Analogical Framing: How Policy Comparisons Alter Political Support for Health Care Reform

Published date01 September 2020
Date01 September 2020
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2020, Vol. 48(5) 596 –611
© The Author(s) 2020
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X20926125
Leaders often craft arguments to support their side of an
issue. This can take many forms, such as touting the benefits
of a policy or predicting what will happen in the future if a
policy is enacted (e.g., Bolsen et al., 2014; Jacobs &
Matthews, 2012). Politicians also use particular words to
define problems, again with implications for public opinion
or knowledge (e.g., Clifford & Jerit, 2013; Jerit & Barabas,
2006; Utych, 2018). In addition, elites might suggest—accu-
rately or not—that members of the public support or agree
with their views to bolster mass political support (Cook
et al., 2002; Paden & Page, 2003).
All of these, broadly speaking, are instances in which dif-
ferent considerations can be brought to bear on a policy
issue, framing it in an attempt to sway the public (e.g.,
Brewer & Gross, 2005; Chong & Druckman, 2007b).
Framing effects have been found in many contexts, such as
tolerance (Nelson et al., 1997), climate change (Nisbet,
2009), and international conflict (Entman, 1991). Frames are
especially effective when they build upon existing mental
structures or schema (Fiske & Linville, 1980) by providing
cues about which evaluative criteria citizens should priori-
tize when they utilize informational shortcuts, or heuristics,
to approximate well-reasoned choices (e.g., Amira et al.,
2018; Cosmides & Tooby, 1994; Gigerenzer, 2008; Jensen &
Petersen, 2017; Lupia, 1994; Lupia et al., 1998). Of course,
attempts to frame issues are not without limits. Political
opponents may try to counterargue with frames of their own
(Chong & Druckman, 2007c; Sniderman & Theriault, 2004).
However, the underlying commonality is that leaders on var-
ious sides of an issue assemble arguments strategically in
their efforts to sway public opinion.
Framing relates to the broader literature on persuasion,
which has been the focus of countless social science works
for decades (e.g., Hovland et al., 1949; Mutz et al., 1996;
Petty & Cacioppo, 1986). Indeed, persuasion is a key ele-
ment of policy debates in modern democracies. As Goodin
et al. (2011) write,
To make policy in a way that makes it stick, policy-makers
cannot merely issue edicts. They need to persuade the people
who must follow their edicts if those are to become general
public practice. In part, that involves persuasion of the public
at large . . . (p. 897).
Among the persuasive techniques that leaders use, analogies
have long fascinated political philosophers.1 For instance,
Zashin and Chapman (1974) point out how Plato, in The
Republic, used a specific type of analogy—the metaphor—to
926125APRXXX10.1177/1532673X20926125American Politics ResearchBarabas et al.
1Dartmouth College, Hanover, NH, USA
2Stony Brook University, Stony Brook, NY, USA
3University of Florida, Gainesville, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jason Barabas, Professor of Government and Director of the Nelson A.
Rockefeller Center for Public Policy and the Social Sciences at Dartmouth
College, Hanover, NH 03755, USA.
Analogical Framing: How Policy
Comparisons Alter Political
Support for Health Care Reform
Jason Barabas1, Benjamin Carter2, and Kevin Shan3
Analogies have captivated philosophers for millennia, yet their effects on modern public opinion preferences remain largely
unexplored. Nevertheless, the lack of evidence as to whether analogies aid in political persuasion has not stopped politicians
from using these rhetorical devices in public debates. To examine such strategic attempts to garner political support, we
conducted survey experiments in the United States that featured the analogical arguments being used by Democrats and
Republicans as well as some of the policy rationales that accompanied their appeals. The results revealed that analogies—
especially those that also provided the underlying policy logic—increased support for individual health coverage mandates,
the Affordable Care Act (ACA), and even single payer national health proposals. However, we demonstrated that rebutting
flawed analogies was also possible. Thus, within the health care arena, framing proposals with analogies can alter policy
preferences significantly, providing a way to deliver policy rationales persuasively.
policy, public opinion, analogies, experiments, health care
Barabas et al. 597
make his arguments. Yet, although these theorists and other
public policy experts note the importance of analogies (e.g.,
Stone, 2001), few studies explore the effects that analogies
have on policy views (but see Barry et al., 2009; Lau &
Schlesinger, 2005; Schlesinger & Lau, 2000).
All of this begs the question, does highlighting similari-
ties between different policies alter political support? If so,
are there limits to analogical policy comparisons? We
explore these questions in national survey experiments on
several health care policies early in the 21st century. In par-
ticular, we focus on three analogies being deployed in
American politics: (a) linkages between the health insur-
ance coverage mandate of the Affordable Care Act (the
ACA, also known as “ObamaCare”) and car insurance cov-
erage mandates, (b) the idea of selling health insurance
across state lines as major auto insurance companies do,
and (c) attempts to frame national health care plans as
“Medicare for All” versus “socialized medicine.” Our
experiments demonstrate that the analogies alter public
support, but not in an unlimited way; they can be refuted
and even undone minutes later. One important lesson is that
political analogies must often be accompanied by policy
rationales to influence preferences in a significant manner.
In this way, analogies can “weaponize” political arguments,
delivering key substantive points that might be lost if pre-
sented in isolation.
Analogical Framing: Definitions,
Mechanisms, and Political
The terms analogy, simile, and metaphor are often used
interchangeably, but each of these has a distinct meaning.
Simply put, analogies describe a relationship between two
things through a comparison, whereas similes and metaphors
are types of speech that articulate such comparisons. The
Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines an analogy as, “a com-
parison of two otherwise unlike things based on resemblance
of a particular aspect,” or as an “inference that if two or more
things agree with one another in some respects they will
probably agree in others.” Thus, an analogy highlights some
shared feature while implying other shared features.
Two vehicles, or “rhetorical devices,” for expressing the
inferences of analogies are similes and metaphors. Again, the
dictionary describes a simile as, “a figure of speech compar-
ing two unlike things that is often introduced by ‘like’ or ‘as’
(e.g., cheeks like roses).” In contrast, metaphors are “a figure
of speech in which a word or phrase literally denoting one
kind of object or idea is used in place of another to suggest a
likeness or analogy between them (as in ‘drowning in
money’).” In the broadest sense, then, analogies may be
thought of as the general term for comparisons, whereas sim-
iles and metaphors are types of analogies.2
Metaphors and analogies are pervasive in politics and in
policymaking (see Stone, 2001). For instance, President
Trump often refers to efforts to impeach him as a “witch
hunt,” presumably to imply unjust persecution as with the
Salem trials of the late-1600s. On the other side of the politi-
cal spectrum, some liberal lawmakers have rebranded their
environmental and economic proposals in the early 21st cen-
tury as a “Green New Deal,” invoking former President
Franklin D. Roosevelt’s popular New Deal programs from
the past century. On occasion, political leaders make use of
analogies and metaphors at the same time, such as when
2020 presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders appeared
at a campaign event in front of placards proclaiming
“Medicare for All” (an analogy linking single payer univer-
sal health care to Medicare) while the same placard had the
motto, “Health Care is a Right” (a metaphor) immediately
below (see the supplemental appendix for a photo of the
sign; Greenberg, 2019). Collectively, these are attempts to
frame issues, specifically by using reasoning shortcuts that
substitute lengthier arguments with supportive details, facts,
or interpretations. As we elaborate upon in the next subsec-
tions, leaders use analogies to mentally group concepts (e.g.,
impeachment a witch hunt) with the hope that citizens
come to evaluate an issue in the leader’s preferred manner.
Perspectives on Analogies
Analogies likely operate through mental categorizations,
though their precise mechanisms are still being explored. In
particular, speakers use analogies to emphasize dimensions
of similarity. Charting linkages created by analogies and
their limits has consumed linguists studying mental catego-
ries such as George Lakoff (1990), whose work on Australian
aboriginal tribes unearthed a common noun used for
“women,” “fire,” and “dangerous things.” However, there
have also been important steps forward in the study of analo-
gies taken by scholars in psychology, communications, and
political science.
Some of the earliest empirical work on analogies in
social psychology comes from Dedre Gentner and her col-
leagues. Gentner’s (1983) review article in Cognitive
Science provides a theoretical framework for analogies. In
particular, Gentner’s structure-mapping theory charts rela-
tions between objects and develops the notions of base and
target, drawing upon the work of Amos Tversky (1977) and
others in her field. Accordingly, analogies may facilitate
understanding and memory by linking concepts (Halpern
et al., 1990). More recent works delve into similarities and
differences in comparisons (Gentner & Markman, 1994;
Sagi et al., 2012) as well as how similarities are shaped by
long-term memory processes (e.g., Gentner et al., 1993,
2009) or how metaphors shape information acquisition and
cognition (Thibodeau & Boroditsky, 2011).
The psychological understanding of analogies set the
stage for research in related fields. For instance, communica-
tion scholars discuss analogies as part of “political impres-
sion management” (Landtsheer et al., 2008). There is also a

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