The Three Languages of Politics

Talking Across the Political Divides

[Amazon Link]

I quite enjoyed Arnold Kling's "re-introduction" book about economics, Specialization and Trade earlier this year. When I noticed this book was available in an updated version (and, better yet, e-book versions available for free), I was in. Like Specialization and Trade, it's short but powerful.

It's about the nature of political disagreement, which, when you come to think of it, is damned odd. We humans confront the same facts about reality, with more or less the same brains, and yet come to no agreement on the best course of collective action (or inaction). Or, specifically, our agreement is limited to the fellow members of our political "tribe". Our efforts at convincing different-thinkers are nearly always in vain. Each tribe is convinced of its own moral superiority.

It's all fun and games until someone brings a rifle to softball practice.

Kling considers the three major political tribes of American politics: Progressives, Conservatives, and Libertarians. He argues that, although they are ostensibly all speaking English, they're actually talking in mutually incomprehensible languages, starting from different "dominant heuristics". Your dominant heuristic governs how any particular situation or fact is perceived, measured against your one-dimensional scale (or, as Klein says, "axis") of political value.

Specifically, Libertarians measure along the coercion-liberty axis. Progressives measure along the oppressor-oppressed axis. Conservatives measure along the barbarism-civilization axis.

So (for example), the health care issue. Libertarians despise Obamacare because it reflects unacceptable coercion in its taxes, mandates, forced subsidies, and increased regulation. Conservatives hate it because it erodes the civilizational pillars of responsibility and prudence. Progressives think that it's great, since it helps an "oppressed" class, those not rich or fortunate enough to have insurance.

For this new edition, Kling analyzes the Trump phenomenon, something neither he nor just about anyone else saw coming a few years back. He speculates that Trumpkins might be speaking a fourth language, measuring their facts against a "bourgeois bohemian" ("bobo") axis. You're either a sophisticated bobo ("more comfortable in Prague than Peoria") or a salt-of-the-earth other-countries-suck American.

Not that I've thought about it much, but I think adding a fourth axis isn't that necessary. Trump appeals to the white working class in Progressive oppressor/oppressed language, urging that they see themselves as oppressed. At the same time, he appeals to the Conservative civilization/barbarism axis. Yes, this appeal falls on a lot of deaf ears in both camps. But it's still there.

As it happens, I was reading this book when there was a lot of discussion of Trump's "Western Civilization" speech in Warsaw. It was an unfiltered and (mostly) eloquent appeal to the Conservative civilization/barbarism axis, and (unsuprisingly, and correctly) the Conservatives unanimously cheered the speech. On his blog, Kling noticed this as well. As I said in a comment there: it's almost as if he assigned me homework.

Equally as predictable, Progressives reacted with shock and horror to the speech. The WaPo's Jonathan Capehart could hear nothing in the Western Civ defense except for (oppressor/oppressed) "white-nationalist dog whistles". The American Conservative's Rod Dreher catalogs a number of other Progressive reactions and concludes: "yes, they really do despise their civilization". You couldn't ask for a better demonstration of Kling's thesis.

As I said, it's a short book, but that's because Kling doesn't blather a lot. There's a lot of concentrated food for thought here. He urges us to at least try to understand (if not agree with) where our political opponents are coming from. One intriguing chapter is devoted to the "Ideological Turing Test": could you make an argument as if you were a member of an opposing tribe, in such a way that you could convince members of that tribe that you were "one of them"?