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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Chapter Seven

To communicate effectively one must figure our their own and the other's core story. We might use the same words but they'll have different meanings depending on the story. Recall that the typical liberal story is about a world that is fundamentally good and fair, and the goal is to help people realize their potential. The typical conservative story is that the world is a dangerous and scary place so we must restrain individuals and their bad impulses. (I again refer to numerous studies supporting these broad generalizations.)

Some generalizations of the differences are that when a conservative hears the word values it triggers what individuals do in the privacy of their homes, so they are against gay marriage and abortions. For liberals that means caring for the homeless, sick and hungry, the environment, education; a more public focus. The word taxes for conservatives evokes government confiscation; for liberals it's a fair contribution to and participation in the social good. Freedom for the conservative is about protection from a hostile environment including the bad other so as to focus on disciplining one's own bad desires. For liberals it's about interacting with others to share one's deepest beliefs and goals, which allows for self-actualization through education and healthcare.

The key is listening to the story people tell and responding accordingly. This is the story of democracy, that we the people determine what government should be by voting for candidates that represent us, and telling them often what we think. If they don't listen we vote them out. Unfortunately, the political class has for the most part aligned with the wealthy class and they are telling us what we should want, usually with lies and conscious manipulation of the story. Which is of course the story of oligarchy wrapped up in a false democratic story, the proverbial wolf dressed in sheep's clothing.


A brief note to point out that generally conservatives are focused more on our lower needs in Maslow's hierarchy, while liberals more the higher. It is a broad generalization with all sorts of mixes and matches. And there is a time and place for our lower needs, like I discussed with fear above. As LP noted earlier in the thread, there's a difference though between healthy and unhealthy expressions of said needs. As well as a big difference in how we utilize said needs in response to real or contrived threats, and on how we frame said needs based on lies or a reality check, for personal greed or social good. Which is not at all to say that personal safety, comfort and economic security are bad, just that here too there is a healthy balance between the personal and the public.

Chapter Eight

A learning trance is like any other trance, in that it encourages a person to focus their attention so narrowly on one object so as to filter out all other sensations, thoughts or data. One way to induce the learning trance is anchoring (see Chapter Five). Another is to shift quickly form one sensory modality to another. This requires intent focus to keep up with the shifts. Pacing utilizes dramatic pauses to focus attention by creating an expectant attitude. It creates an attentional on-off pulsing that requires focus to keep up with the changes. This can be done with changes in cadence as well, as well as sound volume, by lowering or raising our voices for effect, as well as speeding up or slowing down our speech at key times.

Chapter Nine

Future pacing is when you project your message into the future and then anchor it in the present. For example, when Pelosi became Speaker of the House in 2006 the Iraq War was ongoing and many of her own Party were still divided over it. She projected this current division to the 2008 elections, noting how it would be a deciding issue with voters. This was then anchored in the present matter at hand, a war resolution opposing an escalation that was up for a vote. In her speech she projected into the future our troops coming home and anchored that in how the present resolution would achieve that end. In this case pacing is changing rapidly back and forth in time to hold our attention in a learning trance. This could equally apply to lessons learned from the past to act effectively in the present.

Conservatives have mastered this sort of pacing by creating frightening future scenarios where terrorists have taken over and our government has stolen all our money via taxes, while our families are destroyed by “abortion-loving gay atheists” (118), so we need to thwart all of that now with the proposed legislation. Liberals create a different future, where we live in peace and harmony by working together to create a more equitable society. Hartmann thinks that the Founders had more of the latter vision, and to that vision we should return with our current legislative proposals.

Chapter Ten

Framing is another tool in this kit. It's in the way one uses words to describe a situation to evoke our feelings into supporting a particular worldview. One example is in how the estate tax was framed. Conservatives called it the “IRS death tax,” invoking fear through the images of large government control through taxes and that much dreaded image, death. Early American framers like Jefferson argued for an estate tax, realizing that such accumulated wealth would likely lead to a return of the very landed aristocracy which America fought to overcome with its new democracy. Unfortunately such a tax was not instituted until 1916, when ordinary people rose up against just such an American aristocracy of robber barons and monopolists controlling our society. It was Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican no less, that proposed the estate tax, framing it as the wealthy having higher obligations to the State due to the special advantages granted them by said State. We don't see Republicans like that anymore.

So taxes can be framed as the following to conservatives who think they are self-made and earned it all by their own efforts: Taxes contribute to one's business success by providing all those necessary services and infrastructure that enabled it: public utilities and transportation, banking and financial regulation, public education, Social security and Medicare. Without such public support businesses would have to spend an enormous amount for those services and would go out of business due to the losses. Which is pretty much how President Obama framed it, having learned this lesson. Although he made the mistake of using the slogan: “You didn't build that,” which conservatives took out of context and required the President to further explain and frame properly.

Hartmann rightly notes that the conservative frame was designed to reinforce the American aristocracy, who were the beneficiaries of the estate tax, which applied to only 0.27 percent of the population, the infamous 1% of the 1% who control this country. The used the 'death tax' frame to make it seem like it applied to everyone, see we all pay taxes and we all die, both really scary things. It was a direct attach on the very democracy on which America was founded, and which these wealthy aristocrats do not want implemented in anything other than name only, which they use to manipulatively frame other issues of 'patriotism.'

The only way to counter such negative frames, which often use lies to bolster them, is to reframe the issue in positive terms backed with (but not solely with) accurate facts to meet the ecology check. We've seen examples like the above with the liberal position on taxes.

Chapter Eleven

We also need to understand why the above works, how our brains function. Our experience is filtered in three ways: deletion, distortion and generalization. When we focus on one thing, like reading this, we delete many sensory input like the temperature of the room or what's on the tellie playing in the next room. We distort experiences in order to simplify and make emotional sense of them, particularly memories. We generalize input based on our predisposed worldviews, like liberal or conservative, friend or enemy etc. Even more broadly, the latter is a function of our basic differentiating categories, like what constitutes a room or a chair.

While these filters are necessary they can also miss some pertinent information. Our filtered perceptions, feelings and thoughts of reality are not that reality. We create our maps of that territory by focusing on what is useful to us about it and filter out the rest. And we do that by creating a story to make sense of our maps. However some stories do this more effectively because they are more useful. The abortion debate is an example. The liberals framed it as pro-choice, the story of modern feminism. Women had to struggle to get the choice of a vote, of equal pay and equality generally. It's a progressive story of gaining rights. Hence the right to choose what happens with their bodies during pregnancy.

The conservatives though frame it as pro-life. That story is about moral decay, about irresponsible women being freed to have sex outside marriage without the consequences of a child. It doesn't want individual freedom but for strong leaders to make choices for us. Hence the frame that religious leaders have decided that abortion is murder, so to support it you must be against life itself. Pro-life is a much more basic human drive than the rights of autonomous individuals, hence it strikes a deeper chord. Never mind that conservatives, while loving the life of the fetus, hate the life of the child. Or that they support the death penalty. Or individual choice in other areas. In this instance their frame of pro-life is more effective, given that far more people operate from these base human emotions than from advanced motivations like self-actualization.

Chapter Twelve

We are motivated to move away from pain and toward pleasure. In the short run the former strategy is more effective, as it's based on our most primitive drives. Hence we get conservative frames like if we vote for liberals we'll get attacked by terrorists; they bring you pain, we avoid it. Over time it becomes less effective due to over-stimulation of this drive. Moving toward pleasure tends to be more subtle and resilient in the long term, and more indicative of the liberal view of a world that gets progressively better. Both drives are needed for motivation, so it serves us to know both to know when we are being manipulated as well as to consciously enact our hopes and dreams.

Some parents only know the pain avoidance strategy and thus use punishment as a sole motivator. They start by yelling, and when that cease to work they escalate to hitting, which escalates to more severe punishments. Which of course leads to serious dysfunction in latter life, including becoming a Republican. (Sorry, couldn't help it.) And yet this is a typical strategy for conservative politics. Citing Bush/Cheney, it was a story of an evil, dangerous world that needed a 'decider' to protect us. Remember that 9/11 happened on his watch, that he was informed it was coming and did little to stop it, and then took full advantage of the fear that created. Sure, it worked in the short run but in the long run many historians already view Bush/Cheney as two of the worst politicians in American history for the damage they caused not only to our actual security but to our economy.

Contrast it with FD Roosevelt, who used both motivational strategies during World War II. He acknowledges that there were serious security issues that we needed to address. But he also created a positive future vision of what we needed to move toward, like freedom of speech and religion, a burgeoning economy with equal opportunity. He understood that we need to address our lower drives while also activating the higher, putting them in context to create a better world.

To create support of public policy we need to use both strategies. Thus we need to frame the benefits of programs like social security, unemployment insurance and national healthcare rather than just the factual features. Conservatives frame social security as a big-government nanny state that steals our money to give to the undeserving poor who didn't plan properly or work hard enough to have a retirement program. Whereas a liberal frame is that many people, though no fault of their own, need such programs to survive, since perhaps their jobs did not have retirement programs or disability insurance, etc. It's a different vision that wants to take care of the needy and abused instead of throwing them out in the street, as disaster can strike anyone no matter their station. While acknowledging the fear and possibility of such disaster, it builds on higher drives like care and compassion for each other.

Chapter Thirteen

Frames need to address the different levels of consideration. E.g, making the big climate change argument works for most (except for the 1%ers and their conservative cronies, apparently). Yet it's harder to make the smaller argument about the cost effectiveness of solar panels on one's roof. The big picture of what's best for the planet has to balance with what's best in one's own financial interest and limitations. And the intermediate levels also need to be addressed: family, neighborhood, town, state, country. The smaller the level relates to benefits or what, the larger relates to features or why (see chapter 12), so both are necessary.

In the case of solar panels, the bottom layer needs to match the top layer. Germany accomplished this by passing legislation that mandated banks provide low-interest ten-year loans to install such panels, and further legislation that mandated that power companies buy back surplus solar-generated power at seven times the going rate, thereby making the panels affordable. Yes, the power companies pay more for the buy-back for 10 years, but that is offset by the price they would have paid for building a new nuke plant. After 10 years the buy-back is at the regular lower rate plus they get a new source of clean energy without having to pay for nuke plant maintenance, waste disposal etc. It also creates jobs in this tech and well as stimulate the economy overall. All the levels win. (I remind you at this point that a large motivational factor for Germany's plan is in direct response to working with Jeremy Rifkin's Third Industrial Revolution.)

Chapter Fourteen

We all have different identities in the roles we take, e.g., father, boss, employee etc. And each requires a different skill set with which to communicate effectively. Each of these identities in us has a relatively independent life arising out of brain structures. Unlike multiple personality disorder (MPD) though, where one part takes over the others, each identity or role that comes to the fore for a specific occasion is well integrated with the others. He calls this integrating function the “core self,” akin to the synthetic ego. It is related to the three brains discussed in chapter four, and how each has different needs and responds to different messages.

As noted earlier, conservatives tend to focus on our safety and security parts through manipulation of fear. They also activate those parts that trigger vengeance, creating an evil enemy that is the cause of our fear so we must hate and destroy them. It's the pain avoidance strategy noted in chapter twelve. Liberals tend to focus on our compassionate, hopeful and idealistic parts. In a sense the conservative strategy is akin to MPD in that they active one part to override all the others. The liberal strategy is to integrate our lower fear drive with the higher drives in a healthy personality that recognized all our parts, when one needs to come to the fore, and how they can all communicate with each other through our core self.


In the concluding chapter Hartmann pulls the foregoing together to make the case that conservatives have been more successful because they focus on the benefits one accrues in their story. Liberals, on the other hand, focused more on the policy features and missed the benefits framing boat. Polls actually showed that many conservative voters actually preferred liberal policy features but went instead with the conservative story that fed parts of their identities.

Hence liberals need to promote their own story of benefits, that of We the People. It appeals to our role as citizens in something larger than just ourselves. But again, it must also reach down to personal benefits of safety and security, like that our taxes pay for police and fire protection, providing safe food, water and working conditions, schools to provide for better work opportunities and healthcare when we are sick. It's a story of how the government enacts all of this for we the people, for it represents us and our best interests. It's a story of how we all fit together, from our lowest individual needs to the highest, and how that fits together with societal needs, from the local community to our nation and beyond. It's the story of democracy, and if we don't tell it well the conservatives will win the day with oligarchy and alienating us from ourselves and our country. It is each of our responsibilities to tell this story, so as Hartmann often says, and with which he closes the book: “Democracy begins with you. Tag – you're it!”

Hartmann discusses his book on today's show:

Interesting, Edwyrd.

At a glance he slices through moral values to some degree hierarchically reminiscent of Maslow.

But much more nuance, I am supposing, than I am identifying.


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