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