Review, Top Stories

The Three Languages of Politics—A Review

A review of The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling. Cato Institute (May 2017) 146 pages. 

…the existence of alternative (or opposing) conclusions is something quite reasonable to expect among intelligent and informed individuals who read the complicated evidence differently, or who weigh the intricate factors or the perplexing probabilities differently.
~Thomas Sowell, The Vision of the Anointed

Lately, there’s been a lot of talk about how to improve political discourse. We’re slowly waking up to the divisive nature of social media, the news cycle, victimhood culture, and identity politics. We’re seeing how outrage and contempt, though they make us feel righteous, are often counterproductive. And we’re becoming more aware of our biases, in hopes of trading reflexive action for reflective thought. Yet despite these realizations, political discourse remains fraught.

Like sick patients struggling to follow the doctor’s orders, people act out old habits even as they learn they’re destructive. Many of us stick to our news feeds and trusted sources, preferring the familiar sound of our echo chambers to the confusing cacophony that lies beyond. In the midst of disagreement, we get angry and demonize the other side, if only because they got angry and demonized us first. And instead of using our knowledge of cognitive biases to pause and reflect, we reflexively accuse others of falling prey to them. Clearly, we’ve still got room for improvement.

Our attempts to mend political discussion are well intentioned, but what if we’re overshooting the mark? Can we really expect people to revamp their news diets, defuse their anger, or engage in self-reflection, all to better understand political opponents they consider ignorant, stupid, or evil? Though we can stress the dangers of political polarization, people are rarely moved by exhortation alone. Unless they can glimpse the possible merit in an opposing view, they’re unlikely to change their ways. Therefore, instead of focusing on lofty goals requiring an upfront commitment, perhaps we need to start smaller.

Arnold Kling is an American economist who thinks that our efforts to defuse political animosity are putting the cart before the horse. In The Three Languages of Politics, Kling argues that to understand our political opponents, we need to update the way we frame disagreements. Liberals, conservatives, and libertarians each have their own tribal language, which often baffles and infuriates outsiders. Until we grasp the nuances and assumptions of each language, mutual understanding is impossible. Fortunately, Kling provides a simple framework for making sense of these semantic differences.

To understand the world, we must simplify it. But most people take the rich political landscape and reduce it to just one dimension: a line running from left to right. And though the left–right spectrum can be useful, it fails to encourage refined thought on political matters. Left-wingers prefer the welfare state while right-wingers prefer the free market. Move too far left and you’re a communist, too far right and you’re a fascist. No matter the sophistication of your views, you must flatten and compress them if you hope to find a spot on the line. The left–right spectrum provides a simple way of identifying friends, but lacks the complexity needed to understand our opponents. In this way, it lends itself to the tribalism we need to outgrow.

Kling’s framework eschews the simplistic left–right spectrum in favor of a ‘three-axes’ model of political communication, whereby people tend to communicate in either a progressive, conservative, or libertarian manner. It is simple enough to be grasped at a glance, yet complex enough to aid in understanding. The three ways of communicating can be summarized as follows:

  • Progressives communicate along an oppressor–oppressed axis, where those who stand up for the underprivileged are good, while those indifferent to the plights of the disadvantaged are bad.
  • Conservatives communicate along a civilization–barbarism axis, where those who stand up for time-tested traditions and virtues are good, while those indifferent to assaults on Western values are bad.
  • Libertarians communicate along a liberty–coercion axis, where those who stand up for individual rights are good, while those indifferent to government intrusion are bad.

In discussing political issues, people rarely stray off of their preferred axis. This can make it seem as though the political tribes—progressives, conservatives, and libertarians—are perpetually opposed. But in reality, each tribe is simply focused on a different set of concerns. And while these concerns occasionally conflict with each other, they can also be compatible. When our worldview is constricted to just one axis, though, any difference in concern comes across as an unbridgeable divide; even where concerns complement each other, they may seem irreconcilably opposed.

Kling uses the Holocaust to show how each tribe can be on the right side of history, but for different reasons. Progressives, viewing the Holocaust along the oppressor–oppressed axis, see it as an example of the dangers of racial animus towards minorities. Conservatives, viewing the Holocaust along the civilization–barbarism axis, see it as an example of the evil that can result when traditional institutions and norms break down. Libertarians, viewing the Holocaust along the liberty–coercion axis, see it as an example of the harm that can flow from giving unbridled power to the state. And, of course, all three tribes are right: oppression, barbarism, and coercion all contributed to this heinous chapter in history.

But unless each tribe can understand the way their axis shapes political discourse, they’re apt to view the other tribes as implacable adversaries, even if their overall goals overlap. Progressives, hearing little concern for the oppressed, see conservatives and libertarians as oppressors. Conservatives, hearing little concern for traditional civilization, see progressives and libertarians as granting license to barbarism. And libertarians, hearing little concern for individual liberty, see progressives and conservatives as siding with a coercive state. In each case, the other tribes seem indifferent to—if not openly welcoming of—the downfall of civilization. Only by peering beyond the confines of their respective axes can people appreciate that other tribes, though they emphasize different concerns, are not necessarily enemies.

Arnold Kling (YouTube)

Yet few people ever seriously consider axes other than their own. Instead, they implicitly assume that political opinions are akin to mathematical proofs—that is, they should be derived from as few axioms as possible. For instance, a libertarian might take the axiom that free choice is best, and apply it to the world at large. But upon reflection, it’s obvious that the political realm cannot be understood by employing just one axis. Politics is many steps removed from mathematics, involving complex economic, social, emotional, and moral concerns. What works well in one context could fail miserably in another. Therefore, if we hope to have a well-rounded outlook, we must become comfortable inhabiting each of the three axes.

Kling draws upon specific examples to underscore the importance of this flexibility. At different historical junctures, one or the other axis has provided a superior way to frame noteworthy issues. During the American civil rights movement, the oppressor–oppressed axis was best; those who stood up for equal-rights legislation for African Americans were clearly in the right, whereas many libertarians and conservatives approved of the right to discriminate and acquiesced to Jim Crow.

From the 1960s to the 1990s, many Western democracies were beset with rising crime rates. In dealing with this explosion of crime, the civilization–barbarism axis proved most effective. Many experts, operating along the oppressor–oppressed axis, claimed that violent crime could not be reduced without first uprooting racism, poverty, and inequality. But, as Steven Pinker pointed out in The Better Angels of Our Nature, during the 1990s, crime rates were reeled in with the help of a greatly expanded police presence—a conservative solution, if ever there was one.

Unfortunately, this reduction in crime rates has led to a surge in over-incarceration. Many Americans are serving sentences for nonviolent drug offences, and countless others carry criminal records for mere possession. As we reassess our attitudes towards draconian drug laws, we’re increasingly turning to the liberty-coercion axis. When it comes to the victimless crime of drug use, the libertarian approach may be the most enlightened.

As these examples show, no single axis fits all issues. Unless we can cycle through each one, we’ll almost certainly be on the wrong side of history, at least some of the time. To have constructive conversations, we must first speak the same language. This means that in the political sphere, we must appreciate the axis that frames each tribe’s conversation. Until we do so, our lack of understanding is liable to morph into frustration, which primes us for undue anger and contempt.

By understanding the merit in each axis, we make room for a more congenial—and productive—discourse. As Kling writes at the end of The Three Languages of Politics, “treating people who use other heuristics [ie. axes] as reasonable is likely to prove a less stressful and more productive way of approaching politics than treating the other heuristics as heresies that must be stamped out.” Compared to today’s Balkanized political arena, Kling’s prescription would make for a much healthier politics.


Tristan Flock is an engineering student and writer with a BSc and a JD. You can follow him on Twitter @tbonesbeard


  1. NickG says

    The graphic at the top is silly; the red and blue figures are not vomiting bullets, they are vomiting complete cartridges.

    • JesseC says

      @NickG They’re Australian sir, give them a break. Nice article, I think anything that’s well intentioned and can bring people to stop thinking in binary will be helpful.

  2. Skip says

    Good article, but how do we get folks to think along a different axis when they have a strong penchant for confirmation bias and lots of reinforcing media choices?

    • Nick says

      This was my thought exactly. The article did a good job illustrating the axes of all 3 viewpoints. I believe that understanding the other sides is a good foundation.

  3. I’m not actually impressed with this article. Lets posit that there are three languages, so what?

    Unless a political order can sustain itself, that is, survive, then all the political discussion in the world doesn’t matter because everyone in leadership is going to be replaced by Bolsheviks or Nazis or some other revolutionaries, who aren’t going to allow political discussions.

    Political policies have consequences, and the consequences either promote national survival, or national dissolution. Likewise, political institutions either bend in the direction of survival, or they block necessary reforms and the leadership ultimately “loses their heads”. [Obviously, different opinions are possible over which direction policies are taking us.] In the long term, everything else is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how much personal freedom you have or how much you are liberated from oppression if the bottom falls out and the Pol Pot or Hitler takes the helm.

    If we posit truth as unchanging, then we would say that the political order with the greatest ability to constructively adapt would best exemplify truth. Further, those seeking to bracket out the question of truth, or the meta-questions of survival of the social order are not making a constructive contribution to the discussion.

    • Well said, KD. In addition, just where do the Bolsheviks and Nazis fit into this “three language” hypothesis?

      At one time or another totalitarians claim – often in good faith – all three of Kling’s perspectives. They claim to be liberating people from coercion, fighting oppressors, defending traditional values (Marx himself said this, e.g. when attacking bourgeois conceptions of family and property).

      Yes, we could all benefit from trying to understand each other’s perspective from the inside. But as the old saying goes, there are two reasons people go to war with each other: they don’t understand each other, or they understand each other all too well.

  4. John McCormick says

    Excellent. If there is any hope that we will be able to talk with (instead of at) each other without the dogma and drama, it is unpretentious little commentaries like this that alert us to our natural tendency to use speech as a tool of tribalism.

  5. Peter from Oz says

    This anaysis might be of some use in the American context, but not in the other Anglosphere countries where the libertarian strand is weaker, the conservatives are blend of tories and liberals (Canada being an exception) and the workers parties used to be socialist.
    Anyone with any political sensibility at all knows that the language, or more properly, the focus of each of the three main political archetypes is on a different set of concerns. The trick is to demonstrate which focus is more important.
    The mistake that we all make is thinking that someone else is a fool or a knave for not concentrating on what we think is important. Leftists cannot understand that we on the right deplore discrimination on the grounds of race. But we do not think that true racism is such a problem as the left does. The left thus thinks the right must be full of racists. They then strat seeing racism in everything. And the the disconnect arises from there. I’m sure that we on the right do the same thing in relation to things we are more focused upon, like freedom of speech and self reilance , etc.

  6. Rob G says

    One could argue for additional dimensions of analysis when it comes to crime – for example a 2011 UN backed study by the California State University suggested “Ridding the world of leaded petrol, with the United Nations leading the effort in developing countries, has resulted in $2.4 trillion in annual benefits, 1.2 million fewer premature deaths, higher overall intelligence and 58 million fewer crimes.” All with nary a policeman or tax rise in sight.

  7. neoteny says

    Left-wingers prefer the welfare state while right-wingers prefer the free market.

    So far so good.

    Move too far left and you’re a communist, too far right and you’re a fascist.

    Fascists aren’t radical proponents of the free market; they prefer corporatist schemes, which are fundamentally incompatible with the free market.

    • Skip says


      Free markets are a myth inasmuch as they require a level playing field of accurate, complete information and of economic power among all parties concerned. When has that ever happened, at least for any meaningful length of time? Capitalism is good because it leverages man’s inherent cupidity, but an unregulated system based on this potentially malignant attribute is not likely to deliver a balanced, stable society.

      • Just Me says


        which is why the best society is one with a balance between free market capitalism and welfare state, which is what most western countries, including the Scandinavian ones, have today.

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  9. So, instead of two tribes squabbling over who is right, Kling suggests we need to have (or actually do have) three. It seems to me the author might be replacing one simplistic idea with another.

    Essentially, a triangle instead of a line. That’s a great image for tribalism at its worst—and getting worser. Without the benefit of having read the book, it seems to me that Kling is sending everyone into their corners.

    It’s difficult for any one of us to consider another point of view when we’re already entrenched in our own. If we’re all cornered in these extreme points of view, as Kling seems to have it, the more likely outcome is that we’ll only come out of our corners to protect our corner. Instead of one firing line (right-left), we’ll have three.

    Whatever happened to the centre? Does anybody even know how to keep three or four ideas in mind at the same time? I’d like to join the no-tribe tribe, the non-labellist party, the one in the middle, where most of us are huddled trying to keep safe while the extreme, simplistic points of view battle it out. The problem right now is that we don’t know who or what will be left standing if we can’t figure out how to bring the conversation back to the middle where most of us live.

    It’s time for those of us who occupy the middle to reclaim the political space. I like how the conversation is going at Quillette. I’m happy to help keep it going!

    • Just Me says

      Well said. We need a strong Moderate Middle keeping the extremists on all sides at bay.

    • Do you suppose that there is a middle space for an opinion?

      It could be that every individual opinion can be characterized into a dimension on the axis discussed, and, because we believe in this theory that only a single opinion can reign supreme over all other opinions in a way similar to the subjective theory of value, every dominant opinion is singular and therefore polarized. In this theory, a middle ground doesn’t exist for an individual opinion, but a middle ground would be possible for the entirety of a person’s political opinions formed from a multi-faceted ( or in this case, multi-axis ) analysis of different problems requiring different opinions and coming to conclusions based upon different axis.

      My first thought here is that the Single Opinion, Diverse Politics doesn’t obviously account for a moderate, or as I would understand it, restrained opinion. Basically, it doesn’t portray the forcefulness of faith with which the person believes in their own conclusion instead simply stating that only one opinion can be believed as true. And, while it is logical to conclude that there is only one dominant opinion because only one opinion can be acted out at any time, like betting on a baseball game, I don’t have to bet everything ( or for that matter, anything at all ) on a team even if I think they will win.

      ( I felt really stupid after writing this reply. If anyone can figure out why, please reply. )

  10. Good article and I’ll have to look into Kling. A few points – perhaps splitting hairs but relative to the subject either Lenin/Stalinist Russia, Mao’s China, or Polpot’s Cambodia are by far better examples of the depths of horror totalitarian rule can take because they were not divided among ethnic lines but pure ideology. Another is the over reaching of police on the streets creating unnecessary arrests (drugs), only because the drug issue was a separate issue with a separate policy. The original policy, sometimes referred to as the ‘broken window’ theory (I think) works and did so.

    Other than that, we’re missing a proper education regarding political theory at earlier education levels that explains who/what we are as humans and how we’re in a society. AND what that actually means. History is the other and it’s taught but clearly not well because no one sane should be considering any kind of ‘socialist’ type political methodology in a serious way. The damage it has wrought on humanity is disgusting.

  11. Alex Byrd says

    Congratulations to the folks at quillette. In my opinion you are making way for a new era of intellectuals.

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