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OP-ED | The Language of Politics: Talking Past One Another

by Terry D. Cowgill | Jan 24, 2014 6:30am
(10) Comments | Commenting has expired
Posted to: Opinion

It goes without saying that in a writer’s world — my world, of course — words matter. Ditto the world of politics, where a clever phrase or the slip of the tongue can make the difference between the success and failure of a campaign.

But understanding the political language of our opponents also gives us a better idea of what makes them tick. And that’s important not just for the purposes of deconstructing an argument or making an opponent look bad, but to allow us to be open to new ideas and think outside the box.

Unfortunately, it’s very difficult for most us to do that because were are bound up in what economist Arnold Kling calls “motivated reasoning.” Kling, whose short ebook The Three Languages of Politics is a great read, argues that politically engaged Americans possess a dominant heuristic that predisposes them to dismiss the ideas of those with whom they typically disagree. The ability to go outside your dominant heuristic and thoughtfully consider the views of others is, in Kling’s view, commendable. He calls it “constructive reasoning.” And motivated reasoning inhibits constructive reasoning, which is a bad thing. Follow me so far?

As someone who is registered in neither party, I was glad to see Kling use a three-axis model. First, we have the progressives who frame political issues in terms of the oppressors and the oppressed. Then there are the conservatives who use language that suggests the world is a struggle between civilization and barbarism. And finally we have the libertarians who see almost everything as a struggle between freedom and coercion.

Of course, this construct is somewhat simplistic, but there really is no other way to have a focused discussion on language and what it teaches us about the views of both ourselves and of others.

For many Americans, ideology has become what Kling calls “a powerful marker of identity” that essentially segregates us into tribes that are happy to promulgate negative stereotypes about rival tribes if it furthers the goal of bolstering our own proclivities.

And when looking at facts, people’s interpretations are colored by which tribe they belong to. If a respected poll comes out whose result runs counter to your tribe’s views, you question the poll’s methodology or the funding of the group that sponsored it.

The result is that otherwise intelligent people simply talk past each other and can’t reach a consensus on anything — to say nothing of actually solving the world’s problems.

You see it all the time on cable news channels and talk radio. In those venues, the differences are amplified. There is often shouting and name calling, presumably with the encouragement of producers who like the histrionics. It’s much the same on the comment threads on many online news websites. Fortunately, CTNewsJunkie moderates every comment, so the debate here is uniformly better than on most other sites.

The three-axis model is why you see progressives talk so much about economic inequality, conservatives about crime, and libertarians about intrusive government. But if we were able to understand each other a little better, maybe we could find solutions that, while not perfect, might offer the hope of improving the status quo.

It will, however, require a willingness to walk outside your comfort zone. Like Kling, for example, I tend toward the libertarian axis of freedom and coercion. For decades — even in the five years I lived in Canada — I resisted the idea of a single-payer healthcare system. But two years ago, I changed my mind — much to the horror of those who thought I was in their tribe.

I eventually embraced a government-insured healthcare plan because I was persuaded by those who are not my natural allies that our current system is so broken, ineffective, and hideously expensive that it will require radical change to get it under control. Consequently, I have lost considerable street creds in the libertarian and conservative tribes.

That’s why Kling’s book struck such a chord with me. I no longer use the language of the libertarian and conservative tribes (e.g. “government takeover”) to describe single payer because it adds nothing to the debate.

Call me crazy but I’d rather do what works.

Contributing op-ed columnist Terry Cowgill blogs at ctdevilsadvocate.com and was an editor and senior writer for The Lakeville Journal Company. Follow him on Twitter @terrycowgill.

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(10) Comments

posted by: Noteworthy | January 24, 2014  11:26am

This is precisely the problem and the opportunity.

posted by: LongJohn47 | January 24, 2014  6:58pm

So, Terry, you’ve become convinced that progressives were right on health care, clearly the defining issue of the moment and an excellent example of where some of us favor intrusive government (and higher taxes, too) to fix a major problem.

Where do you draw your libertarian line?  The Fed printing money? (yes, I admit that they do and I’m happy they’re doing it).  Efforts to regulate carbon and mitigate climate change?

What does it mean to “tend toward the libertarian axis”

posted by: JusticePartyCT | January 24, 2014  8:18pm

We should be concerned far less about party affiliations than with the need to join together to rid our government of the corruption, inclination toward empire-building, and amassing of imperial presidential powers, all of which have resulted in immense injustice—economically, socially, and environmentally—throughout our nation and our world. We should recognize the damage political parties and partisanship have wrought, as feared by some of our most esteemed Founders. It’s clear that more and more Americans have grown tired of the duopoly (Democrats & GOP), with members that became more loyal to the party than they are to such virtues as freedom, sustainability, and true justice. We should be committed to building an effective, broad-based movement—through the electoral process and through educating, organizing, and mobilizing people at the grassroots level—to restore our government to one that serves the public interest rather than narrow private interests. We must commit ourselves to the values expressed in our nation’s founding documents: the equality of rights and freedoms for all people; the principled application of the rule of law; limited and well-defined powers of federal and state governments; and the dedication of a diverse yet unified community to “establish justice, ensure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity.” (Preamble to the United States Constitution.) In a sense, I am saying there is a fourth axis made up of Americans that don’t want to see their fellow Americans as ‘enemies’. Rather, they wish to sit down and rationally talk about issues and solutions. These people refuse to have their ideologies defined in such simple terms made for a quick slogan on a bumper sticker. The real world is much more complex. Independents are rising because they don’t want to be pigeoned-holed. Thanks, Carlos Camacho, Chair of the Justice Party of Connecticut (http://www.justicepartyct.org/)

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | January 25, 2014  8:43am

Terry D. Cowgill

LongJohn, it means I view the war on drugs as misguided and unproductive as the war on guns. It means I think progressives have been wrong about a lot of things such as education and, too often, the economy.
Contrary to popular belief, libertarians aren’t anarchists. They believe in limiting the scope of government in our lives—a point of view I am sympathetic to. But that doesn’t mean I agree with them on everything.
I really don’t have a home in either party, and not really with the libertarians either. I’m a pragmatist, which means nobody loves me. grin

posted by: rsoxrule | January 25, 2014  10:09am

Sadly with the erosion of the middle class a goal accomplished by both parties serving as tools of MIC, corporists and bangsters we may very well be beyond the tipping point.  I see no leaders on the horizon who truly get the pain that surrounds us..foreclosed homes, increasing jobless populations, NO jobs with benefits and FORGET pensions!  Thank you for this article because it clearly points out how badly broken our political system is!  Oh but wait we have BILLIONS for agGONEstan and Iraq while Detroit and other towns and cities here crumble?!?

posted by: Barth Keck | January 25, 2014  1:40pm

It’s called “confirmation bias.” People tend to agree with articles and opinions that support their existing beliefs and ignore those that don’t. It’s a logical fallacy that has existed since the beginning of humanity. Unfortunately, cable “news” channels and internet sites understand this reality and use it to gain followers, which equals PROFIT. So much for informed debate.

I wrote about this phenomenon several years ago:
http://www.nhregister.com/general-news/20100729/new-media-nurtures-division-not-dialogue

posted by: Terry D. Cowgill | January 25, 2014  9:30pm

Terry D. Cowgill

Confirmation bias is part of the equation, Barth. But the language we use is also key to understanding motivated reasoning.

posted by: StanMuzyk | January 26, 2014  1:50pm

@Terry: Basically—our ruling politicians by their actions have shown that they—“Do Not Love Our Country”  as they are continually selling it down the river.”  When will we have leadership—“that will stop the bleeding —or is it already too late to stave off a mass hemorrhage?”  Like a bad marriage—if we can no longer love our national elected politicians —it’s time for a divorce.

posted by: LongJohn47 | January 26, 2014  8:26pm

Stan—accusing someone of not loving our country because they don’t agree with your positions on the issues is arrogant.

I think George W. Bush was easily the worst President since Warren Harding—a total disaster whose bellicose ineptitude cost the world hundreds of thousands of lives lost in Iraq, millions of people displaced, and trillions of dollars mis-spent—but I would never question his love of country.

i think Dick Cheney was (and still is) evil and twisted, but I would never doubt that he loves his 1950’s version of America.

Advocate all you want for replacing our current elected leaders with someone whose views are more closely aligned with your own.  But please stop slandering those in power simply because you don’t agree with them.

Obama loves America.  Blumenthal and Murphy love America.  Malloy loves America.

Let’s talk about real issues.

posted by: Barth Keck | January 26, 2014  9:21pm

Agreed, Terry. Politicians, pundits, and media moguls craft their messages in ways that would impress even George Orwell.