Talking Past One Another

direct voter contact


The 2016 general election look to be shaping up as a contest of base turnout—relatively very few voters have malleable opinions about Secretary Clinton and Mr. Trump. And we have every indication that the nominees will be talking past one another rather than debating alternative solutions to an agreed upon priority of issues.  

Although the electoral college will reward a “base voter mobilization” strategy, retaking the US Senate requires that we sway a larger pool of undecideds and soft conservatives in key states. A 2015 study by professors at U of Toronto and Stanford provide useful lessons. 

Professors Matthew Feinberg and Robb Willer studied the use of moral arguments in political discussions and drew two very useful conclusions. First, people from both sides of the political spectrum had difficulty creating arguments to match their opponents’ moral framework. Second, both liberals and conservative found moral arguments more convincing if they were reframed to fit their respective moral foundations.  

What makes a moral argument? Feinberg and Willer argue that citizens tend to think about positions in two ways; consequentialist or absolutist. A consequentialist argument looks at cost-benefit analysis and the practical outcome of a political position. An absolutist, or moral, argument, on the other hand is unwavering and unconcerned with practical costs or benefits.   

The authors use the work of USC psychologist Jesse Graham who defined five different moral foundations. 
● Fairness/Reciprocity- The desire to give all individuals equal treatment
● Harm/Care - Protecting others from harm
● Ingroup/Loyalty - Loyalty to those within your group or nationality
● Respect/Authority - Respect of authority or the authority of ideas 
● Purity/Sanctity - Protection of Religious or Social Ideals

In a 2009 study, Graham found that liberals more typically based their moral arguments in Fairness/Reciprocity and Harm/Care paradigms. Conservatives on the other hand were more likely to value Ingroup/LoyaltyRespect/Authority and Purity/Sanctity

A Useful Reminder to the Message Crafters:  
The 2015 study confirmed that when Liberals used their own moral framework to craft arguments to persuade Conservatives to support same sex marriage it rarely worked. The same was true for Conservatives appealing to liberals to make English our national language. And in those instances where proponents mistakenly argued against the other side’s moral foundations, they antagonized their audience. 

In our next essay we will explore in more detail the benefits of making sure your messaging on visceral issues is grounded in the other sides’ moral foundations. And in the meantime, we remind our readers of Fineburg and Willer’s observation that yelling longer and louder about our moral high ground is counterproductive in close contests. 

We invite you to read the 2015 study in the Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by clicking here and the 2009 work on Moral Foundations by clicking here. 

As always, we invite you to join our conversation on social media with #chismstrat.


There are no comments yet.

Leave a Comment