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Use the 'One Big Family' Frame! 4.10.11

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Use the 'One Big Family' Frame!

By Susan C. Strong

Right now the news looks grim: Republican hostage taking in state capitals, federal shutdown narrowly averted, bombing in Libya at taxpayer expense, continued economic pain for many Americans. But public resistance is growing. To keep that going, we need to get our own narrative right and create smart language to spread it.

But there’s a preliminary step we need to take. To create a big enough progressive story about what we want and how to get it, we should go deeper. That means refreshing our memories about one of our most fundamental American identity stories. It’s the one the Tea Party is trashing the most. I call this story “the one big family frame.”  Here’s an updated version of it:

 “It’s an historic American National Family metaphor, one that is larger than the  “strict father” or “nurturing parent” frames.    The American National Family frame says our country is like any real extended family--fractious but in the end functional. There are people in it who aren't just like you, but they are still family, and we still have to try to solve our problems together, despite our differences.

The story of this extended American family frame also implies a specific, historical American way of communal problem solving: nationally the operative descriptive words are 'pragmatic,' 'solution-oriented,' 'common sense,' 'practical,' 'pulling together,' and 'teamwork.' Many of these terms also apply at the local level too, along with 'community building' and 'finding common ground.'  

The most important thing about this 'one big family' frame is the way it pictures people focusing on real problem solving together. It’s about looking at what really works and what doesn't, and emphasizing agreement, not disagreement. It also means having a shared goal everyone is working toward, even if their reasons for wanting the same result differ. It suggests working out a 'rough consensus,' and yes, compromising here and there if the potential results are worth it. It includes tolerating each other's differences as part of the traditional American respect for variety, individuality, and difference of views.
A vital part of this frame is also the way it acknowledges that we all hold, at least in principle, the same set of basic American Public Moral Values-- fairness, honesty, equal opportunity, democracy, freedom, and compassion--drawn from both religious and secular ethics.”

Sounds like pie in the sky right now? Well, maybe not. The Tea Party is going too far way too fast, and public opinion polls are starting to run against them. The “one big family frame” is deeply embedded in the American psyche. As a people we don’t like extremists of any kind, despite the pockets full of crackpots we tolerate.  What the Tea Party has created is a series of crackpot budget cuts. If all are enacted, together they will force America to crash and burn. And that’s nothing to what will happen if the Republicans refuse to raise the debt limit next month. Their plan is un-American, “can’t do” policy making. The “Poison-Tea” Party had better back off, because our “one big American family” wants a socially responsible democracy, not a stripped bare carcass.

No one sane tries to pay off their home mortgage debt in a few years. No one sane panics if they can’t do that and then starts slashing other people’s wrists. No one sane spends their mortgage money on even more Pentagon waste, fraud, and abuse.

Our national family wants a good solid house that stands. In due time we’ll pay it off. Scare tactics on this topic are just crackpot talk or worse—deliberate treachery meant to drive everyone’s wages down on the back of a lot more public misery.  


[1] The first piece I wrote about the “One Big Family Frame” was published on Common Dreams in 2005. I have revisited this frame several times in the last six years. To find more recent examples, search The Metaphor Project’s “Examples” archive at http://www.metaphorproject.org