the debt limit is loaded with competing metaphors. Do people really understand what is at stake for the global economy? Do they really believe Republicans will slash Social Security and Medicare? Or does this all sound like political hyperbole?
One lesson we have learned about political behavior in the Trump era is that issues of identity, pride and masculinity can be incredibly strong drivers of political behavior, even when put up against people’s economic self-interest.
There are several framing strategies that make sense in this debt limit debate. We have to fight the false equivalence of “standoff” and “game of chicken” metaphors. We should tie this situation to the larger theme that Democrats are the party of responsibility. We could also try to appeal to conservative voters with the idea that defaulting on our debts is a threat to the national honor, reputation and integrity of America.
Thank you for reading Reframing America! This is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts by email please consider becoming a subscriber. All content is free, but some people choose to become paying subscribers to support this mission!
“Republicans and Democrats are again preparing to play a game of chicken over the U.S. debt ceiling – with the nation’s financial stability at stake.” (PBS)
“You're Not Negotiating "in Good Faith" When You've Got a Gun to the Economy's Head” (Esquire)
We have to fight the false equivalence of terms like “stand-off” and “game of chicken.” By “fight” I mean to avoid using those terms at all costs and to refute their premises without actually reinforcing the mental images they evoke.
The Hostage Frame
This is unquestionably a “hostage situation” with House Republicans taking the entire global economy hostage in order to push their doctrine of slashing taxes for the rich and gutting programs like Social Security and Medicare.
Some have even referred to this as “debt limit terrorism.” I like the term “economic terrorism.” This may sound extreme, but in the public debate, saying things that are debatable is an effective way to set the agenda and get the press to pay attention. An argument over “whether or not this constitutes terrorism” would be to our benefit regardless of how that question is ultimately answered. It would allow us to make important points about how Republicans are threatening to do something that is both unprecedented and incredibly destructive.
Partisan standoff, face-off, stalemate, game of chicken.
Hostage crisis, hostage taking, gun to the head, threaten to blow up the global economy, demands, threats, terrorism, don’t negotiate with terrorists.
”Burn down the House” Republicans are threatening to unleash a “weapon of mass economic destruction.” (Hey, why not? Let’s go there.)
To refute the “game of chicken” frame: We’re not playing games here. This is more like Charlottesville. The Republicans are threatening to drive their car into a crowd of people unless we give in to their demands.
Responsibility and Past Commitments
Tying back to big themes and values
In the recent issue, What is Democrats’ version of “free markets, low taxes and strong defense? we talked about connecting things that happen to larger themes that illustrate our core values. In this case, we can make this a question of responsibility.
“We don’t run for office just to stop people from doing anything, and then point the blame at others when the economy crashes, the climate collapses or people die from pandemics or hate crimes. When we are elected to office, we take responsibility for making government work for all people and for making sure that government delivers on its commitments.”
This is not about future budgets; it’s about honoring the commitments we have already made as a country. Raising the debt limit is a routine procedure used to follow through on commitments we already made.
Are we going to make good on people’s investments in U.S. Treasury bonds? Are we going to live up to the promises we made to our aging parents? Are we going to pay the salaries of the people who do the work of the American government every day? Of the brave men and women who defend our borders?
We need to emphasize the distinction between taking responsibility for previous commitments and the decisions we make about budgets for the future.
The “Not the Right Place” Frame
Any time people raise questions about the size of the debt, budget issues or what they call fiscal responsibility, we have an excellent point to make: this is not the right place to have those discussions. There is a process in place where people of both parties can negotiate in good faith about the best way to manage our budget, and that is our annual budget negotiations process.
The budget decisions we made in the past were made by the elected representatives of the American people. You think those decisions were wrong? Well, we think some of those decisions were wrong too. We don’t think you should have slashed revenues by giving the rich a massive tax cut. But this is not the right place for that discussion. We have a place for that. It’s called budget negotiations, and we do that in a civilized way, in the best interest of the American people. Not by threatening to blow up the global economy and destroy the good name of the United States of America.
Patriotism and Masculinity
I happen to be a fan of detective novels. One of my favorite fictional detectives is Robert B. Parker’s hard-boiled philosopher, Spenser, along with his criminal/superhero compatriot, Hawk. A through-line in the book series is their discussions of what it means to be a “man.” Their number one requirement is, “a man does what he says he is going to do.” In their case, it is literally a matter of life and death, given that being where they say they are going to be, when they say they are going to be there, usually involves saving someone’s neck in a gun-battle. I imagine our armed forces probably operate along a similar code.
Obviously, this has nothing to do with gender, and a lot to do with integrity. But could we use the language of honor, integrity and pride to talk seriously about what is at stake if the United States of America defaults on its debts? How much of our power in the world comes from the fact that loaning money to the United States Government (which it then invests in the American economy) is the most reliable investment on earth?
We do talk about the economic disasters that would ensue. But we should also talk about our honor, our reputation and our pride. We should talk about weakening our position in the world, about what it means when other countries “can’t depend on America to keep it’s word.”
Republicans are threatening to destroy the good name of the United States to push an extremist agenda.
People invest in America. Are Republicans really saying that we should default on our debts? What happens to our reputation if we become a “deadbeat” country?
If Republicans refuse to pay the bills we already agreed to pay, we lose our standing as the economic powerhouse of the world. Do they really want to make America weak, a country that can’t be trusted?
The Bottom Line
Our power around the world depends on our dominant position in the global economy. What happens to that position if we do not honor the contracts we have made? If we become a bad credit risk? What does it say about who we are as a nation if we can’t be relied upon to keep our word?
This is no game. In threatening to default on the commitments already made by the U.S. government, Republicans in Congress are holding the American people hostage. They are threatening to kill millions of jobs and destroy the reputation of the United States. And for what? To cut Social Security? To let their friends commit tax evasion?
These are not good faith negotiations. There is a time and place for those: in our regular budget process. This is bureaucratic terrorism, a threat to unleash a weapon of mass economic destruction just to push an agenda that they know the American people don’t want.
People elect representatives to run this country, not to make themselves famous on Twitter. We (Democrats) take our responsibilities seriously. It is our job to protect the American economy and our global reputation. It is our responsibility to pay America’s bills.
Republicans in Congress are so obsessed with depriving Democrats of “victories,” that they seem to have forgotten that it’s not the Democrats in Washington who would lose. If Republicans refuse to do their job, it’s the American people who will suffer. They are so blinded by partisan fanaticism that they don’t seem to care what happens to the American people.
Government is not a reality TV show. We have real work to do on behalf of the American people and that includes taking responsibility for the commitments we made. It’s time for Republicans to join us and do the work, or get out of the way.
I liked your article on reframing the debt ceiling. That theme about “being a man” touched a nerve and dovetailed into my thoughts on effective messaging. I’m not a messaging guru, but as a salesguy, I learned that if you want to move someone to act, find the right buttons to push. By addressing one directly, using the second-person pronoun, it often gets a prompt reply or reaction. A favorite example is the WW1 call-to-action war poster, “I WANT YOU.” Another effective example was, “Crooked Hilary”.
Specific words and concepts with outsized power such as honor, pride, trust, loyalty, patriotism, respect, courage, and honesty, when used in the second person, can/will spark a reaction. When Donald Trump said, “If you don't fight like hell you're not going to have a country anymore,” he challenged the listeners' patriotism, their manhood, their courage. We all saw the result of those 14 words.
Is our messaging too cerebral, too soft, too easy to ignore? I think much of it is. Perhaps too much?
“Poke the bear”.
What are your thoughts on poking people’s loyalty, conscience, patriotism, etc, to get attention? Should we be taking a hint from the Republican playbook by calling out, by name, the bad actors and the bad messages (lies)?
I was thinking about the "responsibility" issue. My point is the American people are responsible for electing the conservative economic terrorists. Through apathy and ignorance our society elected congressional representatives who care only about receiving donations from wealthy corporations and individuals so that they set their agenda on tax breaks and social spending cuts. We will reap what they sow until 2024. I am thankful that we may be able to stop the havoc in the senate. Thanks for a thoughtful article,