Defusing Ideological Tribalism: Methods for Communicating Across Political Language Barriers

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Hubwonk host Joe Selvaggi talks with economist and author Dr. Arnold Kling about his book, The Three Languages of Politics, Talking Across the Political Divides, which outlines the dynamics of political tribalism, defines the respective world view and vocabulary of progressives, conservatives, and libertarianism, and offers methods for communicating and persuading across ideological lines in a way that fosters civil, productive, public debate.

Guest:

Arnold Kling is an American economist, scholar, and author of several books, including The Three Languages of Politics, Talking Across the Political Divides (2013), Crisis of Abundance: Rethinking How We Pay for Health Care (2006), From Poverty to Prosperity: Intangible Assets, Hidden Liabilities and The Lasting Triumph over Scarcity (2009), Not What They Had in Mind: A History of Policies That Produced the Financial Crisis of 2008 (2015), and Specialization and Trade: A Reintroduction to Economics (2016). He is an Adjunct Scholar for the Cato Institute and is affiliated with the Mercatus Center. Dr. Kling graduated from Swarthmore College in 1975 and received a Ph.D. in economics from Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He worked as an economist in the Federal Reserve System from 1980 to 1986. He served as a senior economist at Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corporation (Freddie Mac) from 1986 to 1994.

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This is Hubwonk. I’m Joe Selvaggi,

Joe Selvaggi:

Welcome to Hubwonk, a podcast of Pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston, seen through a political or social media lens. Americans seem more divided now than at any time since the civil war, while our national motto, he pluribus Unum had always acknowledged our many different views, faith and values. The ubiquity of combative debate and invectives delivered through social media has not really magnified our perceived differences, but has made it possible to instantaneously produce and consume outrage with the push of a button. How could innovations designed to empower us to communicate more easily, have led us to stop listening. And if indeed, we aspire to coexist and cooperate with one another, how can we reorient ourselves away from this toxic tribalism and find a psychological framework and vocabulary that embraces our liberal traditions and encourages a successful national community? My guest today is Dr. Arnold Kling, economist, and author of the three languages of politics talking across the political divide.

Joe Selvaggi:

Now in its third edition, Dr. Kling’s book suggests the root of our trends towards tribalism can be traced to the fact that many in the public sphere seek to solidify their status in a tribal group by declaring purity and loyalty to their own group. While demonizing the members, beliefs of other groups, Dr. Kling identifies three ideological tribes, progressive conservatives and libertarians each with its own heuristic and vocabulary. Three languages of politics seeks to help us each identify our own tribal orientation and vocabulary. Understand the toxic dynamics that encourage loyalty to one tribe and hostility towards others and reorient our communication in a way that offers the possibility to persuade and be persuaded, potentially turning away from outrage and obstinance towards thoughtful coexistence and cooperation. When I return, I’ll be joined by economist and author. Dr. Arnold Kling. Hubwonk is a production of Pioneer Institute, a Boston based think tank that seeks to improve the quality of life in Massachusetts and beyond. Pioneer’s a 5 0 1 C3 organization that relies on your support. Please visit pioneer institute.org to make a tax deductible donation today.

Joe Selvaggi:

Okay, we’re back. This is Hubwonk, I’m Joe Selvaggi and I’m now joined by economist and author Dr. Arnold Kling. Welcome to Hubwonk, Dr. Kling. Nice to be here, Joe. Well, I’ll tell you Dr. Kling, I’ve enjoyed reading many of your books and I’ve found your blog very useful. UI want to focus our discussion today,on the book you recently released in its third edition, hntitled to the three languages of politics talking across the political divide. I know it was first released in 2013. Uht stands alone as, as one, hhelatively short book, but it gives us a profound level of insight into our very contentious, hublic and political debate right now. So, m want to acknowledge to our listeners, you are trained as an economist, but I would characterize this book more as a political psychology. What made you decide to write this book?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Oh, what I noticed was that political rhetoric wasn’t designed to change the mind of anyone. You think that that’s what it’s for. If somebody writes a column or they, or something like that, they’re trying to change somebody’s mind. But in fact, it seems that the, they weren’t talking to the other side to change their mind and they weren’t talking to their own side to change their mind. It was more like they wanted to solidify the minds on their own side, kind of make their own side less likely to change its mind, which seems like a you know, a bad purpose for political rhetoric.

Joe Selvaggi:

Indeed. So it sounds w what you’ve been hearing is more akin to political rallies rather than a political discourse and your goal. You want to open minds. That sounds good. Our, our own minds, the minds of our political allies, but you also want to help open the minds of those with a different worldview, a different heuristic, if you will, very worthy goals. I want to jump to the themes of the book. You see the world, or you see those in the world revolving around three different, completely different axes of understanding share with our listeners, what you see are those three access of understanding or heuristics that maybe each of us one or the other dominates our world view.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Okay. So let’s think of three bad things. In particular, one is oppression. That is one class of people mistreating another class. The second bad is barbarism people not living up to civilize norms, but reverting to you know, torture or murder or other barbaric act and final is coercion where you don’t give people the freedom, real freedom to choose, but force them to, to do things. So those are all bad. And if you, as I described them were against all of them, but it turns out that there’s a general tendency for regressive conservatives and libertarians to each kind of take ownership of one of the, of opposition to one of the bads, and then to accuse people who disagree with them of actually being on the bad side. So if you’re a progressive and someone disagrees with you, you think that they’re on the side of the oppressors. So the progressive kind of takes ownership of the oppressor, oppressed taxes, conservative takes ownership of the civilization barbarism accidents. And we’ll accuse the people who disagree with them being you know, against civilization and being on the side of barbarism. And the libertarian thinks that they have ownership of the Liberty coercion access. So people who disagree with them are status. There are people who want to use the power of the state to coerce other people.

Joe Selvaggi:

So we all imagine that our own worldview is is the right one, but we all want to be reasonable. Why is it that we are drawn to listen to the kind of narrative that you described. What, what compels us to be drawn to one of these three axis?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

That’s a tough question. And as like, as you mentioned, I went through various additions of the book and with each one, I tried harder to answer the question. So I ended up delving more and more into the psychology. I think that there are sort of individual reasons why you prefer it just, you know, it’s cognitively easier not to deal with the strongest arguments. So the other side and then there are social reasons. I think if you, in a lot of instances, people are trying to enhance the status either of their tribe itself or themselves within the tribe. And focusing on these axes and accusing opponents of being on the other side of these axes can be a useful way to enhance your status within a tribe.

Joe Selvaggi:

So you join a tribe and that means you want to make your tribe stronger. And the other weaker, therefore you even if you don’t agree, lock step and, and and barrel with everything in that tribe it’s more useful to promote the views more broadly and demonize those who don’t agree with you. Okay. Let’s, these are very high level conceptual concepts. Let’s take let’s start step on some landmines here, and let’s take some real world examples of very contentious issues and see how each axis would interpret that particular event of I’ll throw some at you somewhere in the book, some more let’s take a black lives matter. How would a conservative, progressive and a libertarian view the framing of, of black lives matter?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Okay. So let’s start with the oppressor oppressed axis, which is the compressive food use. That’s pretty simple. You just say that blacks are an oppressed class and other whites have been oppressors of black. So so you take a very favorable view of black lives matter along the oppressor oppressed axis conservatives have this civilization, Barbara is an access, so they would say, yeah, that’s fine that black lives matter, but let’s remember that police protect us that looting and rioting are barbaric acts. And so they’re not, so are reasons to be disturbed about the about black lives matter for libertarians. I think the, it might depend on, on what issues they think about if they think about the police aspect of it, they then a libertarian might say, well, you know, a lot of police procedures are are bad and coercive and laws are you know, there’s an excess of laws. And so libertarian would tend to want to reign in the police and have fewer laws that would, you know, create confrontations between you know, everyone in police, but between blacks and police in particular, that’s it,

Joe Selvaggi:

You did a very good job of teasing each one out. How about something as broad and sweeping as tax policy? Is that something that we see arguments about in the news today, how would a libertarian progressive and conservative view tax policy in general?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

So let me try to narrow it down to redistributive tax policy and see if I can do that. And that’s not one of this in the book, I think, but I think I can do it. The oppressor oppressed model can be used to suggest that people who get rich must be oppressors. They didn’t get there by by legitimate means. So, you know, people who are rich are oppressors, people who are not rich are oppressed. And so a progressive tax policy that takes money from the rich and gives to the poor is you know, kind of offsetting oppressor, oppressed. The conservative view is that people who are rich generally earned it, they are, they’ve made contributions to society. They’ve, they’re making they’re being compensated for hard work or or patient investment or clever innovation for kind of sharing their skills with society. So in some sense you know, redistributive taxation is a kind of anti civilization and we’re works toward barbarism. And of course, you know, for libertarians, it’s all simple. Taxation is theft. You know, it’s, it’s a form of coercion that you really should try to avoid.

Joe Selvaggi:

I see, again, we could go through to a whole host of policy issues, but I see very clearly that you’re using the same vocabulary to describe each event again, the same access for each worldview. Well, I’ll, I’ll confess to having tried to cut through the fog of these very different views though. I do lean more towards a conservative, libertarian worldview. I went to graduate school Harvard Kennedy school, which is notoriously favorable to a more progressive worldview. And it was my hope that sitting down one could use, let’s say science, my undergrad is in engineering. And then I try to use science to understand whether a building is going to stand up or a car is going to go. I want you to use economics is a sort of a common language that in a sense, policymakers could meet on the field of battle and, and settle their differences with observation, or even with theory. Do you see economics as something that is part of the solution or is it just as vulnerable to the debate as any other field?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

I think this is an instance where there’s actually, I think this is, you know, various experiments or psychology experience and found that, that people with more cognitive ability, more education and so on are actually better at defending ideas regardless, and sort of better, more inclined to confirmation bias than people who are less educated or less cognitively skilled. You know, so if you’re trying to change, someone’s mind using facts and science, it’s actually easier to do it with a less educated, less, you know, sort of lower on the IQ scale person, because they’re, they’re just, they’re less likely to use their cleverness to counteract your thinking. So the examples are like like on an issue like gun control people, I think that this is an example where people have viewed, you know, given the same set of facts to people on two sides of the issue and, you know, some analysis, facts studies, or alleged studies and whatever.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

So you show people the same pieces of paper with the same words on them and the ones who were for gun control to begin with say, well, this really reinforces the position in favor of gun control and the people who are against it say, no, this really reinforces the position against gun control, but that tendency is even higher among the sort of more highly educated people. So taking that back to economics, economics can then be a tool used by either side to kind of confirm its own point of view. So if you’re progressive, you seize on progressive economic ideas. And if you’re conservative, you seize on conservative economic ideas, libertarians seeker seize on libertarian ideas. So the hope that that the facts or the ideals itself will settle the issue. Unfortunately it doesn’t work well in that case

Joe Selvaggi:

That definitely aligns with my my experience. We even had a few courses where you had a conservative and progressive and third, very, very progressive economist teaching a class altogether and sort of embracing the fact, there are many ways to look at the field. I want to address the fact that then if, if education or cognitive ability, doesn’t calculate us from these these axes of, of, of perception what does one do if one wants to aspire at least to being more open-minded or, or leaving one’s access, or at least understanding the other two, or if there are indeed other two,

Dr. Arnold Kling:

That’s a great question. And I, I, by the way, I think, you know, since writing the book, I think that it’s not clear that everyone falls within those three and most people, if they consider themselves carefully, w w they would, they certainly wouldn’t jump on the axes and say, oh yeah, that’s my axis. They might notice that, wow. Yeah, I’ve in the past, I’ve used that, but then they’d say, well, if I really think about it, my own views, some are more nuance. I don’t know what advice works. I know what you kind of want to get to. There’s a pretty good new book by Julia gala called the scout mindset. And she defined, and she talks and the term mindset is, is exactly right. She talks about the difference between being a scout where you’re just want to explore the territory and feet.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

See what’s there versus a soldier where your role in the territory is defend what’s yours and of keep other people out. So a scout mindset is know you’re very, open-minded, you’re not convinced you’re right. You’re really operating from a position of self doubt, the soldier mindset you’re trying to act as if you’re absolutely sure you’re right. And your main, when you encounter someone who disagrees with you, you, you react with very strong defenses and so on. So from that perspective, the key is to kind of let down your defenses to sort of be constantly alert to, well, the other person could be right. I could certainly be wrong. And to be just thinking in those terms, what would make me wrong? What would make the other person, right. So it’s a mindset. I’m not sure, I think she’s absolutely right. That that’s the mindset you need to adopt if you want to avoid being in this kind of tribal mentality how to do that is, is a challenge. But I think that that’s the key,

Joe Selvaggi:

It’s a great framing of a scout and soldier, I guess I would characterize myself as a scout. What attributes does each access use to demonize the other side? You know,

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Okay. Again, I think that the, that they, they try as a way of simplifying things. So so if I, if I were in scout mindset, I don’t say I’m a libertarian and I encounter a progressive let’s say, is arguing for progressive taxation or for something else that doesn’t appeal to me. If I were in scout mindset, I’d try to say, well, what, what, how could they be, right? What are the, what are some, what are, what are the strongest points of their argument that they could make? What are the circumstances under which I would change my mind and agree with them. If I’m in soldier mindset, then what I do is I use the axes. I just say, they just want to use power. They’re just power hungry. They might say they want to help the poor, but they’re just all they want is power for themselves.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

And I could find evidence for that. I mean I think there’s a wall street journal editorial today about the tax proposals in the, you know, the latest democratic pills and they point, and they point out all the ways in which these tax proposals actually PR you know, benefit, wealthy constituents, and then say, you know, how can you really say that you’re for poor, poor people, you’re just, you know, you’re just using power to benefit your friends. And that, that may or may not be the right frame, but that, but that is kind of how you, how you operate more in soldier mode

Joe Selvaggi:

And indeed them. And one of the interesting insights I don’t know if you’re not wanting to address it more deeply the irony that each team or each access seems to think they understand the motivations of the other teams better than the, those other teams themselves. In other words, I’ve often had progressive explained to me, what’s really at the heart of libertarianism as if they understand my worldview better than I understand my work with you say more about why.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

And then they’ll typically say, you know, it’s libertarianism is a cover for oppression that you really you’re, you, what you’re really doing is perpetuating the, the, you know, the evil class status that exists. You’re an apologist for rich people and so on, or you want people to start looking to hear that. So that, that I think is maybe the most interesting psychological characteristic that I’ve found when I was doing the book and it’s called the law of asymmetric insight, but a way to put it is that again, like you say, you, what you do is instead of saying that your opponent as well, Mo motivated and has some D and it’s coming from a different perspective, you say that the person who disagrees with you done doesn’t even know really the true reason they disagree with you, that you understand it, and the motives are bad. You know, you understand their true motives and their motives are bad. That’s the mindset that you get into. And to me, like, for instance, every Paul Krugman op-ed piece pretty much says that I understand the true motives of conservatives and they’re bad. And I used to say when rushing and Beau was alive, but that he, every broadcast that he gave was about how he understood the true motives that the libs and their bad and that’s really one of the most dangerous and unfortunate tendencies in our tribalism

Joe Selvaggi:

Indeed. More than just merely saying that they’re bad, they’re, this also leads to a concept in your book that you talked about in a sense policing your, your side and trying to silence the other side. So beyond the, the crew admins and the Limbaughs we have more than, more than a few people who would like to shut down the other side, they, they create boogeyman. So it could be Fox news, if you’re, you don’t care for the conservative perspective, it could be academics in, in in elite universities, if you’re a more conservative say more about this impulse to not merely join one team, but to eliminate the other.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Yeah. That’s become stronger. I, we could probably call that illiberalism because liberalism, you know, going back to John Stuart Mill, it was, you know, let’s, you know, listen to the other side and you know, answer ideas with other ideas. But for a variety of reasons, we don’t live in a world these days that’s friendly to liberalism. I suspect it has to do with the media environment that we’re confronted to immediately and to directly with points of view that bothered us. And you know, so yeah, it used to be, you know, that most of the time we were tuned out to politics and to disagreement, but now at least for some people, it’s just, you can’t avoid it. It’s like you pick up your phone and you you see something and, and, you know, even if you’re not inclined to follow the other side, in fact, maybe especially if you’re not inclined to follow them closely, you’ll just see them as caricature by people on your side. And so I think what sells on on all sorts of media, but especially social media is descriptions of outrageous act by people on the other side. And, you know, we’re, we’re kind of addicted to seeing those and saying, oh, look how bad they are and where I think we get rewarded for publicizing those, and then attacking those. So we kind of see the worst of the other side and we get riled up about it. And there’s this mechanism that kind of keeps reinforcing that behavior.

Joe Selvaggi:

Indeed. So I think as a scout versus soldier, I’m already outnumbered, but social media seems to be okay,

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Warn you that Julia says that one of the characteristics to worry about to avoid being in soldier mindset is a characteristic of believing that you’re a scout

Joe Selvaggi:

Good to Shay there. Okay. I’m a soldier in Scouts clothing here. But I will say you know, for what it’s worth, I know you have been on other podcasts, but I think the podcast medium is, is, is is a, a good one. I don’t say it’s the opposite of a Twitter rage, but it’s in a sense a, a slower way of looking at the world, which is my segway of coming up to a different concept. You introduced in your book, you talk about slow political thinking versus fast political thinking. I think you touched on it when you were talking about the pernicious effect of social media on, on average minds. Can you say more about that?

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Yeah. And I would say actually empirically, I, I the summer I, I set up this crazy idea of fantasy and electrical teams, which is a way of scoring and trying to reward people for, you know, showing scout mindset and so on. And what I found was that that really increased my following of podcasts. And I think it’s because a podcast, you know, there’s another person. And so you tend to, to avoid the kind of demonization that you would get into on Twitter, where you’re sort of you’re by yourself. And then, you know, you’re going to be liked by your by the people in your tribe. So podcasting kind of keeps people more honest. It does indicate that. But that’s a better medium than some of these other media in terms of keeping people on their better behavior.

Joe Selvaggi:

If we’re going to talk about tribes, I think one of the steps in understanding where the other side might have been, right, you’ve mentioned that earlier, you have to allow for the possibility that those people with other views maybe, right. Share with us, would you, you talked about in the book for instance the progressive worldview actually nailed it in the sixties with the civil rights act, whereas in that same time, conservatives and libertarians that got it rather wrong and missed the boat share with our listeners where let’s say libertarians or conservatives have gotten a right or another example where Progressives really got it. Right.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Let’s see. Well, one example where libertarians think we’re right is in and this may be an odd one is because the libertarians are skeptical of government and are aware that government makes mistakes. They’re aware that government makes mistakes overseas as well as domestically. So they tend to be they, they tend to be dubious of intervention at a time when other people might be all riled up for intervention. So they probably were more skeptical of, let’s say the Afghan war than, than other people, because everyone else kind of got riled up about, you know, how bad the Taliban were and how bad nine 11 was conservatives, I think probably are more right about I think you know, things like the black lives matter thing that we really should be focusing on civilization versus barbarism issues and not run everything through the oppressor oppressed and even, and I think even libertarians who try to be hyper focus, their criticism on police, I think are kind of missing the boat a little bit.

Joe Selvaggi:

We’re running up against our time together. So I want to bring in just one last genuine question your book, your initial book was written before a fairly divisive character of Donald Trump was on the scene. And as far to my ear and listening to what I have listened to of, of his political rhetoric he doesn’t seem to fit on any access in my view. I think he has something for everyone on the on each and has something to alienate someone on each of those access as well. Does your global heuristic explain that phenomenon in any meaningful way,

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Only in the sense that there that you have tribalism, but he does, does reorient the tribalism partly because he makes everything so personal, you know, it’s all about him and support for him and opposition to him as a person in that sense, he is like a, kind of a, a, a, you know, a Latin American populist type leader and the other. Yeah. So that it is different. And I think it, it speaks to a different divide that has emerged the divide between people who are college educated and think because of that, that they’re kind of superior in some way. And then people who really resent the way the college educated people, trying to Lord it over them. So that’s kind of a new divide, maybe a new access that emerged in that sense. The book has gotten out of date

Joe Selvaggi:

And date. It might introduce a fourth access. We we talked a little bit about this sort of a loss of faith of quote unquote elites or leaders and sort of the breakdown of, of confidence in anything really. I won’t say broadly, it’s, it’s a conspiracy theorist, but we have Martin Gary on the show. And he talked about the power of information to have a S somewhat lose trust in institutions. But you know, there’s really no equivalent dynamic. That’s going to help us rebuild, let’s say more trustworthy institutions. You know, I, this seems to be moving in one direction away from away from trust and, and towards essentially tribalism.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Yeah, I think, I think that’s kind of a central problem. It’s not the central problem that we face in our society today. And I think a lot of the problems the institutions themselves have become corrupted, they’d be any institution can be gamed. I mean, I, I worked in business a lot and, you know, you have employees trying to gain the system of compensation so that instead of trying, instead of using the system as an incentive to do better for the company, they figure out ways to work as little as possible, but still get the most compensation possible. And I think over time that’s happened to our institutions and I also just for our whole, in a whole variety of ways and for reasons, so most of which I probably don’t understand universities, journalism and academia have all become corrupted in recent years. And I think that’s a big challenge. They’re not selecting the best people and they’re not elevating the best ideas of the way I think they, I think they used to be better at that. And that’s that’s, I think a major challenge for our society.

Joe Selvaggi:

Indeed, I would say from my point of view, they’re not even trying to move away from this liberal trend instead trying to enforce Orthodox here ideologies. It’s, it’s very strange. Okay. so we’re near to the end of our time together. I just want to make sure our listeners who enjoyed what you said on our show today, where they can find your books, your blog and learn more about your work.

Dr. Arnold Kling:

Okay, well, the the three languages book is actually on a website called libertarianism.org, and you can get it for free issue search around there. I think and my blog just searched for our Arnold Kling blog. I’m sure you can find it. And I also have a sub stack. So if you search for Arnold Kling on sub stack, you can find that

Joe Selvaggi:

Well I think our listeners will enjoy it because your work doesn’t just have your ideas, but it has lots of to other important thinkers where you’ve found some of your insights. So it’s a really a treasure trove of, of information. So thank you for joining us today and sharing your time today, Dr. Kling you’ve you’ve really I think made our listeners think when

Joe Selvaggi:

This has been another episode of Hubwonk, a podcast of pioneer Institute, a think tank in Boston. If you enjoy today’s episode, there are several ways to support the show. It would be easier for you and better for us. If you subscribe to Hublot on your iTunes pod catcher, it would help others to find Hubwonk. If you offer a five star rating or a favorable review, and of course, naturally we’re happy if you want to share Hubwonk with friends, if you have ideas or suggestions or comments for me about future episodes, please reach out to me at Hubwonk@pioneerinstitute.org. Please join me next week for a new episode of Hubwonk.

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