The Structure of Political Language

Arnold Kling first published his influential book The Three Languages of Politics in 2013. Eric Weinstein recently summarized it as …… “Libertarians cannot stand coercion …… progressives can’t abide oppression …… and conservatives are always angry that people don’t remember the hard-won lessons of the past.” The insight is well-intentioned and intriguing. But how does someone go about assessing it?

Kling addresses three concepts – libertarian, progressive, and conservative – and each is paired with a characteristic: anti-coercion, anti-oppression, and tradition. He describes the language used to discuss each concept as existing along one of three separate axes.

You’ve probably hiked through the woods at one time or another. And your trail probably intersected a stream with no bridge. The only way to cross this barrier is to step from one rock to another, moving quickly to maintain momentum. The chosen stone might be stable. Or it might send you into the water.

Kling attempts to cross an intellectual barrier: Americans’ inability to communicate. Three important terms carry his argument’s weight. But are those choices stable? Two criteria apply ……

First, are the terms sound? Is there a defensible definition for each?

Second, are three concepts sufficient for crossing the barrier? Are more needed? Or less?

Regarding the first, confusion often occurs because many concepts are rife with connotations: the meaning leaving someone’s mind is different than the meaning entering yours. If a definition isn’t vetted by all impacted parties, the chosen stone will wobble, and dialogue will stop moving forward.

The second is often difficult to notice. We fail to recognize other relevant terms. Should we leave out authoritarian? Communitarian? Anarchist? Do they require an axis?

Similar difficulties have subtly sabotaged political analysis for years. It’s a language-centric problem that can’t be solved by applying more language.

Instead, political analysis must begin with the spatial model from which language is derived. In other words, a term’s location must be assessed, and then compared to the locations of other terminology. Kling seems to move toward this idea by describing his concepts as existing on an axis. But the three axes aren’t visualized.

I coined an unconventional word in a recent post: citizist. It was defined as a political position favoring the empowerment of citizens within their local communities. It sits in opposition to the term centralist, which identifies those who regard top-down organizations as the legitimate locus of power. These concepts reside at specific locations on a two-axis circle ……

Different words could be substituted for these. But the core definitions – and their locations on the spatial model – would remain stable.

It’s difficult to know the intended locations of Kling’s terms due to unexplored connotations. But they could be located at three poles ……

This would indicate a missing piece in Kling’s analysis. His assessment doesn’t address those who seek control of others through the concentration of power. These players alter the outlook of the other three groups. And they form a component our society must analyze if we’re to resolve today’s dysfunction.

(Additional perspective can be found here.)

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