The Three Languages of Politics with Arnold Kling

Bill WaltonPodcast, Politics

If you wander into the minefield known as the “political comment” section on any social media platform, you enter immediately into the world of shrill personal attack.   

 Many of you, even in real life, outside the haunting glow of your smartphone screens, are finding that this type of conversation is also happening in your day to day life. And sometimes it’s happening with people that you love.   

Well, there is a way for you to understand these minefields, and even preserve your relationships with people you love, even if they don’t share your political views. Here’s how. 

Arnold Kling stopped by to talk with me on The Bill Walton Show about his book, The Three Languages of Politics. His view is that “politically aware Americans seem to split into three tribes, and those tribes use the skills of cooperation not to work with each other, but instead to mobilize against each other.” 

They’ve sorted themselves into “three tribal coalitions—progressive, conservative, and libertarian. Progressives assert a moral superiority over conservatives and libertarians. Conservatives assert a moral superiority over libertarians and progressives. And libertarians assert a moral superiority over progressives and conservatives.” Not exactly a recipe for comity. 

“Progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are like tribes speaking different languages. The language that resonates with one tribe does not connect with the others. As a result, political discussions do not lead to agreement. Instead, most political commentary serves to increase polarization,” he explains. 

Conservative language values civilization.  What preserves law and order?  What preserves the virtues of western civilization?   

The progressive language focuses on the relationship between oppressor and oppressed.  It takes the side of the oppressed, and looks for ways to limit the power of the oppressor, while increasing the power of the oppressed.   

Libertarian language frames political realities around the individual.  What increases the ability of the individual to live the life they want to live?  They measure everything on a scale of coercion.  If I’m not coercing you, you shouldn’t coerce me, not even with laws. 

We talked about NFL players taking a knee during the national anthem and how each language interpreted these protests. 

Progressives see black people as being oppressed, and take their side. 

For conservatives, players rejecting the National Anthem and the Flag -the symbols of American civilization – is barbarian.  Whatever the players’ reason for protesting, they’re siding with civilization. 

Libertarians have no problem with players expressing themselves by taking a knee. But they also believe that owners can try to compel them to stop, or even fire the players, if they so choose. It’s a matter of individual conscience. 

The first step towards healthier political discussion is understanding the language of the three tribes. Arnold explains that “to recognize the language of coalition mobilization means we can resist being seduced by that language.” 

Understanding your own tribe’s rhetoric and the other side’s is the first step to having a constructive conversation, rather than a minefield conversation. 

We also talked about Thinking, Fast and Slow, a book by psychologist Daniel Kahneman that describes two ways that humans process information. One way is a fast process that is intuitive and instinctive, and the other is a slow process that is more deliberate and careful. 

Arnold wisely advises, “if you are feeling emotional about something, the smart thing is not to fire off a response but to wait.” When Arnold writes blogs, he holds off hitting the send button for a couple of days, giving him time to think things through. 

Sometimes, maybe always, the best thing to do when the mines start exploding, is to walk away, and say “let me think about this and get back to you.” 

Arnold is brimming with such wise advice. I hope you will join us to listen in on the conversation. 

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