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The Three Languages of (American) Politics

Recently I was listening to some back episodes of the Econ Talk podcast, on Chuck's recommendation, and I found one that struck me as very interesting. It's titled Kling on the Three Languages of Politics.

It's a longer podcast, but it's worth a listen if you have time.

Kling believes that the majority of Americans fall under one of three political world views: progressive, conservative, or libertarian. He finds the distinction between these world views to be what they view as Good and Bad.

Here's how he describes these three views:

Progressives organize the good and the bad in terms of oppression and the oppressed, and they think in terms of groups. So, certain groups of people are oppressed, and certain groups of people are oppressors. And so the good is to align yourself against oppression, and the historical figures that have improved the world have fought against oppression and overcome oppression.

The second axis is one I think Conservatives use, which is civilization and barbarism. The good is civilized values that have accumulated over time and have stood the test of time; and the bad is barbarians who try to strike out against those values and destroy civilization.

And the third axis is one I associate with Libertarians, which is freedom versus coercion, so that good is individuals making their own choices, contracting freely with each other; and the bad is coercion at gunpoint, particularly on the part of governments.


I don't think of these axes as some kind of fundamental explanation of why people think what they do. More, it predicts how they will be most comfortable expressing their points of view. So, a Progressive will be most comfortable expressing their point of view on immigration, whatever it is, in terms of how it deals with oppressed groups. Conservatives will be most comfortable talking about it in terms of how it affects civilized values versus a tax on civilized values. And Libertarians will be most comfortable talking about it in terms of freedom versus coercion.

So we have three 'axes' or ways of thinking about the world:

  • Progressives: The Oppressed vs. Oppression
  • Conservatives: Civilization vs. Barbarism
  • Libertarian: Freedom vs. Coercion

As people, we have a tendency to simplify things into "us versus them" situations. So, naturally, for any particular political issue, when we encounter someone who disagrees with us, our reflex is to lump them in the opposing "them" category. For instance, a progressive who sees a particular issue in terms of a group of people being oppressed is likely to view someone who they disagree with on that issue to be supporting the oppression of these people.

I hadn't thought of things in exactly these terms before, but the concept really fit my experience. I thought it was especially interesting to hear the host of the show, Russ Roberts, describe the three world views as being something like "tribes."

People like to hang out with certain types of people that are like themselves, typically; a certain tribalism that is true of religion; it's true of politics, too--although people don't like to think of it that way, but I think it is a good way to think about it. So we get into the habit of talking to our inside group. And then when we take that language and confront someone who is on the other side, it's extremely ineffective. And they don't get it.

At Strong Towns we run into this all the time. All the time.

I would argue that one of the reasons we've had such rapid growth and adoption of our message is that Chuck originated this message from somewhere in the Conservative / Libertarian camp, whereas the majority of other organizations that are interested these issues come from a Liberal / Progressive point of view.

For many, Strong Towns is the first group that has talked to Conservatives in their own language about the problems with built environment in America today, and how the effects of those problems ripple through into all areas of our life.

Beyond that, though, we're strongly non-partisan (even anti-partisan) in our approach. These issues are bigger than any one political cohort, they affect everything, and we can't afford to descend into an "us versus them" battle. The hole we're in is deep, and all of us are going to have to work together if we're going to get out.

There is one thing I've picked up, working with people of all different world views, that wasn't specifically mentioned in the podcast:

More than just good versus bad, you could think of these political axes as aligning goals versus fears.

It's important for us to recognize that these three axes are not in fact directly opposed to each other. If someone does not share your goal, it doesn't necessarily mean their goal is your fear.

When we speak in towns and neighborhoods about changing the development model, we hear a lot of people express their fears, and we do our best to engage in an honest discussion about those fears. We try to go beyond people's reflexive reactions, talk about their goals, and show them how the traditional development pattern can meet them. Often, when we're done talking, people are able to see many ways in which they might prefer the outcomes of the traditional development pattern. A normal level of wariness about the unfamiliar remains, but the fear is usually taken out of the equation.

Over the next few weeks I'll revisit this concept, and talk about the ideological resistance we encounter in the real world. I'll walk through the most common kind of conversation we have with Conservatives, Libertarians, and Progressives, and try to show how a Strong Towns approach makes sense for all three. I hope this will be useful for new readers coming from different backgrounds, and also for committed Strong Towns advocates who might have a hard time talking to someone who has a very different political perspective.

For those on the Strong Towns Network, I've started a related conversation about political languages and the knee-jerk reactions people offer. If you're not part of the network, we'd love for you to join .

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Reader Comments (7)

Great post! I personally am drawn to the Strong Towns approach precisely for the reason you suggest: that it speaks the language of conservatives/libertarians. Previously I had a generalized sense about traditional development but was somewhat put off by the prevailing language and assumptions in the movement. I look forward to your future posts.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMark

It seems to me that in issues relating to sprawl and smart growth, only two of these languages are commonly used. The Progressive language is pretty widespread (seeing sprawl as oppression- or on the other side, seeing spawl as liberating because it might reduce housing costs) and the Libertarian language (seeing sprawl as either more choice or the negation of same) even more so- but the Conservative language (civilization vs. barbarism) is not really part of the discussion; conservatives tend to either adopt libertarian language or be completely uninterested in the issue.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Lewyn

I was just thinking to myself that most people are going to have a hierarchy of political languages in their heads: a "pure" progressive, "pure" conservative, "pure" libertarian is going to be hard to find. So I posit instead that we have dominant, secondary, and inferior political languages--that means that we identify with our dominant language, "get" stuff written in the secondary language, and stuff in the inferior language is utterly foreign to us.

For example, a churchgoing member of the African-American community is likely progressive-dominant, and conservative secondary: he understands, though opposes, much of the conservative agenda; a libertarian might as well be from Mars to him.

I'd also bet that understanding political languages in this way helps us understand other elements of our political life.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSteve S.

Yes! I cannot recommend that EconTalk episode and those axes to people enough.

I really like the conservativism/libertarianism distinction, because the US popular 'right' seems really muddled and mixed around that. Some things have to be done "because it's the law" (sui generis) while other times "the man" is stiffling our freedoms.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterneil21


I respectfully disagree. In my experience the conservative reaction against urbanism is the one I hear the most. It's the misunderstanding of a relatively new "convention" as "the way things have always been done." That argument is something like: "We have these rules for a reason, the engineers know what they're doing, we have to protect our homes from businesses and traffic..." etc. etc.

That's very much an argument of someone trying to defend the established norm against a perceived dangerous change, which is I think exactly what Kling was talking about.


July 25, 2013 | Registered CommenterAndrew Burleson

I really like this.

Michael and Andrew, FWIW, I think "Civilization vs. Barbarism" is basically a nicer way of saying "tradition vs chaos".

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterChris Wilson

Excellent classification system. But... has anyone asked what external reality is doing while the various tribes have their endless debates? I think sprawl will ultimately wither away from economic pressures as fuel and water become too expensive to squander on low value uses like lawns, hour-long commutes, and air conditioning. As the weather continues to get weird the insurance industry will redline areas prone to floods, storms, and fires. Without insurance banks won't issue new loans and property will revert to much lower cash value. Municipal governments with too much infrastructure and not enough revenue will continue to declare bankruptcy etc. These things will unfold regardless of tribal interpretations. The goal will be to respond to external reality in a constructive manner rather than look for who is to blame or try and hold on to the status quo. I'm not sure this is a message that any group wants to hear or will embrace willingly.

July 25, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterJohnny S.
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