Politics as cryptography

Pub date December 27, 2007
WriterJ.B. Powell

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In his new book, Cracking the Code: How to Win Hearts, Change Minds, and Restore America’s Original Vision (Berrett-Koehler), author and Air America radio personality Thom Hartmann offers a how-to manual for expressing political viewpoints. He says the left’s struggles are not the fault of liberalism as an ideology; the problem is that many liberal politicians simply do not know how to talk to people.

Part self-help book, part populist polemic, Code puts our country’s political discourse under the knife and dissects how master communicators like Bill Clinton, John Kennedy, and Ronald Reagan won elections by talking their way deep into voters’ consciousnesses. He spoke with me by phone.

SFBG The poet Muriel Rukeyser said, "The universe is made of stories, not atoms." You have a similar view of the political universe, don’t you?

THOM HARTMANN Story is the way we transmit culture. Story is the way we remember things…. The story we call politics is the story of how to best accomplish the common good.

SFBG In Cracking the Code, you trace the lineages of the modern conservative and liberal stories to two philosophers, Thomas Hobbes and John Locke.

TH The conservative worldview is grounded in Thomas Hobbes’s Leviathan. You could argue that the Adam and Eve story is an early articulation of it as well. This [story] suggests that people are intrinsically evil, and because of that we have to find the most meritorious, the few who are good, and put them in charge. And small-d democracy with a lot of people participating is not such a good idea….

The liberal story came out of John Locke, but also [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau and eventually Thomas Jefferson. It says the vast majority of people are good and therefore collective wisdom can be trusted. The more people that participate in democracy the better. That’s why the liberal founders of this country put "We the People" as the first three words of the Constitution. It wasn’t "Us the meritorious few, us the ones who are in charge." It was "We the People."

SFBG You say that after Sept. 11, George W. Bush was able to get even liberals to buy into the conservative story. Do you believe it’s still a powerful enough narrative to bring another Republican into the White House?

TH Yes, I think it’s possible. Particularly if we don’t have Democrats stand up and say, "I’m not afraid anymore." I’m still waiting for a Democrat to stand up like Franklin Roosevelt did and say, "The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, and we will not be frightened."

We’re wired for survival first and foremost. The reptile brain is the most primitive part of our brain. [It] is where fear is processed, and it’s all-powerful. So those people who motivate us with fear and danger are, over the short term anyway, typically going to have success. The problem is, it’s sort of like whipping a horse, these "moving away from pain" strategies. The more often you whip a horse, it’s going to go faster and faster until it hits a limit, and then it’s going to fall over dead…. At some point people say, "Wait a minute, you’re fearmongering. You’re the little boy who cried wolf."

SFBG You speak in the book about effective communication inducing a kind of trance.

TH If you want to teach somebody something, they have to be in a kind of trance state. And I refer to the techniques for bringing that on as "inducing the learning trance." Mostly these have to do with pacing and using different modalities as you speak.

The big mistake that John Kerry made against George [W.] Bush in 2004 was that he induced a boredom trance while Bush induced a feeling trance. Bush communicated feelings. They were clumsy, yes, but that made it more intense, frankly. Kerry communicated ideas and concepts. But people don’t vote on ideas and concepts. They vote based on their feelings.

SFBG Ronald Reagan was pretty much the master at appealing to emotion, wasn’t he?

TH Ronald Reagan, FDR, and Jack Kennedy were three of the greatest communicators that we’ve had in the White House…. What made them great was, first of all, their ability to be multimodal in their communication. They talked about their vision for America, they talked about their story of America, and they gave America a sense of what they thought it could be.

Number two, they all principally used "moving towards pleasure" strategies instead of "moving away from fear" or "pain avoidance" strategies. In other words, they held up an ideal of what we wanted to move towards as a country and made us proud of ourselves.

Number three, they communicated emotion and always used story and emotion to pass along information.

SFBG You point out how Reagan picked up one of Kennedy’s themes, which Kennedy himself picked up from John Winthrop: the "America as a city on a hill" theme. Except Reagan inserted a key word into its phrasing, didn’t he?

TH Yes, shining. He dramatically improved the "America as a city on the hill" metaphor by making us a shining city on a hill. He put that word in, and it gave the image even more power.

What’s interesting is … Reagan’s notion of America as the city on the hill was very different than Kennedy’s. John Kennedy’s idea of the city on a hill was that the entire world is looking at [America], and every single one of us in the country is the city. From the highest and best to the poorest economically, we are all part of that city on the hill, and we welcome people in to participate in it. Reagan, on the other hand, his version of the city on the hill was we’re the castle, we’re the fortress, we’re the place where Cinderella the lowly commoner hopes one day to get in and dance with the prince.

SFBG I noticed your Wikipedia page says you campaigned for Barry Goldwater in your youth.

TH When I was 13 years old, my dad was active in the local Republican Party, and I went door-to-door with him. I read [Goldwater’s] autobiography Conscience of a Conservative [Victor Publishing Co., 1960]…. I even went to a John Birch Society meeting. I was convinced that the communists had infiltrated the State Department and they were coming to get us. But within two years I had completely shaken myself out of that trance. There’s nothing like growing up, going off to college, and discovering that you’re of draft age and your government wants to kill you. Not to mention being exposed to ideas beyond what I had learned up to that point, [like] the core concepts of the Enlightenment.

SFBG So you heard a different story.

TH Exactly, and I lived a different story. I really saw America differently the first time one of my friends came back in a box from Vietnam.

SFBG My mother is a big fan of your radio show. But she lives in San Diego, and the Air America affiliate there is either going off the air or has already gone off the air.

TH It went off the air last week, actually.

SFBG Can you talk about the future of progressive media in light of that kind of setback?

TH The first two or three years that conservative talk radio was on the air, it struggled terribly. But then it reached the point where advertisers realized they were getting results and program directors realized that they had a core listenership, and it started to take off….

In the next year or few years I think there’s going to be a broad perception shift across radiodom that beyond the ongoing feast and famine of Air America, liberal talk radio is here to stay…. Right now the conventional wisdom [for program directors] is "nobody ever got fired for putting Rush Limbaugh on the air." When the conventional wisdom becomes "nobody ever got fired for putting Thom Hartmann on the air," then everything will change, and I think we’re very close to that.