The Three Languages of Politics

Like many of you, I feel frustrated at the polarization of politics today.  Some of this polarization comes with the territory of democracy, but some of it I feel results from failures in technique and imagination.

Classical rhetoricians used the term “stasis” to refer to the situation in an argument where both sides argue about the same thing.  If an issue did not achieve “stasis” the argument would get nowhere because the rhetorical ships would pass in the night.

For example, you may have observed this lack of stasis in the abortion debate, where the sides argue in circles similar to this example:

  • Pro-Life – Governments should protect those who cannot protect themselves.  They should give a voice to those without a voice.   Governments must stand for the defense of innocent lives if we want to call ourselves civilized.
  • Pro-Choice – Decisions about our families and our futures are some of the most private and personal decisions one can make.  If we wish to avoid any tendency towards a totalitarian regime, we must keep government out of our most private decisions.

Both sides of the abortion debate could hypothetically agree with both statements in different contexts, thus, an argument with these two premises would spin its wheels.  Ironically, most on the “Pro-Life” side are conservatives, but the argument used above has a distinctly Progressive tinge.  Most “Pro-Choice” advocates might usually reside in the Progressive wing of politics, but when they use arguments like the one above they sound just like Libertarians.

I would suggest a Pro-Life argument that went something like. . .

In general, governments have no business making decisions about our bodies.  What we wear, what we eat, whether or not to get a tattoo–no one who values a free society would want government involved in such things.

However, we do give governments the power to make decisions about our bodies when our actions pose a threat to others.  We ban drinking and driving.  We ban the use of various drugs.  These kinds of laws have a good purpose because they protect innocent lives.  If we protect citizens against drunk drivers, how much more should we protect the unborn?

This is just one possible example of stasis on this issue, though no doubt many better ones exist.  Please feel free to share whatever examples you might have.

In his book The Three Languages of Politics author Arnold Kling addresses the problem of a lack of stasis in our political debate and points to one reason for this.  He argues that we speak three different kinds of political language currently, each with its own vocabulary and coded language.  One goal for the book is to expose others to these three different languages and and make us aware of the various worldviews these languages represent.

I mentioned earlier that a failure of stasis in debate can be traced in part to a failure of imagination, and this leads to Kilng’s second main goal.  To achieve stasis we have to learn to use the languages of those we disagree with, and have to enter into their worlds in order to do so.  This does not mean that we abandon our convictions, but it will mean that we reframe in different modes of thought with different emphasis.  This requires a willingness at times to fall down a rabbit hole, but you will actually have a chance of talking to people rather than at them.  Granted, this won’t bring the NRA and NOW to the hallowed halls of Shambala, but it might start something.

Kling starts his book with a quiz designed to help one to discover their own political language, something like a political personality test.  Some of the questions are Kling’s, some are mine.  Of course you may not like either of the three options offered, or may want to combine answers to create a hybrid.  For the purposes of the exercise, however, circle just one letter for each question.

To score the quiz, make three sections on a piece of paper, labeled “P,” “C,” and “L” and follow the guidelines below when you are done.

Gun violence at schools primarily reveals

A. The need for teachers to be armed to fight back.

B. The need for society to have more control over the mentally ill.

C. The need to curtail the power of the gun lobby.

2. If I were honest about myself, the kind of political ad that would appeal to me most would include

A. Pictures of farms, flags, and hallowed documents like the Constitution.

B. Scenes of ordinary Americans from all walks of life working together.

C. A statement about our financial status and clear plan to help reduce spending.

3. During the 1940’s many ordinary Germans committed atrocities against Jews.  This shows us

A. The dangers of a totalitarian system of government

B. The dangers of a collapse of moral values when a country’s institutions have been corrupted and compromised

C. The dangers of anti-Semitism

4. When the issue of tax law comes up, what question is most important?

A. How will the laws impact and reward people get for hard work and thrift?

B. Does government spend money more or less wisely than individuals?

C. How will changes in law impact the growing gap of inequality?

5. What is notable about the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is that

A. Israelis share many of the same values as Americans

B. The Palestinians are an oppressed people

C. Israel, the Palestinians, other Arab and western governments, all share blame for this tragedy.

6. The wave of mortgage defaults known as the “sub-prime crisis” was caused by mortgage loans that were

A. Given to unqualified and undeserving borrowers

B. Government induced

C. Predatory

7. The large number of unwed mothers with low income reflects that

A. Lack of economic opportunities and education

B. Cultural decay, which overvalues sexual gratification and undervalues marital responsibility

C. Incentives built into our tax and welfare system that can reward bad behavior

8. Since 9/11, Presidents have used controversial powers, such as warrantless surveillance and targeted killings.  What do you think of the use of these powers?

A. Because Islamic terrorism is such a difficult and dangerous problem, I support the use of these powers to protect Americans.

B. I am against the use of these powers on principle.

C. I am not sure about these powers, but I am willing to trust the Obama administration more than the Bush administration on the exercise of them.

9. When teaching the history of the United States, the most important goal should be

A. To have the student develop an appreciation for all that makes America great, especially by focusing on the leadership of people like George Washington, Teddy Roosevelt, and Ronald Reagan.

B. To have the student realize that our country is far from perfect, and has abused the rights of minorities in numerous ways.  We show our greatness as nation most clearly by reforming ourselves and remedying our past mistakes.

C. To have the student appreciate the vital role of American individualism and self-reliance in making our country free and prosperous.

10. If I was visiting the Mall downtown, the most important place to go would be

A. The Capitol, where the representatives of ordinary citizens sit and debate.

B. The Washington, Lincoln, and Jefferson Memorials

C. I wouldn’t want to visit at all.  With its hallowed halls and marble monuments, the Mall downtown encourages a dangerous reverence for government.

11. Which most accurately describes your view of the Press?

A. The Press often functions as an enemy of our civilization, as it artificially makes the margins of society “mainstream” with a distinct liberal bias.

B. The Press works best when it serves as a tool to keep government in check by exposing corruption and abuse of power.

C. The Press works best when it finds societies problems and puts them into public view, thereby giving the organs of representative government a chance to fix the problem.

12.  Of the following, who was the best president?

A. Theodore Roosevelt

B. Calvin Coolidge

C. Ronald Reagan

13. Which most accurately describes your feelings about free markets?

A. Government intervention in the market is counter-productive every time.  The market, unregulated, is one of the best tools of freedom we have.

B. Some form of free market must exist, but government should intervene to minimize the aspects of the market that exploit the poor and create vast gaps in equality.

C. The free market is in general a great tool for a free society, but government should strongly regulate/ban certain items from being sold, like drugs, pornography, and other socially/morally disruptive products.

14. Which most accurately describe your feelings about the War on Drugs?

A. The War on Drugs has failed most notably in that most of those in jail are the poor and underprivileged of society.  Whatever our original aims may have been, the War on Drugs has done little besides incarcerating poor minorities for a host of minor offenses.

B. The War on Drugs has been in some instances a war on what should be personal freedom, and at times it has also been a misguided attempt to enforce purely cultural mores.  It has also costs billions of dollars with little to show for it.

C. The War on Drugs has not had the success we hoped for, but it remains a noble fight with a noble cause.  Drugs ravage lives and communities everywhere, and government rightly acts to try and stop their scourge.

15. Which Most Accurately Describes You?

A. My heroes are people who have stood up for underprivileged and oppressed people.  The people I cannot stand are those who seem to care nothing for the rights of average citizens as opposed to the privileged few, or ethnic and religious minorities.

B. My heroes are people who have stood up for Western values and the beneficial civilizations these values  help create. The people I cannot stand are those who don’t mind, or even encourage, the wanton assault on the traditional values that have made this country great.

C. My heroes are those who have stood up for the right of individuals to make their own choices.  The people I cannot stand are those who want the government to impose their value system on others.

  1. The best thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His presidency will shift power away from coastal elites and towards the values and practices of mainstream Americans.

B. He will shine light on the “forgotten” blue collar worker, many of whom have lost jobs due to a globalization process that has moved way too fast.

C. He will “get things done” and help make our government more efficient and lean by getting around the “red tape” of bureaucracy.

The worst thing about a Trump presidency (whether you like him or not, or think he is a good president or not) is likely to be

A. His inflammatory rhetoric and possible racist leanings will hurt immigrants and other minorities, endangering decades of social progress.

B. He will erode the governmental institutions we rely on for a peaceful society, and become a “one man show,” extending the power of the executive branch and growing the reach of government.

C. He is a New York real-estate and tv personality–he focuses only on the bottom line and cares nothing for the values that have made America great.

Question 1

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 2

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 3

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 4

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 5

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ”L” column

Question 6

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 7

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 8

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 9

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 10

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 11

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘P’ column

Question 12

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 13

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 14

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘L’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘C’ column

Question 15

  • If you checked A put a mark in the ‘P’ column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the ‘C’ column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the ‘L’ column

Question 16

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “C” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “L” column

Question 17

  • If you checked A put a mark in the “P” column
  • If you checked B put a mark in the “L” column
  • If you checked C put a mark in the “C” column

“P” stands in this case for “Progressives,” who tend to see the world along an axis of oppressor/oppressed.

“C” stands for “Conservatives,” or “Civilizers” who put primary focus on good vs. evil, or civilization vs. barbarism.

“L” stands for “Libertarian” who emphasize individual rights and freedoms apart from group/government coercion.

In the interest of full disclosure, I score out this way:

Progressive/2, Conservative/10, Libertarian/5

Chances are that your score mixes the three categories in some fashion, and this in itself will help us recognize the limitations of our own particular perspective.  The Progressive, Conservative, and Libertarian axis are all finite and cannot be our main guide on every question.  Kling cites a few examples to this effect.  Libertarians like Goldwater opposed Civil Rights legislation on the grounds that it would give more power to the federal government and upset the balance of federalism.  They were not wrong about this per se, but wrong in their priorities.  The Libertarian axis (Kling’s own personal bias, as he tells us) did not have the proper framework to deal with that issue.  Some Southern “Conservatives” (be they Republican or otherwise) rejected integration for terribly misguided fears about what would happen to their “civilization.” For the sake of fairness, Kling rejects the Progressive explanation for the sub-prime crisis.  The oppressor/oppressed axis has its own limitations.  The strong “Conservatism” of Churchill served him just as poorly in dealing with India as it served him well in dealing with Hitler.

It is this concept of the finite nature of our political vision that is the most valuable takeaway for me.  Every Christian I know would admit to some degree of mystery and incompleteness about their knowledge of God and the Faith.  Yet we do not always apply that same sense of humility to our political ideologies, and we usually get no help from the media with this.  It may be humility, more than anything, that can salvage our broken political discourse.

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