Politics as cryptography

Thom Hartmann cracks the code of what wins over Americans


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.

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