The Three Languages of Politics

June 15, 2014

The language we use to talk about politics works unconsciously to make up our minds for us.

Three Languages is a short read expounding just one key idea, and yet it’s one that’s changed the way I’ll think, and especially talk, about politics. Within its pages, 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.

The Axes

The idea that different political groups are speaking past each other—in different languages, even—isn’t a new one. What’s refreshing in Three Languages is that the author actually tries to identify what those languages are. However, Kling prefers to call them “axes,” bringing to mind the image of a Cartesian coordinate system with its X, Y, and Z axes which all count the same numbers but never intersect except at the origin. Kling identifies axes of interpretation for the three dominant strains of political affiliation in America today:

(It’s easy to get hung up on the language. After all, Libertarians may feel “oppressed” by taxes just as liberals may find a lack of universal healthcare “barbaric,” and conservatives may never actually use the term “barbarism.” But Kling’s point is more about the values behind how we choose sides, rather than the terms we use to describe them.)

Their Effects

If you identify as one of those groups, Kling argues, your tend to frame issues in terms of your preferred axis. Take for example the legalization of marijuana. I can imagine a kind of dialogue:

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:

Now, the author isn’t arguing that we’re capable of viewing issues only on our preferred terms. But there are several reasons why we so often fall into this trap:

Consider three goals that a political pundit might have. One goal is to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on your own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on your own side. Nearly all of the punditry that appears in the various media today serves only the third goal.

The Solution

So, how can we get beyond this? Kling’s prescription is simple: resist arguing in terms of your preferred axis, and learn to see things along the other axes:

What learning the other languages can do is enable you to understand how others think about political issues without having to resort to the theory that they are crazy or stupid or evil.

And, at all costs, reject the hypocritical impulse to see others as unreasonable:

One of my prescriptions for constructive reasoning is to try to avoid telling yourself, “I’m reasonable, they’re not.” Instead, I would suggest the following rule of thumb. The only person you are qualified to pronounce unreasonable is yourself.