John’s Book Review: The Three Languages of Politics

October, 2022 | What John's Up To

I recently finished reading The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides by Arnold Kling. This is a short book at only 155 pages, but very much worth reading. 

Kling’s analysis shows that the three primary political philosophies in America today—Conservative, Progressive, and Libertarian—don’t communicate well with each other because they all use very different frameworks for interpreting what is happening in the world. Conservatives tend to see the world through the framework of Civilization versus Barbarism, progressives tend to see the world through the framework of Oppressors versus the Oppressed, and Libertarians tend to see the world through the framework of Liberty versus Coercion.  

Let’s give an example of how the different frameworks might interpret the Antifa protests in Portland and other American cities in the summer of 2020: 

For a Conservative, these protests were often seen as riots instead of peaceful protests as mainstream media frequently characterized them. Attacking the police, robbing retail stores, taking over city blocks and calling them “autonomous zones,” and burning down buildings were seen as barbarous acts of violence that were eroding the foundations that hold civilization together. In contrast to the Conservative interpretation, the Progressive framework saw many of these protests as legitimate acts by people who have been oppressed. They involved people championing social and environmental issues worthy of the public’s attention. This perspective believes that minor violence was completely justified by the fact that so much previous violence was inflicted on the oppressed by those in power—the oppressors—that a little bit of payback is no big deal. From the Libertarian framework, people are totally justified in peacefully protesting for whatever they believe, but they are not justified in inflicting violence against anyone else or their property. Libertarians often like to say that people are free to do whatever they want, so long as they don’t hurt anyone else while doing it…“anything that is peaceful” is permitted. 

Of course, few people exist only in one framework all the time. I know I certainly don’t. We are more complex than this and are capable of using multiple frameworks. This is one of Kling’s most important points. If we want to communicate better with people from different frameworks, it is essential that we are able to understand where they are coming from and be able to speak in a common language that they will also be able to understand. Otherwise, we are just talking past one another, and we move from trigger to trigger to trigger making productive conversation very unlikely. Kling’s book helps us evolve and improve our communication skills with people who see the world in a different way than we do.  

It can be uncomfortable at times, but the ability to openly engage in constructive dialogue – the kind that can influence our own views and the views of others – is a core element of what it means to live in a healthy democracy. In an era where there is so much anger, contempt, and hatred, making the effort to understand what political framework someone else is coming from and communicating with them in a language that they understand seems like a skill very much worth developing. I know that I’m trying to develop this skill and I hope you are too.