Arnold Kling - The Three Languages of Politics

In our day, political rhetoric seems intended to demonize those with whom we disagree, rather than to try to persuade them. This session will discuss my book, The Three Languages of Politics, which analyzes the rhetorical patterns of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians.

In our day, political rhetoric seems intended to demonize those with whom we disagree, rather than to try to persuade them. This session will discuss my book, The Three Languages of Politics, which analyzes the rhetorical patterns of progressives, conservatives, and libertarians. I argue that each political tribe has a distinctive way of characterizing issues. Progressives, in their rhetoric, frame issues in terms of oppressor groups and oppressed groups, and they characterize those who disagree with them as favoring the oppressors. Conservatives, in their rhetoric, frame issues in terms of civilization or barbarism, and they characterize those who disagree with them as sending us down the road to barbarism. Liberarians frame issues in terms of liberty or coercion, and they characterize those who disagree with them as seeking to control the lives of others through the power of government.

I will spell out this model and give examples of issues where each tribe uses its preferred framing. This helps to explain how our rhetoric tends toward demonization rather than persuasion.

This leads to the question of why we gravitate toward demonization rhetoric rather than persuasion rhetoric. There are a number of psychological theories that might help to explain or tribal behavior.

This in turn leads to the question of whether demonization has gotten worse in recent years, and if so, why? I will discuss cultural changes and the role of new media in shaping the environment for political rhetoric.

The Three Languages of Politics was originally written before Donald Trump appeared on the political scene, and before the emergence of a social justice activist movement that questions traditional liberal norms, notably free speech. Both President Trump and the social justice activists pose new challenges to my objective of getting away from demonization and moving toward persuasion. The last part of the session will discuss these challenges.


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Arnold Kling earned a Ph.D in Economics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1980. He held positions at the Federal Reserve Board and at Freddie Mac before starting a commercial Web site in 1994. He sold his Internet business in 1999 and subsequently turned to writing and high school teaching. He has published several books, including: The Three Languages of Politics; Specialization and Trade; Crisis of Abundance (re-thinking how we pay for health care)

View his books in the conference bookstore

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