Conservatives often repackage unpopular and harmful policies in terms that sound benign or even beneficial. Progressives must be wary of using, and ready to counter, conservative language. (More)

The conservative movement is tremendously successful at generating language to define positions and ‘frame’ arguments. “Frame” is in scare quotes because framing refers to presenting one’s positions in a way that it is most likely to garner support. It is more effective political rhetoric, but it is often intellectually dishonest. When you cannot win with your actual argument, you ‘frame’ it in a certain way so that you can win.

One example is “right to work” laws. The purpose of such laws is to bust unions and give corporations the power to pay lower wages and provide fewer benefits to workers. But that is not a winning argument. So instead of presenting their sincere position, they ‘frame’ the purpose of the law and say it gives workers the right to work without paying those dreaded union dues.

How to know when framing is occurring rather than sincere political argumentation? Ask yourself how often conservatives champion the stated value in other issues. In this case, how often are conservatives advocating policies to enhance the rights of workers? The answer, of course, is not very often. So beware laws championed by conservatives because they enhance the rights of workers. They are framing rather than being sincere.

There are many other examples. Conservatives advocate teaching “intelligent design” in addition to evolution in high school biology classes. They frame their argument by referring to values like open-mindedness, critical thinking, fairness and academic freedom. But how often do those values support their other positions? Not very often. Their real goal is to teach religion in public schools. Since that is not a winning argument, they ‘frame’ their position by invoking values they do not generally invoke.

How about school vouchers? The real goal is to siphon public finds away from public schools. But they cannot make that argument, so they frame it by arguing that they just want more and better opportunities for poor, urban, minority kids. Sure. They do that all time, right?

The pattern is clear. Voter suppression laws become laws to prevent fraud. Of course. Conservatives are so keen on preventing fraud when it comes to insider trading on Wall Street, or sub-prime mortgages, or military contractors.

Now, the big one – abortion. Is the ‘pro-life’ argument a sincere position, or is it framing? Well, how often are conservatives ‘pro-life’ on other issues? Not on capital punishment. Not on issues of war and peace. Not on issues of neo-natal health care. Not on endangered species. Not on torture. Not on police brutality. And so on. Despite all the rhetoric about the ‘sanctity of life,’ this is not a consistent conservative theme. One can make a case that even this bedrock conservative position is framed.

So what is the actual argument that conservatives cannot make because it is a political and rhetorical loser? Abortion rights are really about gender roles and the status of women. The conservative position uses the state to enforce the traditional gender role of mother on all women. If a woman gets pregnant, she MUST perform that traditional gender role and have that child – or we will brand her a criminal. Any woman who prefers to pursue a modern gender role – go to school, get a degree, start a career, etc. – and prioritize that modern gender role over her traditional gender role must be punished.

That is the argument that must go unstated. Conservatives cannot argue that they prefer their women to perform traditional gender roles. So instead they frame their position into protecting the rights of the unborn. But on how many other issues do conservatives advocate protecting those who are vulnerable? Alternatively, there are many other issues (birth control, child care, affirmative action, parental leave policy, etc.) through which conservatives try to slow down the process of women embracing modern gender roles and participating in the public sphere. Which argument is really more consistent with conservative policies?

When the stated rationales are not consistent with other conservative principles and policies, then conservatives are framing. And liberals should call them out.