In The Three Languages of Politics, MIT-educated libertarian Dr. Kling observes that Americans are becoming more and more polarized politically and socially, and that demonization of those who disagree is common. Rather than talking with each other, we are talking past each other. We do this because our primary concerns are often certainty, proving our role in our own political tribe, and downplaying the legitimacy of other positions. We are closing minds instead of opening them.
Kling argues that to improve discourse, our goal should not be to change minds, but to have open minds and to reason with others and open their minds. To do so, we need to understand the three major political tribes and become conversant in each tribes’ language. Kling added a fourth tribe after the 2016 election.
- Progressive. Language is centered on oppressed vs. oppressors. The highest goal is to side with the oppressed.
- Conservative. Language is centered on civilization vs. barbarism. The highest goal is to protect civilization and its institutions from moral decline.
- Libertarian. Language is centered on liberty vs. coercion. The highest goal is to protect everyone’s ability to freely choose how to live.
- Populist. Language is centered on outsiders vs. insiders. The highest goal is to protect average people from the cosmopolitan elite, be they progressive, conservative, or libertarian.
Tribalism is at heart of much of Kling’s book. He argues that it is innate in humans to desire to belong to be accepted in a group. We identify with and try to become accepted to the political tribes by signaling identification in the group through language that supports the tribe and denigrates others outside the tribe.
Part of the reason that we are so politically divided is that we do not understand the other tribes’ language. Progressives view conservatives as heartless because they side with oppressors. Conservatives view progressives as actively working to destroy timeless institutions of society such as religion and family.
Rather than take this view, Kling advocates for seeing others as reasonable and rational. While we may disagree with other tribes’ frames, they are rational. We can utilize others’ language to explain our positions and interest and not treat those who hold different views as enemies.
Civil discussion becomes possible when we are politically multilingual, which should decrease polarization and demonization and increase productive discourse and understanding.