Recently, I read through Arnold Kling’s short, inventive book, “The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides.” It puts words to a realization that many of us have had. Especially lately, we sense that our politicians aren’t able to get along, and often seem unable even to understand one another. Why can’t Republicans and Democrats cooperate?
Certainly, there are plenty of reasons. But the thesis of Kling’s little primer is this: people in different political camps misunderstand each other simply because they are speaking different languages.
In politics, I claim that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization. The points that people make do not open the minds of people on the other side. They serve to close the minds of the people on one’s own side.
In our hyper-partisan age, this book makes good reading.
Kling admits he leans libertarian–and the book is published by the conservative Cato Institute–and yet he openly acknowledges the complexity of politics. He is respectful. He practices what he preaches, and admits his biases.
And while he focuses on what he sees as the country’s three chief belief systems–progressivism, conservatism, and libertarianism–his updated edition points out that the election of Donald Trump doesn’t fit any of these narratives. He offers a brief, fascinating hypothesis about how Trump’s most loyal supporters see the world and what “language” they speak. Don’t buy the book for that, as he doesn’t spend much time on it, but it’s a pretty interesting little nugget.
More helpfully, though sometimes painfully, Kling doesn’t limit this political misinterpretation only to our leaders or the most recent election. His hypothesis is that this multi-language system describes the way the vast majority of us think about politics. What he says resonates.
What Language Do You Speak?
Kling does well to bring the abstract down to the specific and the personal.
Which political language do you speak? Of course, your own views are carefully nuanced, and you would never limit yourself to speaking in a limited language. So think of one of your favorite political commentators, an insightful individual with whom you generally agree. Which of the following statements would that commentator most likely make?
(Progressives) My heroes are people who have stood up for the underprivileged. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the oppression of women, minorities, and the poor.
(Conservatives) My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to the assault on the moral virtues and traditions that are the foundation for our civilization.
(Libertarians) My heroes are people who have stood up for individual rights. The people I cannot stand are the people who are indifferent to government taking away people’s ability to make their own choices.
The central claim of this book is that (P) is the language of progressives, (C) is the language of conservatives, and (L) is the language of libertarians. If the theory is correct, then someone who chooses (P) tends to identify with progressives, someone who chooses (C) tends to identify with conservatives, and someone who chooses (L) tends to identify with libertarians.
I call this the three-axes model of political communication. A progressive will communicate along the oppressor-oppressed axis, framing issues in terms of the (P) dichotomy. A conservative will communicate along the civilization-barbarism axis, framing issues in terms of the (C) dichotomy. A libertarian will communicate along the liberty-coercion axis, framing issues in terms of the (L) dichotomy.
Early on in the book, Kling lays out how this language affects our political discourse. He examines a handful of specific issues—the Holocaust, tax reform, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, mortgage rates, abortion and unwed motherhood, the “war on terror,” bakers who don’t want to make cakes for gay weddings, and soda taxes—to prove his point.
For the most part, I agree with his analysis. I can see myself in much of what he describes. I also see friends of various political stripes in his descriptions, which is helpful. I feel I have a better grasp of why they think what they think, and how to better empathize and respond.
How We Think of Each Other
Kling describes our political arguing as “frustrating and endless.” He says because each “tribe” operates, thinks, and speaks along its own particular narrative, “we talk past one another rather than communicate.”
This is ships passing in the broad daylight, firing shots along the way. Quickly, we demonize each other. We refuse to acknowledge—and often genuinely cannot see—the validity of the other tribes’ perspectives.
Kling lays out the pattern:
If you are a progressive focused on the oppressor-oppressed axis, you may come to view conservatives and libertarians as being on the side of the oppressors. If you are a conservative focused on the civilization-barbarism axis, you may come to view progressives and libertarians as enemies of civilized values. And if you are a libertarian focused on the liberty-coercion axis, you may come to view progressives and conservatives as champions of coercive government.
I agree with Kling’s assessment. And I think there’s a key signifier demonstrating the truth of our separatist, rival tribes. It’s a signifier that rings clearer than political platforms and campaign narratives.
I think our political tribal loyalties are clearly, blindingly, stabbingly betrayed in the ways we talk about the others. The critiques we most often level at each other—the names and insults we most often hurl—give away our political narratives.
For instance, progressives, who tend to see politics according to an oppressor/oppressed dichotomy, frequent the following critical labeling: racist, sexist, something-ist, something-phobe.
By comparison, conservatives, who Kling says appeal to a duel between civilization and barbarism, like to describe their political foes as immoral, dishonest, and spiritually, socially, and sexually baseless. They don’t use this word, but they describe those who disagree with them as “barbarous” while establishing themselves as the civilized, moral side.
Libertarians like to criticize opponents by saying they like Big Government, groupthink, and, of course, communism. Among the archenemies of the libertarian ilk are free-riders and cheaters who mooch on handouts at the expense of personal liberty and prefer regulation to personal responsibility.
We Must Become Polyglots
Kling’s solution is straight-forward and, I think, effective. The solution isn’t to change your understanding of the world or to persuade your rivals to come to your viewpoint. The solution is to learn to speak the political languages of the other tribes. This will allow you to see other viewpoints, helping you to empathize and perhaps compromise with opponents, and also to sharpen and straighten your own political axis.
To even a greater extent than is required to communicate across national boundaries, we must become political polyglots. That is not necessarily how we will all become friends, but it is how we must understand and learn to respect each other.