Lately I’ve been reading The Three Languages of Politics, a fine little book by Arnold Kling that argues there are three primary axes according to which we think politically.
While these axes can be coextensive, and if one is thinking clearly each will come to bear on their political thinking, in practice we often keep to our preferred axis. In so doing, we limit our political imaginations and transform political conversation into a petty feat of demonstrating our allegiance to some political tribe. This is a primary process by which polarization occurs, of course, and is only compounded further by the geographic and social segregation of our political tribes.
So, what are the axes and which is preferred by each tribe?
Kling argues that conservatives tend to frame their views along the civilization-barbarism axis, progressives prefer the oppressor-oppressed axis, and libertarians appeal to the liberty-coercion axis.
One may find this all very simplistic, but that’s part of the point. These are thought to be the primary, not sole, axes by which we render our political judgements (or at least, by which we talk about politics). In practice, almost everyone uses a combination of all axes. Nevertheless, most of us are prone to underweight one or two of these axes in our thinking due to our partisan blinders.
Let’s suppose a person is mugged at gunpoint. This model would hold that a progressive is more likely than others to consider society’s complicity in producing muggers. A conservative is likely to appeal to the mugger’s lack of virtue or self-reliance, in turn a consequence of social degradation. In contrast to these, a libertarian is more likely to focus on the actual instance of coercion by the mugger, and perhaps discount the more distal causes as speculative and unnecessary.
We can disagree about how to weigh the relative importance of these, but all three perspectives (at least) are required to gain insight into mugging. Because we’re often inclined toward the perspective that predominates in our tribe, we should pay special attention to those we’re predisposed to discount, and ask if that’s justified or if our dismissal of another perspective is merely a product of our ideological bias.
Let’s reinforce the distinction with a more controversial issue: abortion.
On this model, when discussing the morality and legality of abortion, a progressive will typically appeal to the oppressive circumstances leading one to choose abortion in the first place, such as poverty. A conservative will tend to argue it’s a question of moral character, or an unwillingness to sacrifice oneself in order to raise the child. A libertarian view emphasizes the autonomy of the woman, her right to a kind of bodily integrity, provided the fetus does not have a similar claim to liberty. Whether it has such a claim is largely shaped by our scientific understanding, and therefore subject to evolve as the science evolves, rather than an a priori (and often speculative) moral principle.
One interesting aspect of this minimal framework is how it can be used to predict how one partisan will respond to another partisan’s view as well.
The progressive might suggest the conservative is uncaring and ignorant to social injustices, at best, or actively seeking to dominate women’s bodies at worst. Talk of moral character is perceived as evidence of the conservative’s oppressor nature, seeking to impose their values onto others. This is in line with the regular mailings I receive from Planned Parenthood’s political front, claiming that pro-lifers are waging war on women. (A strange view, given roughly half of women are pro-life, and the sexes hold just about the same views on the topic. In my view, the rhetoric is on a par with that of the “Abortion Holocaust” people.)
The conservative may claim the progressive holds callous views with respect to human life, and are evidence of society’s moral degradation. They may acknowledge the unfortunate circumstances of the pregnant woman, while insisting on the importance of self-sacrifice. They may champion the possibility of giving the child up for adoption, or similar alternatives that they find more morally prudent.
The libertarian will tend to discount these background matters and focus on the act itself. They will perhaps argue that scientific understanding is paramount, helping us to assess whether the fetus can feel pain, or otherwise has characteristics that may lead us to recognize it as an entity with natural rights. That somewhere between conception and eight months twenty-nine days, the entity becomes a person, and that science can help inform us when that roughly takes place. Otherwise, the entity should be regarded as a form of private property, and the woman’s liberty to choose abortion must be defended.
Naturally, these axes can be applied to most any political or social question. It is most constructive – to the ends of persuading others, and enhancing our own understanding – when we accept the (at least partial) relevance and validity of each axis, and aim to synthesize the axes we’re instinctively apt to disregard into our understanding.
For the mugger, we can accept their lack of moral character, while also maintaining that their circumstances played some role in this. We can hold these conclusions, while also finding them a bit speculative. As a result, we may seek to weigh more heavily the essential fact that the mugged person was violated, and that the mugger is likely to harm others.
If one is conservative and hopes to make inroads with a progressive, they may validate the concern about the mugger’s upbringing and impoverished circumstances, while emphasizing that many virtuous people come from miserable conditions, and that ultimately we are defined by our decisions. A progressive hoping to make inroads with a conservative on this topic may concede that we are responsible for these decisions, but argue that the range of possible decisions is narrowed when one is subject to adverse circumstances.
Similarly, even with highly contentious matters as abortion, it is possible – indeed vital to our understanding – to synthesize these perspectives accordingly.
We can respect the woman’s claim to exercising control over her body, while finding it unsettling and abstractly even a bit degrading to terminate potential human life. We can help address this tension by determining what factors lead us to attribute rights to some entity, and decide when an entity deserves protection, as informed by our scientific understanding. If we have a strong moral view, we can advocate for a sort of “harm reduction”, advocating for conditions that enable women to choose to give birth if it’s what they desire. These concerns or views are not fundamentally incompatible, and there’s plenty of room for productive compromise.
For virtually any political or social question, each axis should play some role in our thinking, and it is likely that we all underweight the axes that other tribes follow. When we do not correct for this, we participate in toxic polarization, reinforce and deepen it, and allow our minds to be colonized by the loudest partisans.
That is a tragedy for our understanding, for finding productive compromise, and for our relationships with those who think differently and have something to teach us.