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How progressives, conservatives and libertarians talk past one another.


By Arnold Kling
Amazon, $1.99 e-book

Mr. Kling’s three “languages” are ways of talking about politics and government, and they align roughly with the progressive, conservative and libertarian viewpoints. Progressives, Mr. Kling thinks, typically express opinions using an “oppressed-oppressor axis”: societal problems are envisioned mainly as forms of oppression of the weak by the strong. Conservatives favor a “civilization-barbarism axis” and worry about how to defend traditional values and institutions. Libertarians use a “freedom-coercion axis” in which the threat is governmental encroachment on individual choice.

One reason American political culture has become polarized and uncivil, Mr. Kling believes, is that each side puts its contentions almost exclusively in terms of its favored language, and fails to see that contrary opinions are manifestations of a different language rather than evidence of stupidity or duplicity.

To illustrate what he means, Mr. Kling quotes passages from three prominent columnists on a variety of topics, including guns and the Sandy Hook killings: progressive E.J. Dionne, conservative Victor Davis Hanson and libertarian Nick Gillespie. Mr. Dionne, for instance, wrote that “[President Obama] sought to mobilize a new effort to counteract the entrenched power of those who have dictated submissiveness in the face of bloodshed.” But Mr. Hanson contended that “homeowners should have the right to own weapons comparable to those of criminals, who often pack illicit semi-automatic handguns.” You may object to one of these remarks, or both. Mr. Kling’s point is that they are not dishonest or unreasonable but simply reflect different views on the aim of politics.

Mr. Kling does not claim that if we would only take proper note of one another’s political languages our differences would melt away. He does think, however, that closer attention to contrasting political languages can give us some level of respect for our opponents’ views, even if we continue to think those views completely wrong.

In my experience, appeals to “civility” typically come from members of the party currently in power. (Progressives, for instance, began to see the virtues of civility in late 2008.) Mr. Kling, though, makes a sophisticated argument for why we’re so often uncivil to each other. He is aware, too, that his “axes” don’t account for everyone. Many conservatives, for instance, make arguments closely aligned with his libertarian axis. “Conservatives,” Mr. Kling writes, “often blame the [housing] debacle on goals set by the government for low-income and minority borrowers.” But that has little to do with civilization versus barbarism, and everything to do with governmental manipulation of markets.

Mr. Kling’s wise analysis misses one point, though. He puts much of the blame on “pundits,” but what about politicians and their spokesmen? It seems to me—and I am speaking from my own “conservative” point of view—that President Obama and his spokesman Jay Carney do at least as much to demonize their opponents as any one of Mr. Kling’s vociferous pundits. Too often the purpose of political rhetoric is to close the minds of your allies rather than to open the minds of your opponents. Political debates aren’t always just about who’s right. Sometimes they’re just another instrument for getting and retaining power.

The Wall Street Journal