Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: The Three Languages Of Politics

Convention has it that there are two major political parties in America: The Evil Party and The Stupid Party. Now comes Arnold Kling to tell us convention is wrong.

Mr. Kling's goal, in his short e-book, is to enhance conversation among people of different political opinions. Too often, we write off our opponents as either stupid or evil because they appear not to understand even simple political or economic facts. Kling proposes a framework that will at least let us talk to each other, even if we never reach agreement.

Given this blog's purpose to serve both Trotskyists and Republicans at the same time, Kling's topic is of great interest to me. This isn't just talking across the aisle--I'm trying to talk across the class line. So if Mr. Kling has some advice for how to pull off that trick, I'm all ears. It is so easy for Republicans to dismiss Trotskyists as "stupid." Indeed, in this blog's first incarnation I routinely referred to the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) as the Stupid Workers Party. And I know from my time in the SWP that comrades see Republicans as intrinsically evil (think Richard Nixon).

Now I've set some ground rules for myself--nobody is going to listen to me if I just insult them. Hence I take Trotskyism seriously--I do not believe that comrades are mentally ill, or members of a cult. But Mr. Kling offers some insight beyond rules for civil discourse, and they're worth paying attention to.

Kling suggests that there are three political ideologies in America, which he roughly labels as Progressive, Conservative and Libertarian. These three groups use different languages--that Kling calls heuristics--and from this he derives a three-axis model. Progressives organize ideas around an oppressor/oppressed axis. Hence they are primarily interested in social justice, and in righting historical wrongs. Conservatives think in terms of a civilization/barbarism axis. Accordingly they emphasize stable institutions (church, family, law), and tend to resist sudden changes. Finally, Libertarians orient according to a freedom/coercion axis. They're worried about big government, too much taxation, gun control, and too much environmental regulation.

Mr. Kling provides a nine-point quiz that will roughly place you somewhere within this space. His test correctly puts me half way between the Libertarian and Conservative axes. Accordingly, I could never vote for Ron Paul, but I'm also somewhat uncomfortable with true conservatives such as Rick Santorum or Mike Huckabee. Herman Cain's message really resonated with me. I'm a Republican, though one that leans toward the Libertarian end.

Mr. Kling points out that some languages are more suitable for some topics than others. His examples include the civil rights movement, where the Progressive heuristic looks to work best. Blacks really were oppressed, and defining the struggle as oppressed vs. oppressor was accurate. Compare that with the Libertarian response: Goldwater thought that any equal accommodations law was an unjustified infringement on individual freedom. Private business should be able to discriminate if they want to. Needless to say, Libertarians didn't get very far with that argument.

Conversely, on economic issues Libertarians usually win. That economic freedom enhances well-being is an almost indisputable fact, and casting economic policy along the freedom/coercion axis will lead to a richer society.

Trotskyists align very much along the progressive axis. The difference between oppressor and oppressed widens into the unbridgeable class line. The Marxist meme is we're poor because the rich people stole all the money, which is as progressive a phrase as one could possibly have.

Mr. Kling quotes Stephen Covey: "seek first to understand, then to be understood." Since Trotskyists are mostly concerned with social justice, they are unlikely to be persuaded by any rising tide lifts all boats argument. Efficiency, for them, is not important. Equality in outcomes is essential. We do not have to agree with them (I don't), but before we can talk to them we need to know where they are coming from. With that understanding, they will neither seem evil nor stupid. They're still wrong.

So far, so good. The second half of Mr. Kling's book is less satisfying. He distinguishes between motivated reasoning and constructive reasoning. Motivated reasoning is what most humans do most of the time: that is, we try to marshal data in support of our invested opinion. Contrary data leads to cognitive dissonance, which is painful. For reasons of ego, or for reasons of group affiliation, we choose our opinion first, and then cherry pick data to support it.

Constructive reasoning is the reverse, i.e., we discover the facts and then form an opinion based on those. This is how Mr. Spock in Star Trek behaves, and needless to say he isn't fully human. Most people can't behave that way. Still, one can approach constructive reasoning, and Mr. Kling argues that people who are serious about political discourse should strive for that goal.

To see how well we do, Mr. Kling picked three prominent columnists, each partial to an axis, and compared notes. The examples he chose were E. J. Dionne (progressive), Victor Davis Hanson (conservative) and Nick Gillespie (libertarian). Predictably, they all failed his test of being constructive thinkers--each defended his own point of view without indicating any understanding of the other.

And yet I don't think that's completely fair. First, Kling sampled only columns, which by design are short, propaganda pieces. He'd have done better if he'd looked at longer writing in journals like The New Republic or National Review. Second, while I've never met any of these people, I'm fairly certain that they all read each other's work. They talk to each other. I don't believe that Mr. Kling's schema will come to them as a surprise. They're as close to constructive thinkers as we're likely to find among non-Vulcans.

Compare that with my fellow faculty at the college where I'm a professor. They are all progressives--at faculty meetings it's just assumed that everybody is a Democrat. But despite their theatrical, political grandstanding, they know much less about politics than any of Kling's columnists. They have probably never even heard of either Hanson or Gillespie, and all they ever read is The New York Times. They live in an echo chamber, and are an excellent example of what Kling calls group affiliation. College faculty are Lefties because that's how you establish your credentials as part of the group. If you're not part of the group, you won't be successful and you won't get tenure.

There's no point in talking to these people. As I get older and closer to retirement I don't need to group-affiliate any more. I think that's why I'm writing letters to Trotskyists. Despite being wrong, they are at least honest and committed people--neither stupid nor evil.

I disagree with how Mr. Kling brings social science to his argument--I think he overstates the importance of Jonathan Haidt. But I’m out of space for now, so that discussion will have to wait for another time.

Further Reading

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