by Valentin Schwarz

If you follow political polls, you might be forgiven for thinking that Austrians are intentionally seeking to cause confusion. Completely contradictory statements are receiving enthusiastic approval at the same time. Significant majorities exist both in favour of “wealth taxes” and against “property taxes”, though they are essentially the same thing. With regard to refugee policy, sentiments of “It’s our duty to help” and “The boat is full” have both found popular support. The explanation for these contradictions is that people’s responses always depend on how a question is asked. To change a political discourse, such as that about the European Union, we need to be aware – “we”, here, being a broad left of movements and NGOs, trade unions and parties – that the terms we choose and the context will determine which stances people find persuasive.

It’s not the facts that make the difference

Among our political circles, the attitude that the “right” facts and effective arguments are the best way to persuade others is widespread. In reality, this is not the case, as the above examples show. This is demonstrated particularly clearly by a study cited by linguist Elisabeth Wehling in the book Politisches Framing (Political Framing), in which participants were told that a patient was suffering from a serious illness. In the example, an operation was possible, but risky. “The patient has a 90 per cent chance of surviving the operation. Should we operate?” one half were asked. The majority answered yes. The second group received the same question, but formulated in a different way: “The patient has a 10 per cent chance of dying during the operation. Should we operate?” A majority were against it. Despite the facts being the same, the final decision was completely different.

Frames: How we make sense of information

Depending on the context in which information is presented, its effect changes. In political linguistics, this linguistic contextualisation is called a “frame”. Frames work because certain words evoke a series of associations in our minds. The word “hammer”, writes Wehling, calls up associated terms like “nail”, “hit” and “wood”. We learn these associations over the course of our lives, and they make it easier for us to make sense of what we hear or read. By triggering certain thoughts, frames affect us in quite a significant way. They determine how we perceive things and sometimes even how we act. To demonstrate this, Wehling compiled examples from different studies. When people read a text that contains words like “grey”, “pension” or “wrinkly” – terms reminiscent of an older person – they start moving more hesitantly and slowly. If they are confronted with terms that evoke a sense of tact, they perceive other people as nicer.

Frames in politics

As such, frames are not a secret trick or an unfair method of manipulation. They are a basic structure of our language and our thinking, invoked as much by political messages as by banal everyday sentences. They act on us both unconsciously and constantly, and are unavoidable. Frames are particularly relevant in political debates, since they enable us to engage with the abstract concepts at stake. What is important to bear in mind is that frames can never be objective: they always highlight certain aspects of a theme and conceal others. It is not possible to speak without invoking certain values, and certainly not when dealing with politics. The following are some examples.

Tax fraud, not tax avoidance. Who should pay what in taxes and duties is and always has been a key political issue. From a left-wing perspective, taxes are a key means of alleviating the injustices of the economic system. They are used to finance public infrastructure, such as schools and hospitals, and to protect people against the risks and whims of the market through social benefits. They can be unfair when they hit the poor harder than the rich, but they are fundamentally a positive tool.

However, this viewpoint is scarcely reflected at all in the vocabulary of political debates, which are characterised by terms that invoke a fundamentally negative image of taxes. These include “tax burden”, “tax shelter” and “tax haven”. They activate the frame in which taxes are a burden, equivalent even to persecution or violence. Those who succeed in minimising taxes by means of an offshore company are seen as rescuing themselves from persecution in the “shelter” frame and escaping the life-threatening danger of drowning in the “haven” frame. Instead of “tax haven”, we might consider using “tax swamp”. Tax swamps don’t offer protection to shipwrecked or persecuted people; instead, they are places where powerful people hide money they owe the public until it has all drained away. In a similar vein, “tax contribution” would be a good replacement for “tax burden”. The term conveys, “My taxes are part of many. Together, we finance the tasks that we have decided on through the democratic process.”

People are not a natural disaster. In recent years, many people from countries such as Syria and Afghanistan have fled to the EU. Often, this phenomenon is referred to as a “refugee wave” or a “flood of migrants”. In this frame, writes Wehling, we are flooded by refugees just as we are by water during a natural disaster. This is not only inhumane, but also turns a blind eye to why they are leaving their countries in the first place – after all, natural waves and floods cause devastation at random, without any particular purpose. Refugees, in this frame, are not victims of war or persecution, but a danger from which we must protect ourselves.

An alternative would be to talk about “people fleeing” – from war, persecution or famine. Since refugees are often dehumanised by politicians and the media, it is important to regularly invoke their humanity. If we want to describe the phenomenon in an abstract sense, “refugee movement” would be a good option. This frame highlights the fact that these people are getting organised and making major efforts to escape their situation.

The EU as “house”, “home” and “family”

When it comes to the European Union, people like to talk about our “European house”, our “European home” or the “European family”. All of these expressions evoke the image of a community that lives and belongs together. At first glance, this appears to be a relatively neutral description, but it is actually far more powerful than that. A house or home protects us against wind and weather. Any person who has the choice between living in a house or living outdoors would be unwise to opt for the latter. In the “house/home” frame, the fact that the EU is designed to systematically expose its members to the proverbial wind and weather of financial markets and competition between member states is swept under the rug. There is no household that we know of where residents are forced into a competition for electricity and furniture. In the EU, however, this is the case with both capital and production facilities. It would also be unusual for the inhabitants of the better buildings to strike holes in the walls of the poorer ones, thereby causing the rain to come in. In the EU, however, this is exactly what is happening. The powerful states of the centre are exacerbating the economic and social crisis in peripheral countries through the actions of the Troika.

The same applies to the “family” frame. Its members naturally belong together, whether by marriage or birth. There is also a “natural” hierarchy wherein parents are often better-placed than their children to know what is best. Where necessary, the offspring may be reluctantly compelled to do something for their own good.

The “family” frame chimes perfectly with the strategy we witnessed following the election of the left-wing Syriza government in Greece. The EU institutions, other governments and mass media systematically characterised the Greek population and its new representatives as immature, childish and impudent. This, in turn, made it easy to justify the denunciation and subjugation of Greek democracy as a sensible measure in the eyes of the European public. The “family” frame offers barely any scope for the legitimate interests of a society that has been impoverished for years by austerity measures, and also eliminates the option of leaving the EU or euro. One cannot simply leave one’s own family – at most, one can shun it or be shunned by it. But that would be a family tragedy, not a political option with its own advantages and disadvantages to be weighed up.

Differences are systematically concealed

Frames like “house/home” and “family” aim to evoke the unity and cohesion of the EU while systematically suppressing or trivialising the political conflicts between members. They consolidate a hierarchy of states and stigmatise any possible break with the EU and its rules. Last but not least, both the “European house/home” and the “European family” equate the EU with Europe itself. This, too, is a common strategy of power. By equating the institutions they control with the actual continent, European elites render the EU a natural, even a God-given institution. Any potential failure is transformed into a disaster on the greatest possible scale. In the frame “The EU equals Europe”, the critics of the ruling class are not a legitimate opposition, but an internal enemy. They are relentlessly labelled as “anti-European”, regardless of whether they represent solidarity-oriented positions or misanthropic ones. They are anti-European, whether they oppose austerity policies and tax dumping or instead fight for the acceptance of refugees and minority rights.

Trying to counteract frames only strengthens them

So how do we go about debating the EU and its policies? The first step is to avoid the frames created and used by our opponents. In repeating them, we achieve nothing but to linguistically reinforce our opponents’ world views, even if we are opposing the content. It is also counterproductive to use opposing frames as a method of differentiating ourselves. Phrases such as, “The facts show that tax havens are bad” or “The boat is not full” achieve the opposite of their intended effects. Once a frame is activated, information that does not correlate with it becomes harder to remember. Similarly, quotation marks aimed at distancing ourselves from these frames achieve little to nothing. In order to convey our own messages as effectively as possible, we must find our own, suitable frames.

Make conflicts visible instead of camouflaging them. Today, we occupy a minority position on almost all political topics. As such, it is in our interest to emphasise contradictions and dissenting opinions rather than concealing them. We should not equate the EU with Europe or talk about “Germany versus Greece”. Instead, we should reference the individual actors in as much detail as possible: the EU Commission, which primarily seeks to fulfil corporate demands; and the German government, which does not necessarily represent the interests of the majority of its population. We should not speak of clashes between states or even between “Europeans” and “anti-Europeans”, since this only serves to draw attention away from the actual the line of conflict: the one that runs between the economic elites (and their political accomplices) and the majority of the population.

Replace technical terms with political ones. One strategy pursued by EU elites is to furnish their actions with technical, allegedly objective names. In order to effectively criticise these actions, we need terms that emphasise the aspects and consequences we want to highlight. Instead of talking about the “Turkey Deal”, for example, we should about the “isolationist” or “deportation” deal, which aims to turn away fleeing people while they are still at sea and return them to Turkey against their will. The same applies to the German term “Standortwettbewerb” (literally “competition between locations”), which puts pressure on wages, corporate taxes and social standards everywhere and is artificially bolstered by the architecture of the EU and the eurozone. Instead, let’s talk about the “downward spiral” that it triggers and point out the “vicious circle” into which it forces the member states.

Flip the opponent’s frames. In some cases, it can be effective to use the established frames of opponents against them. Responding to accusations of extreme views, Alexis Tsipras once said (in a rough translation), “The truly extreme thing is the circumstances in which people in Greece are forced to live today”. In the same spirit, we can counter the demand for governments to “do their homework” – i.e., to decide on the desired neoliberal measures – with the idea that the European elites should urgently do their homework to reduce the huge inequality and unemployment in the EU.

Find simple metaphors for visualising complex phenomena. Our demands should always be based on a differentiated analysis – but this does not mean we need to formulate them in a dry, complicated way. A balanced, considered argument becomes more compelling, not less, if it produces a strong linguistic picture. TTIP and CETA should not be about “investment protection” – since protection is always positive – but about “legal privileges for corporations” and the creation of a “parallel justice system” that disadvantages the general population. Instead of explaining the euro crisis through the behaviour of individual “debt delinquents”, we should emphasise the “system error” of neoliberal EU integration. By any definition of the word, what we have seen being done to Greece can be described as “bullying”. And if we want to explain how the Troika’s dictates deepen the recession instead of ending it, we can compare their actions to breaking a person’s legs and then demanding they run a marathon. Generally, comparisons and frames that invoke images of the body are particularly effective – after all, all of us have one.

Cast your own world view in words

We have a lot of catching up to do. Conservative think tanks have long been working to frame political debates in their favour. In recent years, they have been able to anchor concepts such as “austerity”, “debt brake” or “free trade” in the public discourse as if they were not ideologically charged, but neutral. It will take time to see progress against this. Especially at moments when a new political topic arises, we should work quickly to find effective frames to convey our positions. This is rarely as easy as in some of the selected examples, in which one term is simply used to replace another. Instead, we need to develop a fundamentally different and coherent way of speaking and writing based on the cornerstones of our worldview: democracy, solidarity, and equality.

Three lessons

  1. We cannot speak objectively about politics. We must find terms and correlations that chime with our positions rather than using words coined by our opponents.
  2. The EU debate is dominated by frames that systematically conceal political conflicts and consolidate the hierarchy between states. We must find terms that make these contradictions visible.
  3. We must avoid technical phrases such as “competition between member states” or “investment protection”. Instead, we should use political terms that give a tangible sense of our criticisms, such as “downward spiral” or “parallel justice”.


Lakoff, George and Wehling, Elisabeth (2016) Your Brain’s Politics. How the Science of Mind Explains the Political Divide. Societas.

Wehling, Elisabeth (2016) Politisches Framing. Wie eine Nation sich ihr Denken einredet – und daraus Politik macht. Halem-Verlag. (only in German)

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