Demonizing along your preferred axis


Arnold Kling has an essay out called The Three Languages of Politics. It’s an easy read, a 25 page ebook selling for $1.99. The thesis is Progressives, Conservatives and Libertarians each have distinct axes for good and evil, expressed in different languages. Progressives default to oppressors/oppressed, Conservatives to civilization/barbarism, Libertarians to freedom/coercion. This seems rather lightweight. But sometimes simple is good. Now that I’ve been tipped off, I see Kling’s three axes underlying rants from pundits everywhere.

Here’s Kling from his ebook:

My claim about the three-axis model is that one’s dominant heuristic plays an important role in this process of closure, particularly at the third step. As a progressive, you achieve closure when you have become convinced that those with whom you disagree are at best indifferent to the suffering of the oppressed. As a conservative, you have achieved closure when you have become convinced that those with whom you disagree are at best indifferent to the phenomenon of people losing their respect for civilized values and institutions and reverting to barbarism. As a libertarian, you have achieved closure when you have become convinced that those with whom you disagree are at best indifferent to the expansion of government’s scope and power.


Consider three goals that a political pundit might have. One goal is to open the minds of people on the other side. Another goal might be to open the minds of people on your own side. A third goal might be to close the minds of people on your own side. Nearly all of the punditry that appears in the various media today serves only the third goal. The pundits act as if what they fear most is that their followers will open their minds to alternative points of view. To me, these media personalities appear to be fighting a constant battle to keep their followers’ minds closed. The saddest part is that I believe that they are succeeding. Political polarization seems to get stronger each year.

So if you are a ranting progressive whose wants to close the mind of your followers, your best tactic is to show your opponent is indifferent to exploitation of the oppressed. Better yet, show they have exploitation as their goal. Paul Krugman is the most popular liberal pundit in the US for good reason. Typical Krugman quote: “Refusing to expand Medicaid would impose huge suffering on lots of poor people, and kill some of them; for people like Jan Brewer, that’s a plus.” This is constructive. Opposition to Obama’s health care act is not mere political disagreement. It’s Republicans wanting to kill poor people.

If you are a ranting conservative, you can close the minds of your followers by claiming your opponents are barbarism personified. The Wall Street Journal’s take on global warming: “Alarmism over climate is of great benefit to many, providing government funding for academic research and a reason for government bureaucracies to grow. Alarmism also offers an excuse for governments to raise taxes, taxpayer-funded subsidies for businesses that understand how to work the political system, and a lure for big donations to charitable foundations promising to save the planet.” Ah yes! The goal of climate change is cheating and barbarism for the benefit of the bad guys (liberals).

Ranting libertarians close the minds of their followers by accusing their opponents of using of federal government coercion for it’s own sake. Via Kling, “Many of the same people who are now calling for immediate action with regard to gun control recognize that the Patriot Act, rushed through Congress in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, was a terrible piece of legislation that ultimately did nothing to protect Americans even as it vastly expanded the state’s ability to surveil law-abiding citizens. There’s no reason to think that federal, state, or local gun control laws promulgated now would result in anything different.” Indeed. The purpose of gun control is useless coercion for it’s own sake.

Another example Kling analyzes is the banking crises. Progressives look for oppressor/oppressed, so find bankers exploiting poor borrowers. Though this leaves completely unexplained why lenders were making unbelievably dumb investment decisions. Conservatives see civilization/barbarism, so see falling moral standards with profligate borrowers and lenders. Fighting barbarism, they are less likely to consider protections needed against uninformed borrowers or stupid bankers. Libertarians see freedom/coercion. In particular federal agencies such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac promoting lending to unqualified borrowers, insulating bankers from losses, and distorting free market discipline. But libertarians have trouble imagining government regulation might be needed because free market banking is inherently unstable.

Of course demonizing your opponents by distorting their views is as old as mankind. What’s new is the particulars of how we demonize along the preferred axes of contemporary politics. I’d self describe as a libertarian, though one far more moderate than during my misspent youth. So I default to the freedom/coercion axis. After reading Kling’s book, it’s been useful at times to put on my oppressor/oppressed or civilization/barbarism hat. Shifting perspective to another’s preferred axis can surprisingly make someone who’s wrong start making sense. And when you come across a pundit who says the purpose of his opponents is oppression/barbarism/coercion, read no further. The pundit’s energizing his base and circling the wagons. The value of Kling’s three axes below is they make it much easier to catch demonizing rhetoric, and respectfully understand those you disagree with.


Categorized as Politics

By Nathan Taylor

I blog at on tech trends and the near future. I'm on twitter as @ntaylor963.

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