Cracking the Code

Cracking the Code

How can the left be as adept as the right-wing spin machine at communicating its political agenda? Learn how to use the tools.


Someone coming to America during one of our national elections might think politics is a kind of sporting event. They’d see a red team facing off against a blue team and hear that a team would win or lose based on how many votes it got.

That kind of thinking got a friend of mine into trouble. Once an outspoken and proud “dittohead,” a few years ago he decided he was going to instead become a liberal (his wife actually decided it for him, but that’s another story). But this guy tripped up because he thought that politics was a sporting event with teams that are just as interchangeable as if a baseball team were to move from Kansas City to Oakland. He thought it was a matchup with a playlist of issues like Social Security, national healthcare and the “war on terror.” On one side of each issue were conservatives and their talking points, and on the other side were liberals and their talking points. He figured all he had to do to switch sides was memorize a new set of talking points, the way a sports team would simply change its venue.

But then over lunch, one of us would bring up an issue that wasn’t one of the issues for which he’d memorized a new set of talking points. Sometimes it was an issue that didn’t even seem obviously political, like why so many coal miners are getting killed in mining accidents or why we’re paying to teach kids how to take tests but not paying for music classes. The guy who thought he had gone from being a conservative to a liberal didn’t know what to say. Those issues just weren’t in his playbook.

A true liberal or conservative, with a grounding in the philosophy and the history of the liberal or conservative worldview, would instantly know how to respond to such issues.

A liberal would put the miners’ story inside a bigger story about how corporations are now required by law to care more about profits than people, and how the evisceration of the labor movement by Reagan’s “war on labor,” and later conservative pro-business efforts, have stripped workers of the democratic and balancing power in the workplace (known as unions!) to emphasize things like safety.

A liberal might answer the music issue by talking about a child who learned how to read and write after he started playing a musical instrument–how that shows there are different intelligences we all have and can express–and conclude by stressing how important it is that we create an opportunity for every child to realize his or her potential.

There is a story behind every political issue, a story that is either liberal or conservative. Politics is no more and no less than the sum of those stories.

To be an effective communicator, we learn how to tell a story, with whom to share that story and why.

Everyone is a communicator, and we all communicate constantly. Some of us, like Bill Clinton, Ralph Nader and Ronald Reagan, are born storytellers and natural communicators. The skill of communication and persuasion seems innate and effortless. Folks like that are unconsciously competent at communicating. Most of us, however, are not very competent at communicating; what’s more, we don’t know that. We are unconsciously incompetent. The challenge we face when we want to communicate effectively is to go from being unconsciously incompetent to being unconsciously competent. This involves four stages.

Learning to communicate well is like learning to ride a bike. At first you don’t know what it’s like to ride a bike (unconsciously incompetent); then, when you start learning, you fall off a lot (consciously incompetent).

After a while you get the hang of bike riding, but you have to concentrate on pedaling, turning, shifting and so forth (consciously competent).

Then, one day, you are riding around with a friend and you suddenly realize you haven’t even thought about being on a bike for the past ten minutes. You know how to ride the bike so well that you can focus on other things you want to do while you are riding it (unconsciously competent). This is true of everything we learn, from walking to talking to typing to reading. And you can learn the communication code in just the same way:

Unconsciously incompetent–never think about the impact of words; wonder why communication often is misunderstood.

Consciously incompetent–become aware of these tools and how often you’re not using them or are doing things wrong.

Consciously competent–start using the tools but have to pay attention; thinking things through before doing or saying them.

Unconsciously competent–powerful, influential; communication becomes second nature.

Anyone with any message can become an effective communicator. Stephen Hawking, mute and in a wheelchair, continues to influence the world with his communications. The communication code itself is politically neutral. It’s just a tool.

Combining a competent use of that tool with a good ethical base and a positive vision produces a powerful and useful force. When people combine competent communication with a desire to dominate others or to rule through fear, it often becomes a corrosive force that strikes at the very heart of our republic.

The tools of communication are widely known. I learned many of them from working with Richard Bandler and reading the works of John Grinder, two men who together developed a theory of communication they called Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) Professional message makers like Frank Luntz and Newt Gingrich have studied these tools as well. These message makers have used their knowledge of the communication code to convince average working Americans that middle-class interests correspond with those of global corporations and the megawealthy. Frank Luntz, Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove and others like them–the manipulators of Madison Avenue, Wall Street and the Bush White House–figured out how to crack the communication code to become masters of political persuasion.

Some politicians’ efforts at persuasion are conscious, intentional, systematic and, of necessity, deceptive because they don’t share the worldview held by the majority of Americans. To respond, the rest of us must learn to communicate more effectively.

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