Three languages of politics

Arnold Kling’s The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides is a short introduction to the reality of “three axes” in American political life and the problem with trying to heal the culture before confronting the moral concerns of each axis. Tristan Flock writes:

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. …

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.

I think Kling presents a good tactical basis for healing some of the political and social wounds in our culture, simply from a standpoint of learning how to better and more meaningfully communicate across different lines and ways of thinking. This doesn’t strike me as a good strategic basis for political engagement, because it doesn’t directly address questions of telos and virtue and meaning in everyday life, and I suspect those implicit questions are what drive people into different axes in the first place.