Kling asserts that progressives, conservatives, and libertarians typically think about politics according to three different axes, or spectrums:
Oppressor/oppressed [naturally preferred by progressives] Civilization/barbarism [naturally preferred by conservatives] Freedom/coercion [naturally preferred by libertarians]
In other words:
Progressives primarily care about helping the oppressed, and they therefore can't fathom why other people would oppose something like gay marriage.
Conservatives primarily care about maintaining the strictures of civilization, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose banning late-term abortion.
Libertarians primarily care about freedom, and they therefore can't fathom why someone would oppose free markets.
Understanding Political Opponents
Kling's main point is that most of the time when we speak at cross purposes or get into heated political arguments, it's because we frame our political opponents in a way that they wouldn't frame themselves. In other words, we use a different axis than they do when talking about a political idea, and according to our axis our political opponents look like idiots.
We don't have to do this, though. Kling says that if we step back and see an issue as an opponent frames it, then we can better understand them, and they don't seem so ignorant.
It's a simple theory that opens up lots of possibilities. The first is that in light of the theory it doesn't make sense to be strictly progressive, conservative, or libertarian. Instead, it seems ideal to be open to the possibility that there are times when helping the oppressed is the best choice, or times when maintaining civilization is the best choice, or times when fighting for freedom is the best choice.
Additionally, it opens up the possibility for political opponents to discover commonalities. For instance, an issue like gay marriage can be framed as not only helping the oppressed, but also as supporting family values (i.e. civilization) and freedom. Once an issue is convincingly framed in light of all three axes like this, then it will likely overcome the status quo and be supported by a majority (just as gay marriage is supported by a majority in many places now).
Narratives That Exemplify the Three Languages
The theory can also help us understand how different narratives are framed, which can in turn help us better understand make use of the theory.
I'll start with Cloud Atlas, which is one of the most progressive narratives I've encountered.
"There is a natural order to this world," one of the oppressors says toward the end, "and those who try to upend it do not fare well." It's a key quote of the narrative, a warning that it's safer to adhere to the demands of established institutions than to buck against them. Of course, the heros in each time period don't listen, and they buck against the institutions anyway—something they're later admired for doing.
The narrative takes the view, then, that the oppressed people of prior ages become the heros or gods of the next (mirroring Christ in Christianity, who was pitted against civilized Pharisees). It's a very progressive narrative. One that pits the oppressed against oppressors.
Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight Rises is a more conservative narrative, with a central tension of civilization (Batman) vs. barbarianism (the Joker).
In this case, the villain isn't a long-established institution. Instead, he's an underground psycho, motivated solely by chaos, making statements like "the only sensible way to live in this world is without rules" and destroying the symbols of power and greed (piles of cash, for instance) that drive other villains.
What's more, Batman uses a surveillance apparatus to catch the Joker, and even though the movie doesn't reduce the message to "surveillance = good," libertarians likely balk that the apparatus is shown as useful in tracking the Joker and restoring order to Gotham.
It's a narrative where we root for the hero to return the people to civilization, a city without barbaric villains.
And of course a classic libertarian narrative is 1984, a story where the central tension is freedom vs coercion. The narrative is well known: the protagonist realizes that his government is totally coercive, and he desperately tries to break away and be free—even if it's just the freedom to think what he wants! And yet [spoiler alert] the coercive powers are too powerful.
The story that doesn't hide its message even a little bit. The heros are those who want freedom; the villains, those who are coercive.
The point here is that people of all stripes enjoy these narratives and have no problem imaging these worlds centered on different axes. I mean, there are progressives, conservatives, and libertarians who admire all three stories.
And so when it comes to storytelling most of us seem totally willing to buy into different ways of viewing the world. When we read a book like Cloud Atlas or watch a movie like The Dark Knight we typically don't have our political hat on, and we just enjoy the exploration of ideas and storytelling.
But something happens when we start talking about politics. When we talk about politics we generally assume that the world functions only according to one axis (our own). Kling's point is that we should be more willing to imagine how each political issue falls along multiple axes, including oppressor/oppressed, civilization/barbarism, and freedom/coercion.
If we did that, I imagine we'd discover a truth very similar to this quote from Justin Freeman: "Your opponent in any debate is not the other person, but ignorance." And then political conversations would turn from a matter of so-called idiots talking at cross purposes with each other, and instead become something more productive. That's the hope, at least.