Cracking the Code by Thom Hartmann (Barrett-Koehler: San Francisco, 2007)

This is a book about communication, and how through it we are manipulated to do another's bidding. It focuses on political communication, how leaders frame ideas in ways that influence us unconsciously to vote in particular ways. And even more so, shape how we view the world and everything and everyone around us. Conservatives in particular learned these lessons well from psychology, biology and advertising. They have become masters of manipulating people to act against their own best interests. Progressives can learn it too, but instead of using it to manipulate others it can be geared to helping us see through such manipulation and thereby liberate us to think for ourselves. It teaches us how to crack this code.

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In communication emotions come first, but meaning must be shaped by a story or narrative. These stories must activate our deepest emotions but also mold them into a worldview for comprehending what we perceive and feel. The US framers told a story of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. FDR told one called the New Deal where government helped us achieve those original principles. But Reagan told an entirely different story about the free market and against government.

Many of today's stories are based on fear, activating one of our basest emotions. When so activated we perceive most everything as a threat and retreat into our own worlds of family and friends. This story is specifically designed to do exactly that to keep us from caring about and helping others, to keep us self-involved, for it allows the power brokers to get away with reaping most all of society's benefits while keeping us from doing anything about it. It even trains us to hate others who are in the same boat as ourselves, struggling to get by, as if they deserved their fate for lack of incentive or freeloading.

There is another story though, one of compassion and caring, one where we are all connected and people are fundamentally good. It is the story of the framers of America as told by luminaries like Rousseau, Locke and Jefferson. This book aims at learning this story and telling it well. But it acknowledges that we must understand that conservatives are like us in that they too want what's best for everyone but have a different story on how to get there. If we start from this premise we can communicate with them is a way that touches their deepest emotions and beliefs, and perhaps even reaches them.

To do so we must understand that it is best not to prohibit one's behavior but to expand the repertoire of more useful behaviors. Adding new tools opens new opportunities and allows us to “grow to the next level” (7). It also shows us that some behaviors do not work so well in achieving our common goals. Hence we can use this as learning experiences to try new tools and behaviors that work better. Effective communication is one such powerful tool that allows us to better attain our common goals. But as noted above, it can be used for selfish purposes and for bettering the lives of all. The hope of the book is that we use of for the latter. And that the progressive storyline is about both the framing and the ethics guiding it.


First off, I added a lot of my own translation to the 2nd paragraph of the introduction. This contradicts the suggestion that conservatives, like us, want the best for everyone. That might be generally true of the general conservative public but it is definitely not the case with the 1% of rich conservatives that are buying our legislature and rigging the laws to further enrich themselves at our expense. These folks consciously use framing to manipulate well- meaning, working-class conservative folks to accept a certain worldview based on lies and deception. Sure these rich folks might even believe in the worldview, but they knowingly justify lying, cheating and stealing to achieve their ends. So it's not just a matter of promoting a better worldview but of common, decent ethics in the process.

Also as yet the book has not addressed that there are better worldviews, ones that include and expand on love, compassion, opportunity, equality and so on, values that have been established over history to be developmentally superior. So even if there are honest, genuine conservatives that believe their worldview is those things, but history has proven a better way of getting there, we must make such judgements to progress. As but one example, slavery was at one time considered normal, healthy and compassionate. History has determined differently. Same with the divine right of kings and that women and children are chattel. I suspect Hartmann will make a case later that a progressive view is better than its conservative counterpart, but not sure how he's going to justify it. He does acknowledge that new tools lead "to the next level," so we'll see what that means.

I think we need to tell a story (integral politics) in which decompresses the left/right story without abandoning.  as long as ""conservative", "traditionalist" and "regressive" cannot be disentangled then a lot of miscalculation, false equivalence and useless oppositionality will get in the way of intelligent oppositionality. 

The word conservative remains almost useless if it does not distinguish between:

1. people who are cognitively embedded in healthy but limited orthodox, dogmatic, ethnocentric-ruralist realities

2. right-leaning modernists, pluralists & integralites

3. people who are culturopathic in the current context -- including conscious anti-cultural elites, unconscious anti-cultural elites & unconscious anti-cultural masses.

We need to --

  • Help educate and develop #1 providing them challenge & embrace & new skills & tools.
  • Ally with #2
  • Actively combat, reveal (and sometimes therapeutically address) #3.

I think that Hartmann, at least so far in the book, is focused on 1 and 2. I tend to focus on 3, as they are destroying our democracy. And I'm highly doubting that the latter can be won over with either facts or stories but must rather be defeated. But part of why I borrowed the book is to perhaps open to the possibility that 3s can become 2s. We'll see. I did note elsewhere that Nader is working on that, but it seems more with the 2s.

Chapter One

Hartmann makes clear that communication tools are neutral and require an ethical base and a positive vision. They can be and are used to manipulate others through fear to gain power, which threatens our democracy. Conservative leaders like Luntz, Gingrich and Rove have mastered these tools to convince their middle-class base that global corporations and the ultra-rich promote their interests, when in fact they do not in the least. It is a clear case of conscious, intentional and deceptive manipulation to enrich themselves at public expense. To fight back we need to learn these tools and how they are being abused.

He starts by examining the historical bases of the conservative and liberal stories. Prior to the 1600s in England the European narrative was based in the great chain of being ordained by God. This provided the social hierarchy from monarchs to peasants. Hobbs changed this with his book Leviathan, arguing that all men are created equal and deserved property rights. However underlying this was the notion that human nature was inherently evil and needed a ruling force to contain it. While this was originally the church, in the modern era it became the supposed neutral and mechanistic force of the free market's invisible hand as well as the church. Government was to be shunned, for it was controlled by the evil forces of mankind. This became the basis of the conservative worldview.

The modern liberal worldview was best described by Locke's Two Treatises on Government. He argued for natural law which should guide human law, and so guided mankind was inherently good. Private property resulted from the notion that if someone worked a natural resource with their labor then it became their property. However such property can only be amassed within the limits of what one could use. It was government's job to determine such limits. Therefrom emerged the natural rights of man: life, liberty and property.

But as noted, within limits. Jefferson was influenced by Locke but with a key change. He noted that the origin of the US Declaration of Independence was a direct response to the corrupt British tax laws giving the East India Company such breaks as to destroy local US competition, hence the Boston Tea Party. The Declaration thus changed the natural rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness, which were governed by man through government. The latter was required because left unchecked the accumulation of private property upset the natural balance and threatened the public good. These are key differences with the conservative notions above. Hartmann argues that the US founders were liberal in these regards in departing from British conservatism.

In summary, conservatives see the world as a dangerous place and people are inherently selfish. Thus we create institutions to keep us in check, so government should only be about protection through the police, prisons and armies. Liberals see the world an natural and harmonious and people are fundamentally good. Therefore government is to help one achieve their highest potential through education, training and a hand up to achieve such opportunity.

Hartmann notes though that conservatives are right when people are in dire straits, while liberals are right when we're feeling safe and secure. It's a matter of Maslow's hierarchy of needs. Hence when 9/11 happened there was a deliberate agenda to reduce the populace to fear and our lowest needs to thereby gin up war. Bush's rhetoric made Iraqis into an enemy deserving of destruction. His administration created false evidence in order to invade.

Hence Hartmann thinks that our stories must have an ecology check, what I'd call a reality check. They must serve others, the community, democracy and all life in a sustainable balance based on honesty and integrity. Both conservatives and liberals are not immune from the latter, so it's a reality check on both. It is certain though that when fear is used to create an enemy, like communists, gays or other religions, it's a sure sign of failing the test.

The ecology/reality check is critical.  I trace it back to W. Reich in the sense of trying to define emotional & psychosocial health and pathologize certain ideological trends.  The use of fear to create an enemy resembles the appropriate function of primitive cultural operating systems but not quite enough to be convincing. We do not say of a meth addict that she "just happens to like meth".  Thus we should not say of "using fear to divide and stress populations" is anything other than problematic behavior.  But in order to hold such a position we must pass the First Veil and take the risk of looking a bit technocratic.

Interesting to see Luntz come up. 

I've just been reading Rushkoff's McLuhenesque "Present Shock" which argues that Luntz and others are simply responding passively to the implications of the technological environment.  That they are studying the "real time" effects of messaging on people who are unconsciously embedded in the post-narrative consciousness of digital media effects.  Exposed to this method of questioning (contemporary PR testing methods) the people respond in ways that amplify their growing subservience to the metaphors, velocities and tendencies being cultivated in their nervous systems by irresponsible usage of certain technologies.  The experts then craft messages and feed these charged signifiers back to the same people in hopes of managing.  This sometimes works and sometimes backfires but overall both the expert-mangers and the population they are interested in are amplifying negative digital loop effects while believing they are the custodians of early 20th century values. 

Rushkoff sees Occupy movements the way McLuhan saw Artists -- as variably successful attempts to sensitively assimilate the background patterns of the media we are embedded in. 

Chapter Two

There are five stages to classic story structure. 1) A character has his/her world thrown out of balance. 2) Things get complicated and one tries to restore balance. 3) A crisis is faced wherein one must make a life-changing choice. 4) The climax is reached where the choice reaps consequences and the moral is revealed. 5) Loose ends are tied up. He then gave a few story examples that had these elements and claimed this structure has been hard-wired into us.

Chapter Three

Establishing rapport requires that we ascertain which sensory modality is primary for out interlocutor. We frame our worlds through our senses. For most in America the visual is their primary modality. For others auditory or kinesthetic, especially in different cultures. This can be determined by listening intently to how one uses language. However when using political speech one needs to be multi-model to reach the differing preferences of a larger audience.

Chapter Four

Humans have three brains: reptilian, limbic and neo-cortex. The first is about survival and fight or flight. The second is about emotion. The third about abstract thought. So effective communication recognizes our lower brains and that feeling comes before thinking. Hence above where one uses the language of the senses to elicit response from our survival drives. Framing things in emotional terms goes directly to the limbic system. Hence a key strategy to activate these systems is to use kinesthetic terms and moral-laden metaphor.

An interesting point was a study that found that the “affective system retained its autonomy” in development (58). I.e., the three brains, while interconnected, still retain to some degree their own autonomy and speak their own languages. Remember that Luhmann discussed how within humans the various systems still retain their autonomy and communicate with each other through structural coupling.

I'm not familiar with this book, but reading your descriptions, I am reminded of Tom Atlee's work on co-intelligence, story fields, imagineering, democracy, etc.  One complementary-seeming book is Atlee's The Tao of Democracy.

Chapter Five

One must anchor feelings to communicate well. He gives an example of a Gingrich memo from 1996 that said one must create contrast with their opponent by casting them in negative emotional terms. Then when an opponent's name comes up it is anchored in those negative emotions. An example was Reagan's 'welfare queen,' which still resonates with regressives to this day. And this despite the fact that the example Reagan was spun of whole cloth and no person fitting that description was ever found. It was effective though in virtually dismantling Johnson's Great Society. One can also do the reverse, anchoring positive emotions with one's allies or Party.

Something to avoid is long sentences with several polysyllabic words. This may work well with the highly educated but not much with everyone else. It helps to frame the story in personal terms, naming specific people and relating how they were helped by the desired policy in simple, sensory and emotional terms. But also telling the moral, how such a personal story relates to said policy.

One such story is about healthcare. There was a time when healthcare and its insurance companies were non-profit, the moral being public health was a right for all. But then the conservatives thought it should be for-profit, since that motive led to more efficient management, more competition which in turn led to better healthcare. It's a good story but history in the US has proven differently. Meanwhile publicly financed healthcare has proven to be all that conservatives say they wanted in in most every industrialized nation. Once again proving they had a good story that manipulated the public but wasn't based in reality.

On a side note, the book was obviously written long before Obamacare, but the conservatives en masse are totally against it, even though it is not publicly financed and still makes loads of money for private insurance companies. That it is also working is something they just cannot abide, for it doesn't fit their story, even when it partially does! Again, this is why an ecology check is so important, for we need to change our stories when they don't match the reality. Recall this study, which notes that liberals are far more capable at doing this than conservatives (#12 here). Food for further thought later.

Also see a relevant discussion starting on this post and following in another thread.

Chapter Six

Research has shown that negative framing, as in using the word not before an adjective or adverb, is not processed by the unconscious. Hence asserting that one is not guilty reinforces the word guilt instead of negating it, at least at the unconscious level. This also goes for linking negative descriptions to something you want to communicate positively, like progressive compassion fights regressive oppression. The negative word at the end then gets subconsciously associated with compassion. Lakoff also discusses this in his manual Thinking Points. However negation can be used as a technique to manipulate a desired outcome. For example, one could say about an opponent: “I don't think he's a traitor and I'd never call him a traitor.” Which reinforces the notion that his opponent is indeed a traitor!

Another powerful linguistic tip is using the word you. Even if intended in a general or third person sense our unconscious interprets as me personally. E.g, when you tell someone a story about how you were mad at someone, and speak to the present person in the same way you spoke to the person you were mad at, they will take it personally. Like if you say to the present person, “So I said to him: You are a totally abusive asshole,” the present person will feel like you're saying that to him even though he understands that you're not. Even just writing that recalls to memory how I felt exactly that way when such past situations were so described.

Hartmann recommends that you can use you language but by framing it differently, as in an indirect reference of a third party who said something to another third party using that language. E.g., “My friend said to management that 'you are overworking us.'” Even if you are talking to a manager they won't feel as if you said it directly to them. This is a favorite technique used by sales and advertising, by noting how someone else said to his friend: “You know, that is the best car I've ever owned.” Of course, the ecology check is crucial, since the salesperson is probably lying. It would be a different story if it were true, so using the technique of the indirect you to make a sale is ethically acceptable if true.


A few words on fear. It is a natural and healthy emotion, like when we are confronted with a tiger in the jungle. It gives us the impetus to fight or flee, both necessary for our survival. So survival drives are not in themselves negative but serve vital functions. The problem is manipulating them by creating enemies when it is not based in fact to enrich oneself at the expense of everyone else.

A case in point is the 1%, who create all sorts of false fear to get people to vote against their own and the public interest. The legitimate fear is of these greedy narcissists who are destroying the economy for most of us, for our very survival is at stake. So we need to fight in this case instead of flee. The 1% know full well that their activities create legitimate fear so they have to redirect it with lies within their seemingly good-sounding story about the free market and individual merit. They denigrate the poor and middle class worker as somehow responsible for the mess they created, thereby getting us to turn on each other instead of directing our fear and anger at its legitimate target.

It's a good thing though that the likes of Senators Sanders and Warren are on to this scheme and redirecting our legitimate fear back to the real source. And motivating us to fight back instead of flee. Meanwhile the reality check of public opinion polls supports the truth of the real threat to our survival and well being, since the public supports the issues these progressives promote. I just heard Sanders today say on Hartmann's radio show that many of the working class Tea Party supporters also agree with this progressive agenda, but have been manipulated by the 1%ers like the Kochs to fear the wrong target. Our job is to educate them and frame the debate in a way that we can win them over and direct their legitimate fear against the ones manipulating them, like the Kochs.

We should feel afraid and angry, for there is good reason for it. We just need to direct these emotions at the real causes and do something about it.

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