THE BLOG
01/20/2015 11:39 am ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Conservatives Can't Stop Re-Framing: MLK... Civil Rights... Jesus?

Ten years ago, UC Berkeley Professor George Lakoff defined the concept of political framing in Don't Think of an Elephant -- The Essential Guide to Progressives.

Yet, conservatives "out-frame" progressives: Estate taxes are" death" taxes. The federal government is completely incompetent (Social Security? Medicare?). The marketplace is too perfect to need improvement (mortgage crisis? GM?) Etc. etc.

Given their success, conservatives are no longer limiting "framing" to policy issues. They're busy re-framing history.

This Martin Luther King Day, you can hear Alveda King, MLK's niece, joining with conservative talk show hosts who have been busy re-framing King as a conservative.

Their argument would be weak even if King limited himself to civil rights. However, he was actively engaged in economic justice and opposing the Vietnam War. He was so "conservative" that J. Edgar Hoover considered him a Communist.

While absurd, maybe Hoover heard King say, "Call it democracy, or call it democratic socialism, but there must be a better distribution of wealth within this country for all God's children."

Or this:

"In our glorious fight for civil rights, we must guard against being fooled by false slogans, such as 'right to work.' It is a law to rob us of our civil rights and job rights...Wherever these laws have been passed, wages are lower, job opportunities are fewer and there are no civil rights."

What was King organizing when he was murdered? The 1968 Poor People's March in Washington -- not exactly a conservative venue. And what was he doing when he was murdered? Supporting sanitation workers who were trying to organize a union in Memphis, Tennessee.

Alveda King, Glenn Beck, and other conservatives should let The Nation know what a mistake they made when they named King one of the 50 Most Important Progressives of the 20th Century.

They can re-frame Hoover while they're at it.

But the re-framing of King is just one step in the re-framing of the Civil Rights achievements of the last century. That's right. Conservatives could adjust their policies toward minorities as recommended by a paper the Republican Party solicited after losing the 2012 election.

Or they could convince minorities that they only have civil rights because of conservatives.

Apparently, they're choosing the latter.

The 50th anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act provided the most recent opportunity to re-frame history. Conservatives -- Ann Coulter, Mark Levin, Herman Cain, to name just a few -- use the following logic to "prove" that African Americans should be voting Republican. But their logic breaks down at every step.

1. The Republican Party ended slavery.

The Republican Party started as a radical party founded by abolitionists. Today, it's the conservative party. The Republicans ended slavery, but conservatives didn't.

2. It was the Republican Warren Court and Republican President Eisenhower who ended school desegregation.

The first civil rights speech at a major political convention was given by Senator Hubert Humphrey, one of the most renowned liberals of his time, at the 1948 Democratic Convention. And who walked out? Southern conservatives led by Sen. Strom Thurmond. Then, Democratic President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces. These actions by liberals preceded Eisenhower's election.

And was Eisenhower a conservative? He is considered so moderate, it's not even clear he would be a Republican today. (Would Lincoln?) Conservatives, who rail against the liberal Warren Court elsewhere, here use it to defend the Republican Party. Distortion and hypocrisy?

3. A higher percentage of Republicans supported the Civil Rights Acts than Democrats.

The Coulters and Levins and Cains don't tell you this: while a higher percentage of Republicans than Democrats supported the 1964 Civil Rights Act (80 percent to 64 percent), 141 of 145 Northern Democrat Representatives supported the bill (97 percent)

Post-Eisenhower, beginning with Thurmond's switch to the Republican Party in 1964, followed by Republican Richard Nixon's Southern Strategy, conservatives left the Democrats while liberals left the Republican Party. The parties aren't the same as the 1860s? They're not even the same as the 1960s

4. A number of the Southerners who opposed the Acts were really closet liberals--and never left the Democratic Party.

Ignoring the evolution of the political parties is a major distortion. But arguing that the opponents of the Civil Rights Acts were liberals -- as Coulter and Levin explicitly do -- is an outright lie. Here are Senators who they identify as "liberal", followed by the legislative ratings of the liberal Americans for Democratic Action (ADA):

• VA Senator Harry Byrd Jr.: 1964 ADA Rating: 16
• NC Senator Sam Ervin: 1964 ADA Rating: 5
• LA Senator Russell Long: 1964 ADA Rating: 11
• GA Senator Richard Russell: 1964 ADA Rating: 16
• LA Senator Alan Ellender: 1964 ADA Rating: 11

There were a few more moderate Southern Senators -- Al Gore Sr., J. William Fulbright, Robert Byrd -- who did oppose the Civil Rights Acts. They were reflecting (sadly) their constituency, the conservative voters of the South, not liberalism or the platform of the Democratic Party.

The conservative talking heads even limit the number of Southern Democratic politicians who left the party to Thurmond. The fact is that more conservative Dems left the Party than liberal Dems opposed the Civil Rights laws: Jesse Helms, Lester Maddox, George Wallace, Harry Byrd Jr., Trent Lott, and Albert Watson, to name just some of the more prominent Southern politicians who abandoned the Democratic Party due largely to its Civil Rights stance

5. Therefore, African Americans should reward the conservative party, the Republican Party, with their votes -- and would if liberals didn't lie about history.

No, what African Americans realize is that conservatives led the fight against civil rights and the Republican Party is the conservative party. Today's Republican Party is leading the fight to weaken the Voting Rights Act, which might be seen as more relevant. And even if you think requiring Voter I.D. can be defended, how can Republican efforts to reduce voting hours and voting machines be anything but attempts to lower the minority vote?

But, perhaps, the preceding understates the conservative effort. Maybe it is more accurate to say that conservatives don't just want to reframe history but transcendence, as well.

Yes, conservatives are re-framing Jesus Christ not as a radical of his time, but as a conservative. In fact, the "perfect conservative".

You see, Jesus helped the poor without one government program. Here's Herman Cain: "He healed the sick without a government health care system. He fed the hungry without food stamps. For three years He was unemployed, and never collected an unemployment check. Never before and not since has there ever been such a perfect conservative."

And conservative site Free Republic.com: "..., the scriptures portray Jesus as weak on defense (turn the other cheek), big on social programs (give to the poor), harsh on the wealthy (nearly impossible for the rich man to enter heaven), soft on punishment (he who is without sin, cast the first stone), and pro-taxes (render unto Caesar what is his)...However, nowhere in the scriptures did Jesus petition a government to deliver on any of these commitments."

Now we can debate whether today's liberal/conservative labeling is even appropriate for someone who lived 2,000 years ago, but no one can legitimately assert that Jesus was a conservative unless he asked the Romans for a modern welfare state in colonial Judea.

And it's exactly this kind of illegitimate re-framing that conservatives are attempting repeatedly.

They are busy re-framing the Internet to ignore government investment/innovation. Re-framing President John F. Kennedy as a tax-cutting conservative (to them, tax cuts are always conservative whether you're cutting the top rate from 90 percent or 20 percent). There is even an effort to re-frame slavery. ("A handful of slaveholders were black, so...")

Hey, Lakoff. Maybe this framing thing wasn't such a great idea after all.