JB Powell interviews Air America dj Thom Hartmann, who has a new book out about American political discourse called Cracking the Code. This interview is published on Pop and Politics as well as HuffPost's OffTheBus.
JBP: You say that after 9-11, 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."
Other countries have been through [terrorism]. England had the IRA blowing up London for thirty years. A bomb went off on Downing Street that almost killed Margaret Thatcher. The British government didn't say, 'We need to do away with civil rights and habeas corpus.' No. The British said, 'We are not afraid. We are not fearful wimps. We will deal with this, we will conquer this, and in the meantime, we're going to go about our lives.' The same thing with Spain and the Basque separatists. The same thing with Germany and the Baader-Meinhof Gang. The same thing with Italy and the Red Brigades, who kidnapped Aldo Moro, the former prime minister, and killed him! And still the Italians didn't say, 'We need to throw [our] constitution into the waste basket.' No, they said, 'We're not afraid, damn it!'
In 2006, we saw Dick Cheney and the President get up and say, basically, 'If you vote for Democrats, you're risking a terrorist attack.' I expect a lot worse in the upcoming 2008 election. Do you?
Absolutely. And probably in terms of world events. The Republicans are going to do everything they can, in my opinion, to increase our vulnerability to a terrorist attack. There's considerable evidence that before the 2001 attack, whether it was intentional or not, nobody was paying attention and everybody was asleep at the switch. George Bush had over fifty different warnings that 9-11 was coming, including the famous memo [Presidential Daily Briefing] that was delivered in August.
He knew that planes could be hijacked because when he was in Italy in March of that year, he had to go sleep on an aircraft carrier, because they had specific, credible intelligence that Bin Laden himself was behind a plan to hijack an aircraft and crash it into a hotel where Bush was sleeping. So you'd think in March when that happened they would have put two and two together. But Bush had put Dick Cheney in charge of the counter-terrorism task force and that task force never even bothered to meet until September of 2001.
So 9-11 wasn't a failure of intelligence. It was the most spectacular failure of the executive branch in our history arguably. And yet they use it to their benefit. And I suspect that they will do it again, in terms of using it to try to win elections.
It would work tremendously to the Republicans advantage if there was a terrorist attack between now and the election. And even if there's not, I guarantee you, they're going to be amping up the fear of terror, particularly just before the election. ...It was very psychologically effective. And from a marketing point of view, it was perfect, and it was absolutely intentional.
This kind of fear mongering is so effective because in many ways, it's self-fulfilling, isn't it?
The conservative worldview is both a product of environment and it is also learned. The more people we have in the media and the more people in the media who benefit from the conservative worldview, the more you're going to have the media being an instrument of teaching and training people in that worldview.
At the same time, the more conservative economics dominate the U.S., causing people to lose good union jobs and instead [forcing them] to work at Walmart for a third of the salary and none of the benefits, you find people are becoming increasingly economically insecure, which stresses out families and stresses them out, and causes them to be more vulnerable to the conservative message that the world is a terrible and dangerous place--because in fact the world has gotten more terrible and dangerous as a direct result of these conservative economic policies!
So the policies that [Ronald] Reagan put in place that have been in place for the last 30 years have by and large created a population that's vulnerable to fear mongering. And now both the media, which benefits from the fear mongering--it' s very profitable to have scary news, people pay attention to it--and the politicians who also benefit from fear mongering, are doing very well thank you very much.
You say that when it comes to communication, especially political communication, "feeling comes first" and that the "meaning" of anything you say comes from the response it gets, not what you intend it to mean. The Republicans and the Right seem to get this. The Democrats, not so much.
First off, the Democrats have had really stupid advisers for at least two decades. And the Republicans have some very slick professionals who understand both psychology and marketing and have been in those worlds for a long, long time.
The other problem, both at the level of party and of congress, is the fundamental psychology of conservative versus liberal. Chris Matthews likes to make the joke that about how Republicans want a leader, Democrats want to have a meeting. It's actually true. Republicans, [who assume] that people are intrinsically evil, want to have a wise, good person take control. Democrats, believing [in] a collective wisdom, want us all to have a voice in how things are done.
What this means is that the Republican Party runs like a well-oiled machine, it really runs like a corporation. Top down, hierarchical, power driving from the top down. And when Bush talked about he was going to be the first CEO president, it made a lot of sense to Republicans. The Democratic Party on the other hand is a coalition of coalitions. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid are herding cats. That's the weakness of the Democratic Party, but it's also its strength. Because it means that the institution itself is democratic, that it is reflecting the values that it seeks to uphold.
So my goal with the book is not to encourage the Democratic Party to become more like the Republican Party and become a monolithic, top down driven institution, but rather to educate and empower the many different individuals within all those different factions to be more competent with messaging.
You speak in the book about effective communication inducing a kind of trance.
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 [techniques] have to do with pacing and using different modalities as you speak.
The big mistake that John Kerry made against George 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 [clumsiness] 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.
Ronald Reagan was pretty much the master at that [appealing to emotion] wasn't he?
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.
You point out how Reagan actually 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?
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.
In the current crop of Presidential aspirants right now, who stands out in terms of communication skills?
John Edwards is a brilliant communicator. Barrack Obama is a brilliant communicator. I think Edwards has the potential to be the next FDR and I think Barrack has the chance to be the next John Kennedy.
I read that you campaigned for Barry Goldwater in your youth...
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 ...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.
So you heard a different "story."
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.
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.
It went off the air last week, actually.
Can you talk about the future of progressive media in light of those kinds of setbacks?
The first two or three years that conservative talk radio was on the air, it struggled terribly. And 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. And it's been about 20 years that conservative talk radio has been around, so no matter how outrageous Michael Savage might get, people just shrug and go, 'Well that's just normal stuff.'
I think we're now into three or four years of progressive talk radio being visible to America. I've been doing my show for six years now, but we're at about three years of it being obvious. And many markets are doing well. Here in Portland, for example, where I'm live, the local Clear Channel station that puts us on is a 25 thousand watt station and they've got professional management and a good sales team. And it's been profitable since day one. They're making money because they treat it like a real format and they give it a good signal. Those stations around the country that are doing that are having tremendous success. The stations where they put it on the weakest signal they've got, the ones who have the same guys selling ads for liberal talk radio who also sell for conservative talk radio, who've spent 20 years getting to know the local conservative committee and who show up at the local Republican Party meetings to meet advertisers, those guys aren't going to market progressive talk radio very well.
So in the next year or few years, there's going to be a broad perception across radio-dom, that beyond the ongoing feast and famine of Air America, liberal talk radio is here to stay. That the format works. That the talent works, that shows are able to capture a large audience and hold it over a long period of time. When that mentality shift happens in the world of the average program director, we'll be there. Right now, you know the conventional wisdom 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.
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