As I watched online the Women’s March on Washington take place across the country and around the world, I was confused about its goals. Most of the women I know well were not particularly supportive, and when I queried others on social media about the march’s purpose I received almost as many different answers as the women who responded to my question. Ultimately, I took a look at the movement’s mission statement on its website, and this is what I found:
There is a lot to unpack in this mission statement, but when I revert back to my Marine Corps officer training on how to write a mission statement, it appears the mission of the march is twofold: 1) send a “bold” message to President Trump that women’s rights are human rights, and 2) organize grassroots efforts to create change towards getting more women elected into office at all levels. What is amazing is how few people actually understood this mission. It was as if the participants of the march were speaking a language that was undecipherable to the target audience: Donald Trump, and those who elected him. In this essay I will explain why the incorrect use of political language by anti-Trump protesters was misunderstood by most Trump supporters. I will also explain how the proper use of political language can increase one’s persuasive power in the marketplace of political ideas.
A few years ago I read an excellent eBook titled: “The Three Languages of Politics.” In the book the author, Professor Arnold Kling of George Mason University, argues: “Our political debates are frustrating and endless because each group expresses itself along a preferred axis.” Kling argues there are three different axes we use as heuristics to define our political language. From each axis we explain our understanding of good and evil. These three axes are: 1) the progressive (liberal, left-leaning) axis; 2) the conservative (right-leaning) axis, and 3) the libertarian axis.
Progressives view politics along an oppressor vs. oppressed axis. As such, progressives see the world as a collection of people groups who are either oppressing other groups or are being oppressed by other groups. Their heroes are anyone who is looking out for the little guy or the underdog, and the bad guys are anyone who is big, powerful and dominant. More than any other value, progressives crave equality and they despise advantage.
Conservatives on the other hand, view politics along a civilization vs. barbarism axis. Unlike progressives who see people as members of groups, conservatives perceive the world as a collection of various societies and cultures along a spectrum from civilized to barbaric. To the conservative, civilization is a collection of values, behaviors, and beliefs that have stood the test of time, and barbarism are those forces that attempt to destroy those same time-tested values, behaviors and beliefs – at the risk of destroying civilization itself. Conservative heroes defend what our forefathers built that is good, reliable, and secure, and the bad guys are rebels and revolutionaries who want to topple the status quo. Conservatives are turned off by anyone who breaks the rules, engages in shocking and outrageous behavior, or disrespects authority and tradition. Conservatives crave consistency and positive results, and they despise chaos, anarchy, and disorder.
Libertarians view politics along a freedom vs. coercion axis, and they perceive the world as a collection of individuals who function at their highest level when left alone. Libertarian heroes are defenders of freedom like America’s own revolutionary Sons of Liberty, and the bad guys are any government or social institutions that create burdensome rules and regulations, obstacles, controls, prohibitions or requirements established to limit free choice. Libertarians believe the only legitimate function of government is to protect the natural rights of all individuals, so they may live their lives as they see fit, and any government intrusion into the individual choices of citizens that isn’t directly protecting lives, liberty, or property, is illegitimate. Libertarians crave freedom and they reject all acts of force that limit individual freedom beyond what is necessary to prevent one individual from harming another.
Based on the particular axis from which we each view politics, we tend to use what Kling calls “axis language” whenever we engage in political discourse. With axis language, we view our personal opinions from the good end of the axis, and we place everyone else’s conveniently at the other, evil end. Like any heuristic, axis language requires very little thinking, and it isn’t particularly useful in solving complex problems or arriving at certainty. Axis language doesn’t explain “why” people arrive at their political conclusions, it merely explains how they express their viewpoints. Using immigration as an example of axis language, we can observe how liberals, conservatives, and libertarians use different language to express themselves politically:
- Progressives will use terms like “white privilege,” and “undocumented worker.”
- Conservatives will use terms like “illegal alien,” “go to the end of the line,” or “they broke the law.”
- Libertarians will use terms like “open borders,” and “the only thing keeping illegal immigration illegal is the government.”
We use axis language for several reasons. First of all, in a society where progressives, conservatives, and libertarians are rivalrous and hostile tribes, we use it to explain to others which team we belong. Secondly, proper use of axis language reassures others of our loyalty to the tribe, and when we use strong axis rhetoric, we can actually raise our status within the tribe. Axis language effectively whips up hostility towards other tribes, but more importantly, it tends to close the minds of people who are already in our camp. Libertarians will say progressives want a nanny state, and conservatives want a police state, but progressives and conservatives seldom describe themselves in similar terms. What is interesting to note is, axis language tends to be ineffective in winning others outside of the tribe over to our own points of view.
Using Kling’s 3-axis model, we can describe what was said by progressive protesters during the presidential inauguration and Women’s March on Washington, and what was heard by their conservative target audience. The protesters were communicating their displeasure of Donald Trump’s election, as he is the icon of everything progressives perceive as oppressive: he is wealthy, white, Christian, and powerful. Because progressives see the world along an oppressor-oppressed axis, and progressive heroes fight oppressors, their chosen rhetoric attempted to communicate their commitment to protecting the weak and marginalized (women, minorities, gays, the poor, and immigrants) from the newly elected oppressor-in-chief. Images of women adorned in costumes of female genitalia, posters proclaiming: “Not My President!” and black garbed anarchists burning limousines and hurling bricks through bank windows, were a call to arms to progressives around the world to unite for resistance against a coming wave of Trump oppression.
While progressives may have succeeded in energizing their base, they failed miserably in being understood by others outside their own political tribe. From conservatives – who view the world along a civilization-barbarism axis – the backlash was immediate. What conservatives saw and heard was not a resistance against oppression, but instead an open rebellion against civilized society. Violent protesters destroying police cars, women adorned in profane costumes, and crotch grabbing gestures from celebrity speakers all communicated a need for conservatives to rally the troops to protect society from the Huns at the gate.
While it remains to be seen if conservatives won the presidential election, it is crystal clear progressives lost. As a result, progressives will need to speak in a different political language besides their own if they want to be heard, understood, and taken seriously. Angry speeches attacking President Trump and his supporters might feel good, but if their message is perceived by conservatives as anti-social or counter cultural, progressives will lose what little influence they currently possess. Rather than use the rhetoric of revolution and angry defiance, progressives will increase their odds of being persuasive if they speak in languages other political groups will understand. If progressives are sure their views are good for society, they should make that case rather than attempt to dismantle the current status quo. If they want to help the marginalized, they must stop labeling the majority as racist, bigoted, homophobic, misogynistic, and privileged. To be convincing, progressives will need to communicate that their ideas will make society healthier, stronger, and more orderly; because if they don’t, conservatives will not comprehend the progressive message.
Finally, progressives can be more effective in their message if they stop talking in the past and present tense, and begin talking in the future tense. In his book on rhetoric, “Thank You For Arguing,” Jay Heinrichs encourages us to use the future tense if we want positive outcomes. According to Heinrichs, “blame” comments deal with the past, (i.e., “Trump made derogatory comments about women”), and comments about “values” are in the present tense (i.e., “Trump is a cheeto-faced, bigoted, misogynist”), but “choices”leading to positive change have the best chance of success when communicated in the future tense (i.e., “We hope President Trump ensures the poor don’t lose access to health care”). If progressives want to influence others to their viewpoints, they would be wise to speak about how we can work together to make things better for the future rather than blame conservatives for things that happened in the past, or label conservatives in the present as hate-filled oppressors.
We all enjoy free speech, but there is no natural or positive right to be influential; that only comes from skill and hard work. At a time when, in addition to the presidency, conservatives control two-thirds’s of the state legislatures, 31 out of 50 governorships, and majorities in both the U.S. House and U.S. Senate, progressives will have to work harder to wield influence. If progressives continue to speak in a political language only they can comprehend; or, if they continue to blame conservatives for past transgressions and label conservatives with pejoratives in the present tense, progressives can expect to endure four long years where the best they can hope for is to be politely ignored.