Thom Hartmann: How Liberals Can Speak Without Boring Everyone to Tears

"SCHIP" according to Thom Hartmann, "sounds like something you want to avoid stepping in as you're walking through a cow pasture." Referring to a program to provide healthcare coverage to children nationwide with the hollow acronym SCHIP is just one of many failures of imagination on the part of the Democratic Party. Chart the difference between "SCHIP" and "The Clear Skies Act" and you'll get some sense of the dissonance that has progressives throughout the country scratching their heads in bewilderment.

You may know Hartmann as the host of a progressive radio program on Air America. What you may not know about are his previous gigs in advertising and as the director of a residential treatment center for children. It is this background in advertising and psychology that informs Hartmann's insight into the ability of a politician to connect with Americans. His new book Cracking the Code: The Art and Science of Political Persuasion, is written with the intention of providing progressive Americans with the tools that the advertising industry has mastered: How to tell the story behind your vision in such a way that people can't help but listen.

Will the book spur a revolution among Democratic leadership? Probably not. For Hartmann, that's not the goal. "We need to become the media," he argues, appealing instead to individual Americans. "That," says Hartmann, "is where the action is." At a time when many Americans sense a radical disconnect between the policies of those in power and their best interests, Hartmann's message is one of hope and individual empowerment.

Hartmann sat down with AlterNet to explain the tools that enable us, as well as our Democratic leadership if they care to listen, to speak without boring anyone to tears. As Hartmann's overarching message makes clear, what we've got to say is just too important.

Onnesha Roychoudhuri: What was the impetus for the book?

Thom Hartmann: It was the confluence of information and realization. I worked for more than a decade in the advertising industry and about that long in the psychology industry. I've spent six years doing progressive talk radio in the politics business. I've seen, starting with Newt Gingrich seizing power and bringing in Frank Lutz, that the Republicans got very professional about messaging. The Democrats never did.

One of the reasons that the Democrats never did is because the Democratic Party is small "d" democratic. Chris Matthews makes the joke about how the Republicans want a leader and the Democrats want to have a meeting. It's true. The conservative mindset is one that is more calibrated for hierarchy and top-down control. The Democratic mindset, the liberal mindset, reflects the notions that "we're all in this together," "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and "we're a community." It's the old Will Rogers joke, "I don't belong to any organized party. I'm a Democrat."

Gingrich, and Reagan's advisers before that, decided to really focus the party and bring in professionals in the fields of psychology and marketing to refashion their message. The Democrats didn't do that. Oddly enough, the strength of the Democratic Party is that it is small "d" democratic. But it's also, in this case, a weakness.

The Republican Party was captured in the 1870s by the railroad barons and turned from the reform party that Abe Lincoln had run on the platform of, into the party of inherited wealth and corporate interests. Since Reagan, they have successfully reinvented themselves as the party of soft bigotry and "NASCAR average guys." They have gone out of their way to reach out mostly to frightened disenfranchised white males and scare them. Take Rush Limbaugh with his supposedly funny ad about the Hillary Clinton testicle lock box that you now can get for your husband.

OR: You trace the core tenets of Republican and Democratic ideology to Hobbes and Locke. Can you explain how these thinkers impact our modern-day conception of conservative and liberal ideology?

TH: They are the origin of both the modern-day conservative and modern-day liberal movements. By the way, I use liberal instead of progressive. I like Bernie Sanders' definition: Progressives are liberals who are actually doing something, whereas liberals are the folks who have the understanding of the worldview. Progressives are the activists.

The origin of both the liberal and conservative worldviews really was with Thomas Hobbes who, in Leviathan, put forth two really radical proposals. The first was that humans can govern themselves, that they don't need a god-ordained leader. That was the basis of modern liberalism. The second major idea was that people are fundamentally evil and that if they're not restrained by the iron fist of church or state, that life would be nasty, short and brutish. That's the basis of the modern conservative worldview -- that everybody is fundamentally evil.

Then John Locke came along and said, no, everybody is fundamentally good and therefore we can trust the majority of people for governance. Hobbes' "we can all govern ourselves" notion is a little inconsistent with his notion that "everybody is evil." What came out of it was the idea that was put forward by American conservatives a hundred years later. Alexander Hamilton or John Adams, who suggested that we should have something that looks like democracy, that talks like a democracy, that has the ideals of democracy, but really isn't a democracy.

It's really a meritocracy, where we have the best and brightest among us running things. The difference between that and the British form of government was that the British form of government is based on heredity, and ours is based on merit, intellect, ability or wealth, for that matter, given that some of the founding fathers of the more Calvinist persuasion believed that wealth was a sign of divine ordination. Alternatively, the more secular ones thought that wealth was a sign of competence or intellect.

OR: You write that conservatives "want to be protected from their own latent evil and the explicit evil of all other people." That's an interesting psychological notion. Does this go some way to explaining the many scandals in Republicans' personal lives that we've seen?

TH: There's a truism in pop psychology that the thing that people talk about the most is typically the thing they're struggling with most.

OR: You argue that there are usually common goals between conservatives and liberals. But do you really believe that neoconservatives believe, for instance, that privatization is for the greater good?

TH: The story I tell in the book is of a fellow whom we had worked with for a couple of years on our radio show. At least three or four days a week, I'll have a conservative on the program to debate. I think it's a good way of highlighting issues and giving people a role model for how to talk back to conservatives without having blood on the floor.

My father died last year, and as he was drawing his last breath, I was sitting there next to him with my hand on his shoulder, and I looked over and there was a picture of me shaking hands with the Pope next to a picture of George Bush on the [USS] Abraham Lincoln. My dad died a Republican, and he was a good man and I loved him dearly. We used to fight like cats and dogs about politics throughout my entire life, and yet there was never any doubt that we loved each other. So I think that it's important to model that for people, how to be reasonable and disagree.

I had been doing my show from CPAC, the conservative political action conference -- the one where Ann Coulter called John Edwards a fag, and all the right-wing presidential candidates got up and did their thing. It had been three days of nonstop right-wingers one after another. We're sitting there decompressing, and this guy drops by, and he says, "You know, you and I want the same thing. I have children, you have children. We want a world in which our kids can be educated, in which they're safe, in which the water is pure, and the air is clean, and they're not going to die of cancer, and they're going to have access to healthcare, and they can get a good college education, and the economy is functional and the world is at peace. We want the same thing. We just differ on how to accomplish it, on how to get there."

And he wasn't trying to persuade me or anything -- this wasn't a debate. This was just an honest moment, and I had to say to him, I know that you're right, because my father would have said the same thing. I know that what we're looking at is differences in worldview. Although my father was not conservative like these guys are today, he was more of an Eisenhower conservative, and frankly Bill Clinton is more conservative than Eisenhower was.

OR: That's what's interesting to me. I agree with a lot of your points about your characterization of the differences between earlier conservatives and liberals. But, with neoconservatives, the ideology seems to be more patently self-serving corporate interests.

TH: There are two types of conservative. There's an entire chapter about this in my previous book Screwed. There are the predator cons. These people, probably because of some variation on obsessive compulsive disorder that has focused itself on money, are willing to harm others, to steal from others in order to enrich themselves, and they're so sociopathic that they can still sleep at night.

I think a lot of the larger and more very well-paid CEOs fall into that category. That's why they're paid so much. There is something to supply and demand. So the question arises: Why would any corporation have to pay somebody $200 million a year? It makes no sense. You think that there'd be a huge supply of people who would do the same job for three million a year. Take someone like old "Chainsaw Al" Dunlap who went to Sunbeam and then a series of companies. He made himself famous for going into companies and laying off 10,000 people and then just moving on to the next company and doing the same. I personally believe that it takes a sociopath to do that.

Sociopaths are people who are not capable of experiencing the emotions of others, a person who thinks they're the only real person in the world and everybody else is a cardboard cutout. I think the supply of sociopaths who are high-functioning, are able to graduate from college, understand business, can pass as normal people, and who have management and leadership skills, is actually pretty small. When you figure that the percentage of sociopaths in our population is, according to most studies, between two and five percent, the percentage of high-functioning sociopaths is going to be very, very low. You've got the Ted Bundy variety of sociopaths, and then you've got the CEO variety of sociopaths. So I think we need to acknowledge that some of these conservatives are actually predators. They're sick people.

OR: In the book, you make another reference to Hobbes' thinking: "In such a condition, without people being ruled by the iron fist of church or king, there is no place for industry because the fruit thereof is uncertain." You argue that this need to have stability through an iron hand is at the core of conservative thinking. What of neoconservatives now who might look at war and disaster itself as opportunity for massive industrial growth. We're seeing almost a reversal, where that disaster and instability opens up a lot of room for quick gains.

TH: Yeah. This is the thesis of Naomi Klein's new book. It's disaster capitalism. What she's describing in that book, and does so brilliantly, is how sociopaths are using opportunities of disasters to enrich themselves and those around them. Frankly, there are sociopaths on the left -- Stalin comes to mind. And, there are sociopaths on the right: Mussolini, Franco, Pinochet and, frankly, I think George W. Bush and Dick Cheney. But, I don't think that that's part of the conservative philosophy any more than it's a part of liberal philosophy to do what Stalin did -- killing arguably as many as 20 million Russians -- in the name of the greater good.

OR: Let me get more specifically into the communications strategies you put forth in the book. You say that the meaning of communication is the response you get. Can you explain that?

TH: If I say words or I engage in behavior hoping to get a particular response, and I get a very different response, then common sense would suggest that the message that the person received from me was not the message I thought I sent. This is one of the problems of trying to nuance a message. It's the problem that John Kerry had in trying to give intellectual responses to emotional arguments that were being put forward by the Republicans and by the Swift Boaters about his character.

OR: You refer to politics as a series of stories -- each issue with its own story. Historically, who is a good storyteller?

TH: Brilliant storytellers in American history include Teddy Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt, Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton. Because their natural tendency is to take any policy issue, any academic notion and illustrate it, tell the story of it, concretize it by using a story. When people just naturally do that, they're remembered for it. There's a 1948 speech by Ronald Reagan trashing the Republicans. This was at the time that he was a Democrat, and he starts out by telling the story of a 90-year old man who needs social security. Reagan always told stories. That's just a powerful communication.

And let me add, stories are the way we transmit culture. We can convey an entire room full of information simply by referencing a story and by using the story as the frame. For example, I could say, "When Dick Cheney refers to Iran as a threat, he's the little boy who cried wolf." Simply by throwing those six words in there, I have brought out of your memory a story that becomes a frame into which Dick Cheney is now put. It immediately, since this is a story that diminishes the power of alarmists, diminishes the power of what he's trying to say.

OR: Talk about someone who wasn't good at telling a story.

TH: John Kerry was not very good at telling a story. He thought that people made decisions based on intellect and understanding. Don't get me wrong, I think he would have made a very good president, and I think he actually won the election. I believe that it was stolen in Ohio. The same is true of Al Gore, I think both of them were micromanaged by idiots in the Democratic Party who believed, as these candidates ultimately believed, that people made rational decisions. People don't make rational decisions; people never make rational decisions.

OR: Talk about the psychology and biology behind this assertion.

TH: We are the product of hundreds of millions of years of evolution. At the most visceral level, we are wired for survival. There are massive parts of our nervous system that, participating with our brain, that are wired to protect us from danger. If you can invoke an emotion of fear in someone, you can move them very quickly in whatever direction that fear would tend to push them away from. That's the moving-away-from-pain impulse.

Alternatively, we're also wired by evolution and by biology to find a mate, to reproduce, to carry on the species, all of which are things that we experience as pleasurable and to optimize out lives. These are things that we tend to work on a little more slowly than moving our hand away from the fire we just stuck it into. So, the moving-toward-pleasure stories and strategies don't have the immediate and dramatic impact, but over the long term, they actually have much greater power. It's why years later, people still remember Reagan's story of the "shining city on a hill," the uplifting story. But his scary, "the commies are gonna get you" stuff dissipated in a year or two. People don't remember what a fear monger he was.

OR: You, obviously, classify neocons and the Bush administration as using the moving-away-from-pain stories.

TH: They're the masters of using fear. Look at Cheney before the last election saying that if you vote Democratic, the terrorists are going to hit us again. The response of the Democrats to that should have been a loud and sustained laughter. It should have been ridiculed, because that's really the only way that you can tear down fear.

OR: Are there specific instances when the moving-toward-pleasure story is more effective?

TH: It's always effective. The thing that you have to know about it is that it takes time. It has to be reinforced repeatedly and over a long period of time. A really comprehensive and high-quality motivational strategy whether it's political, marketing or in a relationship, contains both stories. John Kennedy, in his brilliant speech about peace, said:

The United States, as the world knows, will never start a war. We do not want a war. We do not now expect a war. This generation of Americans has already had enough -- more than enough -- of war and hate and oppression. We shall be prepared if others wish it. We shall be alert to try to stop it. But we shall also do our part to build a world of peace where the weak are safe and the strong are just. We are not helpless before that task or hopeless of its success. Confident and unafraid, we labor on -- not toward a strategy of annihilation but toward a strategy of peace.
Here he's holding up this vision of America as this nation that's going to bring peace to the world, and yet in the midst of that, he acknowledges that we've got 8,000 nuclear missiles pointed at us. That's why people remember Jack Kennedy.

OR: You say that part of the extinction of this kind of language is the result of Democratic strategists micromanaging and getting it wrong. What's the most effective way to fight that? What would have been a more effective strategy for Kerry?

TH: It's twofold. One is, when you're doing your proactive strategy, when you're putting out your message, you want to put out a message that has a strong auditory, visual and kinesthetic component to it that is also a strong, positive emotion associated with it. At the same time, you want to acknowledge the fear and terrors that are out there, and suggest that we can deal with that. Franklin Roosevelt in 1933, referring to the Great Depression, said the only thing that we have to fear is fear itself. That's what Reagan embodied in his "Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall" speech.

OR: Let's talk about what not to do in communicating. For instance, another concept well understood in advertising: negative coding.

TH: This revolves around the inability of the unconscious mind to process the word "no." The neocortex, the most abstract part of our brain, is the most recently evolved and, therefore, the last part to experience anything that we experience in the world. There are some words that get flagged by the less-than-conscious part of our brains and grabbed onto. "No" gets missed as one of them and "you" is another one of them. George Lakoff talks about this in Don't Think of An Elephant. Just the title of his book explains it.

It's an old cliché in advertising and psychology: By telling people what not to do, you're telling them what to do. People with kids know about reverse psychology. If you say to a kid, "Don't eat those peas." In order to understand "don't eat your peas," they have to visualize eating the peas. You have to visualize the positive in order to process the negative. When Richard Nixon said, "I am not a crook," everyone thought, oh, he is a crook, eh? It's the same pitfall when Kerry essentially denied the charges that were made against him. Instead, he should have been asserting his heroism. He should have been asserting that these guys were liars and bums -- something that people would immediately understand.

OR: I think this is a really important point, particularly for liberals and progressives. We're in a political moment where there are a lot of unbelievably bad policies and bad decisions being made. The impulse is to chastise those responsible, to say, "This is why that's wrong," and it seems to trap us in this reactive rather than proactive stance. How do we get beyond that?

TH: We get stuck in the policy wonk mode. It gets even worse than that: The Republicans are so good at packaging that they can take a piece of legislation that will put more pollution in the air and call it the Clear Skies Act. They can take a piece of legislation that's going to destroy our forests and call it the Healthy Forests Initiative. They can take a piece of legislation that's going to strip from us our civil liberties and call it the Patriot Act. And yet the Democrats have this brilliant piece of legislation that's actually going to save the lives of tens of thousands of children every year by and they call it "SCHIP" which sounds like something you want to avoid stepping in as you're walking through a cow pasture. It makes no sense at all.

OR: Another interesting tool that you discuss draws on your background in psychology and advertising: the metaphor of the storing memories in a "filing system" and the ability to anchor a message by taking advantage of this system.

TH: The way that we file information in our brains is more or less two-tiered. The largest part of it is that we file things with emotional tags. Those emotional tags have particular sets of modalities associated with them. So, if you think of times when you felt, for example, ashamed, you might discover that the mental images are kind of dark and grey and the sound is slow. If you think of times when you were really happy, it might be really full color, and the sound might be three-dimensional. If you think of times when you were in love, the colors will become even brighter. Obviously, this is different for everybody, but there are some generalities that typically cross from person to person. That's the filing system of the mind.

When you understand how the filing system works, then you understand how you can craft messages so that they are easily and readily assimilated. People get them, they see them, they hear them, they file them and they're accessible in the future when you want to pull them out or anchor them to a particular word. "Terror," for example, is a word that George Bush has been very good at anchoring. "Freedom" is a word that he's been very good at anchoring, oddly enough. That process of wrapping concept in story is branding. That's the "Patriot Act," the "Clear Skies Act" versus the stupidity of "SCHIP."

Branding is the process of developing a story that carries emotional content and moral. It's a message that has a particular story and set of visual, auditory and kinesthetic modalities associated with it. It has to be sufficiently archetypal that we recognize it because it derives out of our culture, and it has to be repeated frequently enough that it's instantly recognized over a short period of time.

OR: How is it that the Republicans are so ahead of the curve on this? Gingrich's 1996 memo included a whole laundry list of words that should be associated with democratic policies.

TH: He had had two word lists: One for them and one for us. The Republicans were willing to follow the leadership of Gingrich. He was an academic, he understood the value of knowledge, and he'd worked in some of these areas. If Harry Reid or Nancy Pelosi were to stand up and say, "OK, everybody, we're all going to use the same language. From now on, we're all going to refer to what's going on in Iraq as an occupation. We're never going to use the word "war" again." It would be the smartest thing they could do, and probably 70 percent of their party would call a press conference and trash them for trying to put words in their mouths.

Again, I think that's marvelous. That's one of the strengths of the Democratic Party and the progressive, liberal movement in general. They're anti-authoritarian and don't want to follow the leader, and really do believe in the idea of democracy. Over the long term, I think it's the strength that is ultimately going to win, because it is the most consistent with the ways that humans are wired and human society ultimately works best. But, the bottom line is that if Pelosi, Reid or any other Democratic leader were to try to act like the autocrat that Newt Gingrich was, even if it was to the benefit of the party, it wouldn't work. So that's why we need to educate everybody rather than just a few.

OR: Do you think that Democrats need to adopt a more autocratic strategy now in order to wrest power from Republicans? How do you view that?

TH: I would not suggest that Democrats try to become Republicans in the way that they're messaging or anything like that. That's very much not the message of the book.

OR: What about the notion that we shouldn't be calling Iraq a war, but rather, an occupation. For instance, should that be something the Democrats rally around? Do you think that they should unify more on certain language?

TH: I think they should. I actually wrote an op-ed about war and occupation a couple years ago, suggesting this, and for a brief period, for two or three months afterward, one of the liberal think tanks came up with the same idea and suggested this. Between the two of us out there beating that drum, there were a number of Democrats in the media who I noticed started to use the word "occupation" instead of the word "war." But the media was so in love with the word "war" because war is a powerful thing. It's legalized mass murder. It is the most horrific thing that as a society we can sanction. So, the media just kept referring to it as a war no matter what.

There wasn't a broad enough commitment across the Democratic Party to refuse to use the word "war," to push back the media into the position of using the word "occupation." Ultimately, the Democrats gave up and went back to using the word "war." In fact, many of them found that using the word "war" over the short term was useful because it scares people. I think it's bad policy and bad politics. But some Democrats are Republican lite, and some Democrats are worried about survival, and some Democrats are not thinking about this all that deeply.

OR: The genius in the "war" versus "occupation" is, as you say, that Bush himself declared the war [to be] over on May 1, 2003. It's actually accurate on many levels.

TH: And ultimately, occupations are appropriately ended by withdrawing, and wars are ended in a very different way. These words have meaning, as Newt Gingrich says.

OR: There seems to be a growing movement of talk about language and framing. I think it's really critical, but at the same time, I think there's also this public need for someone to "tell it like it is," as the cliché goes. What of simply pointing out the absurdity of a frame? Take, for instance, the "death tax." While it might be important to "reframe" this argument, shouldn't politicians talk about how ridiculous this is?

TH: In fact, the best rebuttal typically is, like when Ronald Reagan said to Jimmy Carter, "There you go again." One of the most powerful frames is ridicule and the way to reframe the death tax is not to try and say, "Oh, no. It's an inheritance tax." But rather, to say, "OK, you're going to reinvent the frame? We'll reinvent frame. This is the rich kid tax." Because that's really what it is. It's a tax on the transfer of wealth to the people that didn't earn that wealth. And I think Americans would say, "Yeah, I've got no problem if Paris Hilton has to pay tax on money given to her by her parents."

OR: There seems like such a dearth of ridicule at a time so ripe for it: There's clearly massive discord between what Americans want and what the leadership is giving them. You just want someone to stand up there and say, "That's absurd."

TH: I know. And the Republicans were very good at it for many years. I think of the conservatives pointing out the waste in government spending -- the $700 toilet seats -- and all these other forms of ridicule of government of the very institutions of America that were used to promote the conservative meme that government is less moral than corporations. It's been very effectively used, and I've noticed how, on our side, we tend not to use it. Again, the reason is their messaging is not top-down, and it's not finely tuned and widely distributed. It tends to be more random and scattered. As a talk show host, I get memos from the RNC, and I can tell you that day what every single conservative talk show and Fox News are going to be talking about.

On the other hand, I also get memos from Nancy Pelosi's office, from Harry Reid's office, the DCCC, the DLC and the DNC, and they're all different. There's no way of knowing what the progressives are going to be talking about that day. Again, I think that's what's so wonderful about liberals and Democrats and progressives and Greens, and yet, in the world of marketing combat, it puts them at a disadvantage.

OR: It doesn't seem that you're arguing for more centralization. What is it that individuals can do with the tools set out in the book to impact the political situation?

TH: We must become the media. Since Reagan stopped enforcing the Fairness Doctrine and the Sherman Antitrust Act, and then Bill Clinton signed the Telecommunications Act, the media has become this monolithic monster. We have about 90 percent of everything that Americans see, hear and read, outside of the Internet, coming through the filter of fewer than a dozen corporations. Before Reagan came into office, it was more like 60 or 70 corporations, which still wasn't all that great. And if we lose 'Net neutrality, we may find the same thing will be the case with the Web over the course of a very short number of years. So, we need to become the media, at least over the short term.

This is very much like the American Revolution. The media was relatively centralized, in as much as people had to answer to King George III for anything that they said in the media. There were three major areas: There were women's groups that would get together under the guise of sewing together, there were men's groups that got together, mostly in bars. Sam Adams is most famous for this. They all plotted revolution. Then, there were these pamphleteers who were nailing things to trees in the middle of the night. That's what we need to do. We need to be the ones who, over Christmas dinner, at the water cooler, are sharing with friends, neighbors and co-workers, the reality of what's going on in the world.

If every progressive in America could reach out, to change the stories and recalibrate the vision of just ten other people, we could easily hit a critical mass that could change this country. This is how women's suffrage came about, how the Civil Rights Movement came about, the end of the Vietnam war, and the direct election of the Senate in 1914. This is how every major movement in the United States happened. It's the old Margaret Mead cliché: "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it's the only thing that ever has." My goal with this book is to help us become a little more competent at storytelling and messaging.

My goal was to empower Democrats, progressives, liberals and Greens at the individual level, because that's where the action is. It makes the job much more difficult because, instead of merely getting 200 members of Congress to memorize a word list like Newt Gingrich did, you have to get thousands or tens of thousands of progressive activists in all kinds of different fields all over the country, not to mention the politicians associated with them, to understand some of these concepts. That's the downside of it. The upside of it is, as I said before, that small "d" democracy, living your values. I wrote the book with the goal of giving away everything I know with the hope that people will use it.

Read an excerpt of Hartmann's book here.

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