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.
A person who is focused on the environment, or on women’s rights, is quickly recognized as leaning left. Likewise, a “patriot” – who stridently supports the military, or attends an evangelical church – is probably oriented toward the right. Liberals and conservatives can be recognized easily by their characteristics.
Similarly, members of the oligarchy – senators, Wall Street bankers, globalist CEOs, and social media monopolists – can also be identified by their qualities. They prefer top-down organizations. They attempt to organize people into silos. And they prefer that information be restricted to a few key people.
So, three poles of the political circle can be recognized easily. But what about citizen empowerment? Which qualities define those whose political views place them far down in the lower quadrants? They have existed throughout human civilization, but can be difficult to recognize in our highly centralized society.
Here are a few characteristics of the circle’s lowest pole ……
QUALITY ONE: TRANSPARENCY
The citizist seeks clarity of all public information, coupled with the right to privacy of individual information. It’s a tendency that sits in direct opposition to the opaque, “classified” approach of the centralist.
QUALITY TWO: INCREMENTALISM
Citizen-based power doesn’t try to build projects on some grand scale …… whether that project is physical or organizational. The bottom pole starts small and makes improvements on the way. Occasionally, it pulls down what’s already there, to replace it with a better structure. Many of the most successful systems across world history were constructed within this methodology.
QUALITY THREE: SIMPLE RULES
A small set of simple rules can lead to the most complex of organisms. This contrasts with top down regulation, where a complicated set of rules attempts to create some simple situation.
QUALITY FOUR: LOCALISM
Citizen empowerment is based on subsidiarity, the principle in which decisions are made at the smallest effective scale. Citizists typically engage at the local level first, where they prefer neighbor-to-neighbor decision-making …… then block-empowered approaches.
QUALITY FIVE: EMERGENCE
You’ll often hear a citizist proclaim that they prefer the free market. (They also offer strident criticism of crony capitalism.) But “the market” is subservient to the deeper principle of emergent self-organization. The process of evolution is nature’s example of emergence, and so is any system that begins small, and builds toward complexity through incremental innovation. This characteristic synthesizes numbers two through four above.
QUALITY SIX: FLUIDITY
This quality parallels the concept of horizontal organization: fluids always flow outward …… toward flatness. It also contrasts sharply with the top down structures of the centralist. When a human organizational structure is fluid, it’s typically quite innovative.
QUALITY SEVEN: FLEXIBILITY
Flexibility allows the citizist to participate concurrently in a variety of organizations, some of whose missions might be mismatched or seemingly contradictory. In addition, citizen-based power is willing to quickly discontinue an organization if its purpose is no longer being served.
These are just a few of many qualities that can be attributed to the citizist. Their comfort with chaos sits in opposition to the high-structured centralizing of the top pole.
Team Red and Team Blue dominate discourse in America: almost everyone picks a side. Some of us carefully select our Red media outlet, our Red neighborhood, and our favorite Red politicians. Others envelop their lives in Blue instead.
There’s nothing to criticize about the left and right allegiances when viewed strictly on their own terms. They’re structural tendencies deeply entrenched in human nature. Seeing the world through a liberal or conservative lens is as natural as viewing it from a male or female perspective.
But a few questions need to be asked ……
How did this loyalty to Team Red or Team Blue develop into such a problem for our culture?Whyarewesodivided? How did America’s colors become “bipolar”?
America’s credentialed class attempts to answer these questions with exclusively verbal analysis (while also clumsily skewing the narrative to support their favored team). But durable answers won’t appear through the application of wordsmithing alone. A full understanding requires a detailed spatial analysis.
For example, the left-right debate is constructed horizontally. Therefore, when a discussion of conscience, heart, and values is warranted, its language is accurate and sufficient. We find the right descriptions easily ……
But that isn’t the case when a perpendicular axis is added. When values language is put to questions of power, the terminology falls short. Conflation enters the collective discourse. Words that worked well on one axis make little sense when applied to the other axis ……
For instance, does it really matter if Stalin or Hitler leaned left or leaned right? Both men were authoritarian tyrants who killed millions. Each was ruthlessly skilled in the management of centralized power structures. And both resided at the top of the power axis. They inhabited locations that can’t be described with words like “left” or “right.”
To recognize the limitations of today’s dominant approach, it can be helpful to superimpose Teams Red and Blue on the political circle ……
This overlay exposes flaws in our two team paradigm: the colors extend upward and downward into conflicts that are pragmatic, practical, and power-focused. Their values terminology is ill-suited to discuss a fundamentally different class of problems.
Let’s instead imagine two other new shades. We’ll use them to split the power axis (in contrast to red and blue splitting the values axis). Any pair of hues will work for this new division: gold and grey are displayed below, since they’re devoid of partisan meaning at the moment. But other colors would suffice as well: white, silver, brown ……
In the above diagram, gold and grey represent an alternate and concurrent set of opposed teams. Each person in America chooses a side in this second fundamental conflict, just as they do in the left-right debate. But while we’re all intensely aware of the red-blue division, many of us are only vaguely conscious of this second pair of choices. And we rarely regard those who agree with us as teammates.
Is it fair to say that the language employed by Team Gold and Team Grey can’t draw adequate distinctions as a discussion moves toward the left and right poles? The answer is yes. In truth, the circle combines the four colors. Each creates terminology that’s most effective near a particular pole ……
So, every citizen is a member of two political teams at the same time. This requires an internal balancing process within each of us, but it’s a process that isn’t uncommon: we make similar adjustments between our personal and professional roles in life. Therefore, just as we prioritize between family and work, a weighing must also occur in our loyalties to the two political teams we belong to.
For example, former deep state operatives like John Brennan have signed on to Team Blue since 2016, as indicated by their appearances on left-leaning networks like CNN or MSNBC. But Brennan’s greater loyalty is to the grey team. He sits at the top of the circle.
Similarly, Glenn Greenwald also leans left, making him a member of Team Blue as well. But his views are almost diametrically opposed to Brennan’s. His fidelity is mostly to the gold team. Greenwald resides near the circle’s bottom.
Greenwald and Brennan are just two out of 330 million citizens. The rest of us also weigh the fundamental questions based on our particular preferences. Therefore, we all must ask: What are my pair of teams? Do I gravitate toward red and gold? Or am I some other combination? And which of my two teams is the higher priority?
When we attempt to answer such questions, it becomes clear that America isn’t bipolar after all. Instead, it’s bi-axial. We don’t just choose from two options along one line. There are four options along two lines.
Here’s a summary of what those four options look like ……
Lower Left Quadrant: Gold and Blue Teams. Liberal Citizen Empowerment (“Alt Left”)
Upper Left Quadrant: Grey and Blue Teams. Liberal Centralization (“Nanny State”)
Upper Right Quadrant:Grey and Red Teams. Conservative Centralization (“RINOs”)
Lower Right Quadrant: Gold and Red Teams. Conservative Citizen Empowerment (“Alt Right”)
This bi-axial assessment is more sophisticated than the simple red-blue model our pundits promote. It allows the political paradigm to be assessed with more accuracy. To adopt it, we only need to identify which pair of teams we’ve chosen. And then to understand which team loyalty is more important to us.
The left-right conflict will never go away, despite our wishes that it would. Likewise, the top-bottom conflict is a perpetual part of human civilization. It too will never leave us. Any wishes for a reduction of conflict are just that …… wishful thinking. The best we can do is to clarify our disputes. We do that by using better language, which is generated by a broader geometric form.
The red-blue fight doesn’t have to remain at the level of dysfunction we’re currently witnessing, though. It has become so intense only because we’ve addressed it in exclusion. To repair the problem, our values need to be analyzed alongside the power question.
“Conservatives tend to be very skeptical of change. And when something could be improved, they will often get in the way of those improvements because they fear the unintended consequence ……”
This quote, from the evolutionary biologist Bret Weinstein, expresses a common definition of the political right: conservatives love tradition.
Weinstein also summarizes the left: “The core of liberalism is a desire for change.” Movement is implied in his statement. It explains why liberal values are called “progressive.”
The difference between the two sides, in this worldview, can be distilled to a single word: change. Liberals embrace it. Conservatives resist.
Weinstein’s widely accepted logic follows a process of induction, where many observations point toward one conclusion. We notice that conservatives revere entrenched religious traditions, and they look back to 240-year-old political documents with approval: an attachment to tradition is discerned.
In contrast, progressives seek what is new in areas as diverse as social justice and immigration policy. They break boundaries; they question borders: these tendencies associate liberals with change, or progress.
Unfortunately, the change mantra fails to draw sharp distinctions when observations are taken to their furthest limits. For example, “conservatives” don’t take the lead on “conservation”; it’s a liberal pursuit instead. In fact, progressives support legislation intended to prevent further change from occurring in the earth’s climate. Similarly, since 2016 “the resistance” to a particular political change has been the Democratic Party’s animating policy.
This blurring of lines is apparent on the conservative side as well. They’ve started unprecedented wars, like George W. Bush’s Iraq invasion, which can only be described as a radical change in international relations. This conflicts with Weinstein’s assertion that change applies specifically to liberalism.
Americans must ask better questions about the concept of change. What are we moving from? What are we progressing toward? Within the current political paradigm, change is understood as a movement away from an older system of beliefs toward some new set. But we’ve failed to explore what lies beneath those older and newer convictions.
When induction is applied over a span of millennia, and not just decades, a deeper pattern emerges. Our societies’ most basic components come to the fore: male and female. They represent the foundation of two competing values systems. And they provide a firmer footing for the interpretation of today’s conflicts.
For example, conservatives gravitate toward paternal qualities, like the worship of male deities and an engagement in warrior culture. Liberals, in contrast, favor the maternal, like feminist issues, LGBTQ rights, and protections for Mother Earth. These divisions often feel like they reflect recent trends, but their tension has likely been with us since the earliest human groups.
Many indigenous cultures seem to strike a balance between the paternal and the maternal. If anything, they lean more toward the maternal. In his landmark 2011 book AmericanNations, Colin Woodard quotes an Inuit woman: “There’s never been a fight for gender equality in Greenland. Women have always been powerful in our society. Our God was female, and when the Christians came to Greenland and said ‘our God is mighty and great and he looks like us,’ our first reaction was: aHe? Because not only are our women smarter and more pretty than men, they also give birth, they give life, and when there are problems in society, the women are the ones who are fighting to be sure the society survives.”
The tension between these male and female meta-forces is always more complex than the proponents of either side are willing to proclaim. So, while Greenland is nominally independent, it’s also heavily subsidized by Denmark, a part of the Scandinavian society that attempted to impose those paternal values. The complexity doesn’t stop there, though …… female-oriented values are far more prevalent today in Europe than during Scandinavia’s colonizing period. And, as in every society, the ultimate outcome of this conflict remains unresolved.
Popular concepts like progress or tradition fail to function as explanatory markers when a wider net is cast. Change can only be defined relative to a society’s recent historical orientation. Has it trended more maternal in the past? Or was it more paternal?
The taoist duality between male and female always features an unpredictable mix of conflict and cooperation. And it lies beneath the ongoing left-right conflict in our own culture. For example, the paternal values of seventeenth century Europeans became entrenched in America’s earliest political institutions from the outset of our continent’s colonization. This ceded the conservatives steep structural leverage for many generations to come. Over time, though, maternal values have carved deep inroads into those institutions.
Today, each side has strong roots in American culture, but neither holds a clear advantage. This creates a complex interplay within the concept of “change”. Thus, in recent years, we’ve seen an increase in cases where conservatives embrace change in markets, battlefields, and even social policy. The reverse has occurred on the left: rather than advocate constantly for change, liberals sometimes resist it. From pipelines across sacred territories, to Obamacare, to New Deal institutions, they seek to leave many “traditions” in place.
Conservatives have never held to tradition for its own sake. Their traditions were established within a formerly dominant paternalism. Likewise, liberals don’t seek change for its own sake. Instead, throughout America’s history, they’ve sought to undermine paternal structures in an effort to establish maternal balance – or perhaps primacy – in our society.
In recent generations, maternalism has been ascendant. Liberals have been on the offense; paternal values have played defense. But these forces ebb and flow within human societies throughout the eons. In some future American conflict, Father God might again be on the march for “change.” And Mother Earth might be fighting a defensive battle on behalf of long held traditions.
Such a shift would explain the emergence of Donald Trump on the national political stage.
(Note: only the terms maternal and paternal are used above. The words matriarchy and patriarchy are avoided. For a better understanding of this vocabulary, please see a previous post on the subject.)
Simplicity is the prime requirement of any spatial political model because a complicated construct will never achieve widespread adoption. The political circle is almost as simple as today’s dominant left-right-only model. But it avoids the limitations.
Despite its surface simplicity, the new model is built on an intertwined set of underlying assertions. An apt analogy would be Newton’s second law, where a simple equation (F = Ma) relies on the complex insights of calculus and Keplerian astronomy.
Here’s a list the political circle’s key premises……
PREMISE ONE: political language is GENERATED BY a spatial model
This idea asserts that humans often approach their conceptual world through simple visual constructs. In other words, a hierarchy exists, in which spatial cognition precedes verbal and mathematical calculations. This principle might apply universally, or it might pertain only to specific pursuits. Premise One holds that it governs political thought.
Similar processes are not uncommon. The foundational impact of a simple spatial construct can be seen in Dmitri Mendeleev’s periodic table, where chemical analysis can’t be pursued without reference to its two-dimensional form. The principle also applies to corporate organizational charts, where management’s directives can only be instituted through its visual hierarchy.
Likewise, today’s language of partisan politics is generated by a horizontal line segment. This is how we define our conflicts ……
The concepts of left, center, and right conform to this one-dimensional model. In fact, they can’t be conceived without it. Unfortunately, the underlying logic of this spatial construct can be proven deficient. This tells us that every piece of terminology based on that model must be reconsidered.
PREMISE TWO: “POSITION” IS THE BUILDING BLOCK OF A POLITICAL MODEL
A “position” is the location of a point on some geometric form. In this usage, a political position matches the term’s use in GPS or in a team sport.
Political positions can’t be forced into a particular form. Instead, a model’s shape conforms to the natural distribution of all possible partisan positions. The left-right line isn’t a natural distribution of political viewpoints. Therefore, it distorts our language.
The two-dimensional model is an accurate distribution of positions. Useful distinctions are drawn when political questions are brought to it.
Note the terminology generated by this construct. Its language performs better under spatial analysis than terms generated by a one-dimensional model.
PREMISE THREE: There are two types of Truth
This concept will have its detractors, since intense debate surrounds the nature of truth. The circle’s assertion of two truth types follows thinkers like Thomas Aquinas and Soren Kierkegaard.
One type, objective truth, is the realm of pursuits like the physical sciences, and involves facts that can either be proven or disproven. The other, subjective truth, is found in religion, the arts, and mythology. Its truths are necessary for the structuring of society, but they can be neither proven nor disproven.
On the one-dimensional model, both types of truth were commingled on the same line, with no mechanism for drawing distinctions between them. This led to conflation in our collective discourse. It also caused the paradigm’s most basic terms – liberal and conservative – to become catch-all concepts …… too broad to provide useful definitions.
On the two-dimensional model, the two truth types migrate to separate axes. The vertical axis addresses a fundamental question about power. The horizontal axis answers another important question regarding our collective values.
By maintaining a location on the circle, and not on either axis (or elsewhere), each individual position compares the two types of truth.
PREMISE FOUR: GEOMETRY ESTABLISHES LIMITS WITHIN OUR POLITICAL BELIEF SYSTEMS
The vertical axis of the circle represents a fundamental question: “What form of power should the society adopt? (Answers range between centralized power and citizen-based power). The horizontal axis represents a separate question: “What values should we live by as a society? (Answers range from liberal values to conservative values).
These questions are linked. If one is prioritized more, the other will be prioritized less. For example, if someone decides that only the values question is important, their position will be located either on the right pole or on the left pole. Similarly, if a person decides that only the power question is important, they’ll be located either at the top pole or at the bottom pole.
Very few entities, like Julian Assange, are able to maintain a position directly on one of the four poles. Most political positions will combine their answers to the two fundamental questions in proportions that vary between 0% vs. 100% and 50% vs. 50%.
Premise Four makes an unprecedented statement about the two truth types: within each of us, a greater emphasis on the subjective questions of morality and conscience must dictate a lesser emphasis on objective questions of reason and metrics …… and vice versa. This geometric relationship exhibits qualities akin to a law of physics.
PREMISE FIVE: THE MATERNAL AND THE PATERNAL ARE IN PERPETUAL, PRODUCTIVE CONFLICT
A two-dimensional model releases the terms liberal and conservative from their conflated condition. Each concept can now be framed by its natural state: as a description of values.
The true nature of the term liberal gravitates toward maternal values like cooperation, consensus, and collaboration. In contrast, the term conservative orients toward the paternal with its emphasis on conquest, competition, and commerce.
In the western tradition, culture was long restricted to Yahweh-centric approaches like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam: Yahweh being a powerful, paternal force. Throughout human history, however, goddess figures have held prominent positions in many cultures. Therefore, many of our political battles in recent generations can be attributed to the “progressive” rise of these maternal values within a historically paternal culture.
Thus, today’s conflict between “the left” and “the right” represents an attempt to bring large-scale balance to our society in the same way that small-scale balance between the maternal and paternal existed within hunter-gatherer tribes.
Other premises might deserve inclusion on the above list, but these five are the best place to start in an attempt to challenge the political circle as a thesis. Any such effort would be inherently productive.
For more than a century following the Civil War, America faced a question …… “What’s the fairest way to share the country’s wealth?” Gradually, however, conditions have shifted. We’ve now arrived at a new question …… “What’s the fairest way to spread the country’s pain?” In other words, how will our society address peak oil, environmental degradation, unpayable debts, increased class stratification, debased currency, and a host of other converging limitations?
Both of these quandaries rely on an assessment of available resources. But fairness takes on a different meaning under abundance than under scarcity. This isn’t a minor distinction that can be addressed under the processes currently in place. It requires a reevaluation of our dominant political paradigm.
So, what does the old paradigm look like? And what must replace it?
The outdated framework focuses solely on left and right: liberal and conservative. These two concepts constitute the entire model. They’re the only options presented in the voting booth, and in most public decisions.
The dominance of the model emerged in the mid-nineteenth century, when America’s industrial revolution brought immense levels of wealth out of the ground and into everyday lives. Unfortunately, it doesn’t address the country’s looming limitations.
Left and right do play a central role in every political calculation. But must they play an exclusive role? Are they the only concepts that really matter? To answer such queries, the framework’s underpinnings must be examined ……
The liberal and conservative ideologies function as dueling responses to a fundamental question: “What should our values be as a nation?” It’s an important question. And the massive amounts of attention conferred upon its answers are often deserved. But it doesn’t constitute the whole story.
A second fundamental question was buried within the constant discussions about values. It asks: “How should power be applied in America?” This query also contains a range of answers bounded by two dueling poles: centralized power versus citizen-based, decentralized power. This duo of terms is of a different nature than the liberal/conservative duality. The two pairs live in entirely different dimensions.
For several generations, our willingness to ignore the power question has led to a problem: centralized power has become the default solution; there’s little discourse with the opposing answer. Therefore, credentialed leaders in corporations, governments, and academics push top- down processes as a matter of course. They do debate whether their policies should skew liberal versus conservative, but the authority of centralism goes unchallenged.
The power question stands on its own as a societal decision, despite our collective unwillingness to debate it. It’s separate from left and right, but often intertwined. Its competing answers hearken back to debates that occurred during the founding of our republic, when resources were more scarce and material wealth was less prominent.
This second question is rising once again in the twenty-first century, however, after spending a long period submerged below the surface of our discourse. Its echoes are now heard in terms that express a backlash against centralist forces, like the deep state,theelites, and theonepercent. We also hear the citizen-empowering answer in cries about populism and the working class. It’s also seen in nascent movements pushing for more localized, incremental approaches to society’s problems.
In reality, every potential decision is an interlaced mix of answers to the power and values questions. For example, the Green New Deal combines top-down solutions (power answer: centralized) with a conscientious regard for mother earth (values answer: liberal). Similarly, evangelical support for Donald Trump attempts to protect Yahweh-centered religions (values answer: conservative) by installing a strong supporter at the top of Washington’s bureaucracy (power answer: centralized).
It can be a productive exercise to reduce any conflicts you notice to these two fundamental elements. They’re at the heart of every debate. Some partisans will consider one of the questions to be “more equal.” Others will rank it as “less equal.” Each of us weighs the questions’ importance differently. And we all choose our own combination of answers.
To address America’s growing resource limitations, a new paradigm must be adopted that facilitates a weighing of the two fundamental questions. The political circle (a paradigm outlined in other posts on this blog) addresses this need. Its framework clarifies important distinctions within our conflicts.
The left-right-only paradigm had a good run. But it’s too limited to address the constraints presented by the new century. It provided no path forward for sharing our collective pain.