The Three Languages of Politics

The Three Languages of Politics, by Steve Grossi, from June 2015.

Economist Arnold Kling attempts to explain the polarization definitive of the current era in American politics — a polarization so acute that opponents see each other as not simply misguided but insane.

Kling’s hypothesis is that opposing camps judge the world according to perpendicular standards, by which each side might view a given reality and interpret it in an internally consistent way that nonetheless seems incomprehensible, or at least irrelevant, to the others. And the political language we use assumes — even imposes — these standards in a way we rarely realize.

Kling draws on the important distinction between constructive and motivated reasoning. Constructive reasoning is when you impartially gather facts and weight arguments to arrive at a position on an issue. Motivated reasoning is when you already know or have been told your position prior to the facts, and pick and choose your facts and arguments to selectively reinforce that opinion. Kling’s thesis is that the political language used by different political groups encourages motivated, rather than constructive reasoning. …

Kling identifies axes of interpretation for the three dominant strains of political affiliation in America today:

  • For liberals, it’s the oppressor vs. oppressed axis. They’re most interested in identifying who is abusing power (bonus points if it’s undeserved), and who are the victims of that abuse.
  • Conservatives align along the civilization vs. barbarism axis. They seek to identify who is defending what our forebears built, and who are the rebels trying to tear it down.
  • And for libertarians, it’s about freedom vs. coercion. In other words, who is being forced to do what they’d rather not, or being prevented from doing what they’d like, by whom.

If you identify as one of those groups, Kling argues, your tend to frame issues in terms of your preferred axis.

An example:

Take for example the legalization of marijuana. I can imagine a kind of dialogue:

  • Liberal: The government’s War on Drugs has devastated urban poor communities. This is clearly an issue of oppression, and and if you disagree you must just be okay with oppression.
  • Conservative: I don’t know what you’re talking about. This is clearly an issue about maintaining order, and if you disagree then you’re arguing for anarchy.
  • Libertarian: You’re both wrong! This is about defending one’s sacred freedom to smoke whatever one likes as long as it’s not hurting anyone else. If you disagree, you must hate freedom.

The effects:

Of course, this hardly counts as dialogue. Immediately framing issues in our preferred terms has some poisonous effects on the debate, as we can see:

  • It locks us into a frame of reference, preventing us from seeing things from our opponents’ point of view, and locks them out of seeing things from ours.
  • It causes us to see our opponents in the least favorable light, with no relation to how they actually see themselves.
  • It lets us feel victimized, because our opponents refuse to speak in the language we’ve decided to use.
  • It lets us feel morally superior, because our language presupposes a value system that our opponents don’t subscribe to.

hat-tip Matthew