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