A Pro-Government Campaign

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The Need to Fight over How Government is Framed

Providing better information about government is a step in the right direction – but it is not nearly enough to turn around the negative views that many people have of this institution. It is tempting to think that if more people only knew what government was doing for them, they would cease to view it in such a negative light. But as Michael Lipsky, a scholar who has been studying the way the public views government, has observed: “Unfortunately, it is not that simple. If it were, supporters of key government programs and services long ago would have reminded people of the good things government does, and the anti-government initiatives of recent years would have been turned aside.”6

According to Lipsky, the problem is that this approach leaves untouched the basic images or “frames” that people have about government. Frames determine how we process information and “the very meaning of new information depends upon the frame through which the information is processed.”7 This means that people who start out with a negative view of government may easily downplay or simply ignore information that contradicts that view. So merely providing more accurate information about government may do little to overturn these deep-rooted negative frames.

The situation here is similar to that of racial prejudice. We now know that if people have a strong view of racial minorities as “inferior,” exposing them to information about the actual abilities and achievements of minorities does little to change that prejudiced view. They simply ignore the countervailing information that threatens their cherished beliefs, or they explain away the achievements of individual minorities as exceptions to the rule. So it is with government. If people harbor a prejudiced view of government, merely exposing them to counter-information may not win them over.

What is needed, then, is an approach that not only presents counter-information but also promotes counter-frames about government. We need to provide different and more positive images through which people can perceive government. This is the key to undermining the negative and inaccurate images of government being promoted by anti-government conservatives. As Lipsky explains it:

Dominant frames that people draw upon are stable but they are not impervious to challenge or change. …In principle, every communication contributes to reinforcing or dissolving one or another frame. People embrace many frames at once, so there are opportunities to reinforce some frames and degrade others. Just as the right wing attack on government as inherently wasteful and inferior to market-based institutions has contributed to public skepticism about the potential of government, it may be possible to enhance other frames which hold government in a more balanced light. If communications were shaped to reinforce a frame in which government plays a constructive social role, and ceased reinforcing frames in which government is consigned a negative role, supporters of a positive role for government, acting in concert, could help shape political discourse in positive ways.8

Promoting different frames or images of government to replace the negative images being offered by anti-government activists is not as difficult or daunting a task at it may seem at first glance. It is not as if negative images are all that exist and we have to try to replace those images with entirely new ones. As Lipsky suggests, there are already many positive frames about government out there among the public. Most people have both positive and negative frames about government and the task at hand is to reinforce the former and thus undermine the latter.

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