Code Words

By Sean Carroll | January 8, 2008 1:19 pm

One of the skills that many successful politicians have is the ability to speak separately to two audiences using the same words. It used to be that you could speak to different groups by just saying different things — go visit them, and tell them what you want them to hear. But these days, the default assumption is that everything you say in every context is up on YouTube the next day, so you have to be more subtle. A great strategy, if you can master it, is to use code words — language that seems sensible but unremarkable to the majority of listeners, but carries special meaning for a particular audience. George W. Bush is a master of the technique, but both winners of last week’s Iowa caucuses have also demonstrated the ability.

For Barack Obama, the particular audience is African-Americans. He rarely brings up race directly, but continually hammers on the theme of bridging divides and bringing people together. The surface appeal is to overcoming the tensions between Blue and Red America, but the parallels with Black and White America are pretty clear. More subtly, he borrows phrases from the civil rights movement — “the fierce urgency of now” — that have powerful resonance for the people who fought in those struggles.

For Mike Huckabee, the particular audience is evangelical Christians. A good example of Huckabee’s use of code words was flagged by Josh Marshall, who picked up on the repeated use of a notion of “vertical thinking.” Without much explanation, Huckabee drops this phrase liberally into his speeches, and it is displayed prominently on his website.

Huckabee vertical thinking

What’s going on there? Marshall found explanations here and here. I suppose context has given away the secret by now, but “vertical thinking” refers to how we conceptualize the role of God as the origin of all things.

vertical thinking

“Horizontal thinking,” meanwhile, is what happens when you leave “Man” to figure it all out by himself.

horizontal thinking

Count me as a committed horizontal thinker. There’s a great benefit to recognizing that it’s we human beings who are conducting an ongoing conversation about how the world works and how we should live our lives, rather than taking instructions from a (literally) higher authority — namely, we can change our minds when we realize that we’ve been making a mistake. If we’re beholden to a set of ancient cryptic mythological texts that were all about reinforcing the prevailing norms at the time, we get stuck with vertical thinking of the form “Wives are to voluntarily submit themselves to their husbands as the head in their marriage.”

Most of we horizontal thinkers didn’t even notice Huckabee’s formulation, I’m sure. It will be interesting to see what happens if he wins another primary or two.


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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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