Kling Classifies and Raises Political Debate

Arnold Kling. 2017. The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides. Washington, DC: Cato Institute.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

It is fair to say that zoology’s proclivity to classify has left an oversized mark on the social science over the past few decades. While writing about lists, like three ways to improve your XYZ or ten things you need to know about ABC, continue to be popular, classification schemes pitting variables in tension with one another provide unanticipated analytical insights. They also produce better charts!


In his book, The Three Languages of Politics: Talking Across the Political Divides,libertarian writer Arnold Kling writes:

“My goal in this book is to encourage people to take the first step towards healthier political discussion. I believe that this first step is to recognize the language of coalition mobilization so that we can resist being seduced by that language.”(3)

Kling sees the dominant three political languages as progressives (P), conservatives (C), and libertarians (L). These three languages are articulated in terms of polarities P (oppressor-oppressed), C (civilization-barbarism), and L (liberty-coercion). 

Kling’s leanings are ironically obvious from his cover’s display of colors of the French flag (bleu, blanc et rouge), which to my mind brings the image of socialist leaning during the Cold War rather than the current red-blue dichotomy in recent U.S. elections. Back then, the chief alignments were capitalist, communist, and socialist, which implied a bit of both along with strident denial of any communist influence. Kling’s trichotomy developed after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 that eliminated the primary external threat and resulted in more energetic competition among internal groups for limited resources and influence.[1]

Group Cohesion

Characterizing the dominant political tribes today in terms of the language of their discussion is an interesting way to highlight their differences without choosing sides. Kling is careful to outline examples of commentators that utilize these preferred polarities to draw attention to how the language itself highlights group affinities, how prestige is earned within a group, and how boundaries among the groups are defended. One example that Kling cites is from the 2012 gaffe by Mitt Romney when he was secretly recorded saying:

“All right, there are 47 percent who are with him [Barack Obama], who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims, who believe the government has a responsibility to care for them, who believe that they are entitled to health care, to food, to housing, to you name-it.”(32)

Romney was speaking to republican donors who Kling classifies as conservatives trying to strengthen civilization and keep the barbarians at bay, but progressive pundits argued that he had no sympathy for the oppressed (33). This gaffe was widely perceived to be a turning point in the presidential race both because of the characterization of progressive pundits and the perception that Romney [widely perceived as having an Eagle Scout image] had not previously expressed his true and negative beliefs about his opponent.

More generally, King outlines the three dominate affinities in eight examples:

  1. Dealing with the Holocaust
  2. Tax reform
  3. Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
  4. A 1992 Fed study of mortgage lending to African Americans
  5. Abortion and Unwed Mothers
  6. War on Terror
  7. Baker refusal to serve a homosexual wedding
  8. Soda Taxes (14-20)

Kling writes:

“Consider the goals that a political pundit might have. One goal might be to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on the pundit’s own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on the pundit’s own side.” (33-34)

In this context, political pundits serve as tribal whips in aligning votes with tribal objectives driving greater polarization of the electorate.

Fast and Slow Reasoning

 The need for closure is associated with our natural aversion to uncertainty, ambiguity, and general impatience, which is a source of cognitive dissonance (59-60). Studies of divisive issues tend to reinforce our dominant political affinity at the presuppositional level because we tend to accept information consistent with our affinities unconditionally and to discount information inconsistent with these affinities, a tendency that Kling describes as motivated reasoning(60-63).

Kling looks for strategies to move beyond our default political settings. The first and most important is to be aware of the three dominate political affinities and to understand their polarities. Listening for their political language will allow you to identify biases and their basic logic. An important second strategy is to slow down political discourse. Kling observes that quick responses to emerging issues are more likely than more deliberative responses to adhere to dominant affinities.

The Ideological Turing Test

Kling offers an interesting standard for improving political discourse that he calls the Ideological Turing Test. Turing invented one of the earliest computers and argued that artificial intelligence could be described as equal to human intelligence when in a blind test a human subject could no longer distinguish between a human and computer in email (or telephone) correspondence. Kling argues that we will finally understand our competitors in the political realm once we could successfully masqueradeas a member of an opposing tribe. 

This Ideological Turing Test, if applied, would help move beyond trading straw man characterizations of one another and promote real understanding.


In his book, The Three Languages of Politics, Arnold Kling works to promote more enlightened political discourse through mutual understanding. This book is a quick read and readily accessible to anyone interested in more civilized political conversation.

[1]An echo of the previous alignments can be heard occasionally when progressives are characterized as cultural Marxists, a label that is typically rejected out of hand.

Kling Classifies and Raises Political Debate

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