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!

Introduction

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.

Assessment

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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Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 2

John Yoder, The Politics of JesusJohn Howard Yoder. 1994. The Politics of Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans.

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

As a young person I expressed my Christian faith most publicly when I registered as a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War. This stance surprised my family and many close friends, but I firmly believed that as a Christian I could take no other position on such an unrighteous war, in spite of my prior ambition to become a career military officer. Because of the military draft, every young man my age had to make up his own mind about the war. To my eighteen-year old mind, Jesus provided obvious political leadership that many others apparently missed or ignored. To me, it is ironic that John Yoder wrote the first edition of The Politics of Jesusat roughly the same time (1972) and in view of the same set of circumstances.

I surveyed Yoder’s arguments in part one of this review. Here in part two I turn to examine his core arguments in greater depth.

Jesus and a Social Ethic

Yoder asks: “Is there a social ethic” [in Jesus’ ministry]? (11) He goes on to observe:

“Jesus did not one to teach a way of life; most of his guidance was not original. His role is that of Savior and for us to need a Savior presupposes that we do not live according to his stated ideals.”(18)

For most of us who thought that “what would Jesus do?”(WWJD) is a serious template for life, Yoder’s observation is provocative. If this seems hard to fathom, consider the basic premise of any social ethic—society has a right to survive (5)—seems at odds with my own stance as a conscientious objector. To view Jesus as a serious political contender, one needs to address this dilemma. Is being a savior at odds with social survival?

God will Fight For Us

One of the core arguments for Jesus being apolitical is that both Herod and Pilate over-reached their authority and were somewhat delusional in putting Jesus to death for sedition. Why would Pilate go so far as to release a known zealot[1] and send Jesus to the cross in his place? Was Jesus a real political threat? (49)

Yoder offers two arguments for why Jesus posed a political threat to Herod and Pilate. The first argument that first century Jews believed that God would fight on their behalf, as he did in the Exodus experience (Exod 14:13; 77) and on many occasions recorded in the Books of Joshua and Judges. Unlike today when people downplay the existence and work of God in human events, Jews and gentiles like looked for and feared divine intervention. Jesus’ miracles provided interim proof of this exact sort of intervention and his claims to be a messiah (e.g. Matt 26:64) would have taken seriously.

Jesus as Advocate for Year of Jubilee

In his second argument, Yoder argues that the Gospels as a whole support the idea that Jesus advocated a year of Jubilee (Lev 25), quite likely 26 AD. This implied:

“The jubilee year or the sabbath year included four prescriptions: 1. Leaving the soil fallow; 2. The remission of debts; 3. The liberation of slaves, 4. The return of each individual of his family’s property.”(60)

In my mind, the prominence of Isaiah 61 in Jesus’ call sermon (Luke 4) and the Beatitudes (Matt 5) makes it most likely that Jesus advocated jubilee:

“The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me to bring good news to the poor; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound; to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn;” (Isa 61:1-2 ESV)

Here the phrase, the year of the Lord’s favor, is a reference to the year of jubilee.

Can you image the stir that debt forgiveness would have if advocated by a politician today? Think student loans and mortgages. The advocated would not need to advocate violence in order to be considered both an enemy of every lender and be taken very seriously by debtors. The fact that the Lord’s Prayer includes—”forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors”—is not just another turn of phrase in Yoder’s eyes, but a firm reminder of Jesus’ radical theology.

What Kind of Role Model was Jesus?

Yoder goes about this task of “stating it” that proves difficult because as an academic writer he must chase down many misconceptions about Jesus’ ethics. Chief among these is the church’s traditional focus on the spiritual content of the New Testament (NT) and a de-emphasis on political elements. So Yoder asks whether NT authors, principally Luke, Paul, and the author of Revelation, understood and embraced the thrust of Jesus’ social ethic. What of Jesus’ legacy did NT authors treat as exemplary?

Yoder sees the thread running through the NT being the tension between effectiveness and obedience (233). NT authors do not see Jesus’ teaching and modeling of social behavior—hanging out with sinners—as being exemplary (unlike later Franciscans). Rather, Jesus is our role model primarily in being obedient unto death. Forgiveness, enemy love, humility, patience, charity, and servanthood all leave room for God to act decisively in our lives—a kind of mini exodus event. Yoder writes:

“We are left with no choice but to affirm that the General Epistles in which the popular thought pattern of the earliest church has undergone least reflective analysis, and the liturgical elements embedded in apostolic writings which testify to the coming age, are restatements in another key of the same kind of attitude toward history that we found first in the more organized writings of the Gospels and of Paul. A social style characterized by the creation of a new community and the rejections of violence of any kind.” (242)

Obedience does not preclude effectiveness (a cause and effect phenomena), but the priority is clearly on obedience.

Assessment

John Yoder’s The Politics of Jesus is an intensely interesting read for an academic work. Social activists in the church will likely find this book required reading, but even evangelicals will want to be aware of the arguments being put forth.

Footnotes

[1] Zealot is the wrong term for Barabbas, as Yoder explains. The term only came into use after Menachem’s uprising in 66AD (56).

Yoder: Apolitical Jesus Unbiblical, Part 2

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