November 2019

Americans are highly politically polarized right now, and conversation may seem impossible. Can anything be done? Cato adjunct scholar Arnold Kling suggests that the solution may begin by taking a closer look at the languages that three significant ideological blocs tend to use when they describe current events. Kling argues that progressives tend to frame events as being fundamentally about oppressors and the oppressed; conservatives tend to frame events as being about civilization and barbarism; and libertarians tend to frame events as being about state coercion and individual liberty.

Each of these frames can be persuasive, Kling argues, and each of them may also be correct. Yet when they are applied in cross-ideological political discourse, they are often used to portray political Others as indifferent at best to major social evils. In this way, the common frames we use to talk about politics can make it much more difficult for us to understand one another, an idea he developed at length in his 2013 book The Three Languages of Politics, which has recently appeared in a third edition.

Joining him in conversation this month will be Professor Nikki Usher of the University of Illinois, Professor Donald Downs of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Brookings Institution Senior Fellow Jonathan Rauch. Comments are open through the end of the month, and readers are invited to join the discussion.

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Lead Essay

  • Arnold Kling has devoted years to observing and participating in American political discourse. Such as it is. He writes that all too often, Americans seek to demonize those with whom they disagree, rather than trying first to understand what they are saying in their own terms. Social media does not help us to do better, he argues, but one thing that could is surprisingly simple: “If you think that the problem with political discourse is caused entirely by the other side,” he writes, “then look in the mirror instead.”

Response Essays

  • Jonathan Rauch offers a “friendly amendment” to Arnold Kling’s argument: We must amend our weakening civic institutions. He recommends direct social action, including but not limited to various organizations that seek to start conversation across political divides; strengthening institutions that don’t line up neatly with partisan politics, but that serve good purposes anyway; and—perhaps controversially—re-engineering our social media environment.

  • Nikki Usher turns her attention to American journalism, which often sets the tone for our political conversations. She finds that with the decline of local journalism, journalists have an increasingly cohesive and uniform view—one that sees itself as cosmopolitan, but that is really parochial to Washington, DC. Journalists nowadays often stumble in covering other areas of the country, which increases the importance of Arnold Kling’s populist/cosmopolitan divide.

  • Donald Downs considers that free speech requires a concern for the personhood and well-being of others—and the concern to avoid offense can also be stifling. He characterizes this as a tension between chutzpah and “due doubt” of one’s own beliefs, and he argues for the importance of civility understood in a special way: Civility is not mere politeness in politics, he argues; it is a key part of the role that we must all play as citizens, regardless of political disagreements.

Coming Up

Comments and discussion through the end of the month.