The Women’s March on Washington and the Incorrect Use of Political Language

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:

 

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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.headerforkling3axis

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:

  1. Progressives will use terms like “white privilege,”  and “undocumented worker.”
  2. Conservatives will use terms like “illegal alien,” “go to the end of the line,” or  “they broke the law.”
  3. Libertarians will use terms like “open borders,” and  “the only thing keeping illegal immigration illegal is the government.”problems_with_illegal_immigration

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 powerful1485062278-sshow_wom_march_04. 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 2017-01-21t004156z1lynxmped0k00qrtroptp4usa-trump-inauguration-protestsagainst 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.

 

The Overton Window

I came across a term I had never heard before in reference to public policy called the “Overton Window.”  The Overton Window was developed by Joe Overton (now deceased) while he served as senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy from  1992-2003.  Essentially, Overton believed that at a given point in time, the number of public policy options that politicians are allowed to consider is rather limited.  The “window” of politically acceptable options is not defined by what politicians prefer (or what is even beneficial to society), but rather by what politicians believe they can support and still get elected or re-elected.  The Overton Window shifts to include new options not when new  ideas are presented by politicians, but instead when the public (who elects them) accepts the new ideas and demands they  become policy.

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To avoid a left wing-right wing political comparison, Overton created a spectrum that arranged policies from “more free” to “less free”.  At some point in time, some group of policies along the freedom spectrum will fall into a “window of political possibility.”

Policies inside the window are politically acceptable, meaning officeholders believe they can support the policies and survive the next election.  Policies outside the window, either higher or lower, are politically unacceptable at the moment.  If you shift the position or size of the window, you change what is politically possible.  As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable.

New ideas move from outside the Overton window and into public policy as follows:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Overton often used Michigan’s education policy of the 1980s and ’90s to demonstrate his point.  The full spectrum for public education ranged from 100% parental choice at the high end, and a complete government monopoly void of  private schools, home schooling, charter schools, or other education options at the other. In the 1980’s, any politician who advocated for any option outside of 100% support for government schooling would have had a difficult time getting elected, and passing any legislation for education improvement outside of giving more money to government schools was unthinkable.  Although politicians could make  minor changes in support of home schooling, any support for charter schools was considered to be extreme; however, as the public became more aware of the success of private schools, home schooling, and charter schools in other states, it became safer for politicians to support legislation that would advance these new education initiatives.  By the 1990’s, home schooling and charter schools became part of the status quo, and opposition for these programs became a political liability.  The “window” had expanded to include options other than a government monopoly for education because the public had gained a deeper understanding and a greater appreciation for their benefits.

Politicians as a group are constrained to only advocate for ideas that fall within the window.  While they may personally believe in better ideas, most don’t have the fortitude to fight public opinion because it makes reelection more difficult.  As a result, their voting records tend to be reflections of voter demands rather than better ideas.

Overton believed it was the mission of think tanks to expand the window of opportunities for public policies by researching different ideas, educating the public, and advising politicians on how to implement them for societal improvement.  As in the case of Michigan’s education policy, the Mackinac Center helped get home schools and charter schools into the “Overton Window” by presenting these options to citizens and politicians alike.  As they became more familiar, they became more popular; today it would be unthinkable for a politician to come out against home schooling or charter schools as opposition now resides outside the Overton Window.

The concept of the Overton Window intrigues me, as I often struggle with our broken political system.  Occasionally I wonder if running for public office is really all that impactful.  It appears for those citizens who have a passion for improving our current political process, the best use of one’s energies is to educate the public on successful solutions that are currently outside the Overton Window.  Perhaps a citizen can make a bigger difference by educating his neighbors on the merits of free markets, sound money, and individual liberty than it is to convince our neighbors to vote for particular political candidates.

While I will continue to respect those willing to put up with the difficulties of running for and serving in public office,  I will, at least for the time being, continue to study policy issues and attempt to influence my peer group on why some policies work better than others.  I will let others serve in the halls of government; however, my chosen area of operations will be that piece of ground just outside the Overton Window.

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