10/18/2012 08:11 am ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

Deception: An Election Primer

Here comes another election. Someone will attain or retain the presidency. You can be sure that this is important for you. Not so much because America is a "superpower" but because leading executives change the national weave of everyday human energies. Every tug and remapping of the great national fabric alters thousands of lives, and within each individual life these changes can rarely be reversed. Be sure, too, that what we cannot have back can be really big. After George W. Bush, four thousand American soldiers will never not have died in Iraq; just months later, five trillion in stimulus funds could never have done the work of Barack Obama's $800 billion. While we rarely get what we want from a president, the chief executive decisively shapes what we actually get. Why, then, do most people fail to see what is at stake in a presidential election?

Ignorance has an infinity all its own. Self-destructiveness is an all-too-human motive. Set these aside for the moment. Another reason, easy companion to abundant information and moderate self-interest, is deception. Here's one way such deception comes about.

With an election nigh, everyone tells you to start your path towards the poll. They say listen to the candidates. Perhaps a "debate" is your moment. If, however, you depend on presidential aspirants for instruction you are already in trouble. When the candidates speak you first need to identify what language is being spoken. Across the spectrum from deficit, unemployment, voucher, and tax to honor, rape, and family, every key word operates within several ordinary versions of the political vernacular. If you're speaking Red you hear one thing, Blue another. In this criss-crossed world, power seekers seek words that reinforce the illusion of agreement. While agreement obviates choice, the illusion of agreement makes choice both more urgent and more difficult.

You are a normal person making a choice, and so of course you will be drawn by hammering appeals to your high opinion of yourself. Thus duped, the small "d" democrat may come to believe that all this hubbub is significant only if he or she gets to determine the meaning of the key words and to dictate the winner of the election. This is, of course, a stunning miscalculation. Elections and the political language in which they are conducted are profoundly impersonal and -- remember Alice in Wonderland? -- not in your control even when in your hands.

Elections are collective things, although not the way markets are (another common, deliberate, and false analogy). Elections are impersonal and collective because the realization of even the most trivial presidential program depends on how the fabric of national energies is mobilized. Your vote becomes a power not when you mark the ballot, not when the president swears his oath, but as all voters revert to citizens and life takes its next multiple and chaotic steps down your and our altered path.

Going into the election and coming out of it, nearly anyone can mislead you. Every day those with real or imagined stakes in the game will gleefully call black white, hate love, Cain Abel. The far-reaching opportunities and the big opportunists, however, work best with elements that establish the context, the situation, and the relevance of what is said. These elements are the frames of language. They can be used in similarly deceptive ways. When, for example, a candidate declares that on election day "the choice is yours" -- it is obviously not yours, it is ours -- that statement filters into our beliefs, those beliefs inform our political activities, infusing them with this meaning rather than that. A slight shift in the framing of language can change the public effect of your behavior. Politics is like that.

Framing matters even more for another reason. It is a registry of shared symbols and connotations. That is what makes every person's speech -- even as it comes out of Mitt's or Barack's or Ronald's or George's individual mouth -- a collective fact. Frames further infuse those facts with motives, motives that take over where action precedes or surpasses our individual control. If you need an example of this, consider some specific inequality between two persons; measure it with a yardstick or microscope and the stage set is inert; see, by contrast, inequality in the light of rights or property or dignity or advantage or numerous other frames and the scene comes alive; each angle of view makes that inequality a problem for us in a different way; the frame suggests or even imposes its own set of motives. In a cool hour, you know well that not all frames are amenable to your goals. Nonetheless, every normal person is sometimes deceived as the frames of language, even ones you pick for yourself, move you in a false direction, away from rather than towards your goal.

If deception by words is theft, deception by framing is fraud. And, as usual, in the current electoral drama fraudulent framing is rampant. Very general images do and must adorn every stage for debate and public discussion. One trick of framing is to make those images seem inert even when they are not.

At the center of this election is a trick of just this type, an image that frames the electoral confrontation in a way that seems free from the motivations around which the candidates are said to be divided. Let's listen in:

There is a deep philosophical divide between Mr. Obama and Mr. Romney about the role of government. The president believes it can be a force for good while Romney says it needs to get out of the way so business can get people back to work.

No American citizen in our time can be surprised by this kind of statement. Variations on this theme are repeated day in and day out. Mr. Romney has made this his brand. You can hear it from the likes of Grover Norquist, Bill O'Reilly, the Koch brothers, your Republican friends and cousins, economists, moralists, and every sort of self-styled expert... this risks to be a long list.

Let's call this the role-of-government frame. Now remember that frames are, among other things, agreements. A very deep agreement is supported by the role-of-government frame. It has remained in the background. To bring it now to the surface, consider the actual source of this quote.

On the day after the first presidential candidates' debate, the host of a prominent regional NPR radio show (Marty Moss-Coane in Philadelphia) opened the station's phone lines to calls with these words. Before long the discussion got another boost this way from Mark Nevins, a former communications director for candidates Hillary Clinton and John Kerry.

... I think that you have gotten to the fundamental difference between Democrats and Republicans. Democrats believe that there is... a positive role for government to play, and Republicans believe that government just gets in the way and mucks up the works. I think voters need to decide which perspective makes more sense for them... in our current environment, and decide. I think that's going to be part of the calculation they make.

Of course, you are well aware that people were talking like this all across the country. The fact is that almost everyone in America has agreed that the largest scale of political conflict, the one that is unfolding today, the one about which we have been called upon to make a judgment by electing a president, is defined by some "fundamental difference" concerning "the role of government."

But -- and this is the point, the perverse and pervasive intensity of our deceptive framing -- there is no such fundamental disagreement. Look around you. In reality, practically everyone understands and acknowledges that no modern society can exist without a state or without ordered collective action and coordination of one kind or another. You can read this fundamental agreement off of everyone's behavior, infer it from every other rational belief they hold or assertion they make. One might as well say that there is a fundamental disagreement about the presence of water in the human body.

The role-of-government frame is a huge deception because it is both effective and false. We, each one of us who reiterates this nonsense and swears by it, every time we frame and re-frame the discussion this way, we are building a giant and nearly impenetrable wall in front of the real and dire problems of our country.

Perhaps it makes sense for short-sighted Republicans to frame the electoral contest this way. Since Solon and Aristotle we have known that the 99 percent will try to use legitimate political power to take the rich down a peg or two. So, why wouldn't Romney and his I-made-this friends invent fables about a beautiful world without government? Why wouldn't they present an "alternative" even where there ain't one, and make reality look bad by imagining some other rosy world without conflict where everyone conveniently agrees with them?

Be that as it may, it is no reason for the rest of us to buy into this malarkey. The real issue in this election -- and it is both fundamental and urgently important -- concerns the proper uses of government. There is no real question about whether we should have a government or not. The facts of human nature and history settled this several millenia ago.

What we are left with is this: if honest citizens cannot expose this deceptive frame, it will continue to be nearly impossible for Americans to see what we actually are or are not voting for.