By Connor McMann
Congressional and gubernatorial races in 2022 represent the first big opportunity for American voters to pass judgment on the Biden administration and life under Democratic rule. With Democrats and Republicans preparing to do battle in an enormously consequential election cycle, undecided American voters in every constituency will be courted by a broad range of hopeful candidates with a variety of moral arguments and appeals. According to one moral psychology theory, these moral arguments can be crafted in specific ways to appeal more to liberal or conservative voters—and liberals may be guilty of caring too much.
First formulated by psychologists Jonathan Haidt and Jesse Graham, Moral Foundations Theory argues that there are five “moral taste buds” that humans use when judging whether something is right or wrong: care (preventing harm), fairness (promoting equality), loyalty (to a group or community), authority (respect for order and hierarchy), and sanctity/purity (keeping things the way God or nature intended). Haidt’s research found that liberals are most sensitive to care and fairness, while conservatives show roughly equal regard for all five foundations. He argues that the American left “fails to understand social conservatives and the religious right” because liberals do not, to the same extent, value loyalty, authority, and sanctity—the three moral foundations that serve to bind conservative communities together. Haidt goes as far as to claim that the Republican party in the U.S. enjoys a near-monopoly on appeals to these moral foundations: it is the party that most proudly waves the American flag, supports the troops, and honors the ideals of Christianity, for example. However, Haidt’s claim that this represents a uniquely conservative advantage should be met with skepticism. After all, these three moral concerns are not impervious to being hijacked for immoral reasons: some studies have even associated these “binding” moral foundations with authoritarianism, social dominance, and psychological motives to reduce uncertainty and threat. (One needs only to be reminded of President Trump’s bible-holding photo op in front of St. John’s to see this hijacking in action.)
Still, bad actors notwithstanding, might American liberals benefit from increasing their appeals to these ‘conservative’ moral concerns? Further psychology research suggests that crafting liberal messages that appeal to conservative “moral taste buds” can lead conservatives to care more greatly for liberal causes. One study demonstrated that current discourse surrounding environmentalism and climate change is based primarily on moral concerns related to harm and care, and that reframing environmental action as a moral obligation to preserve nature’s purity (e.g., cleaning up dirty beaches and forests) “largely eliminated the difference between liberals’ and conservatives’ environmental attitudes.” Promoting the Green New Deal, a broad package of progressive policies geared towards combating climate change and inequality, as an opportunity to transition to a “more just, more dignified” economy will undoubtedly excite progressives. However, could the policy find more support from conservatives and the religious right if it were branded as our moral duty to decontaminate our drinking water, clean our oceans and highways, and maintain the sanctity of God’s creation?
To be clear: liberals in the U.S. should not abandon their long-standing commitment to fairness or care. In a country that already leans conservative and in an era of rising inequality, these moral concerns need champions now perhaps more than ever. Nonetheless, with nine months to go before midterm elections and gubernatorial races upend the political landscape, and with early polling suggesting that Democrats may be headed for heavy defeats in November, Democrats would do well to embrace conservative moral concerns and broaden their messaging in ways that appeal more greatly to non-liberal voters, especially in regards to climate change. Recent polls reveal that a majority of Americans, including Republicans, support bold federal action to combat climate change: 80% of Americans support tougher restrictions on carbon emissions, 79% of Americans believe the U.S. should prioritize the development of alternative energy sources, and 73% support taxing corporations based on their carbon emissions. Moreover, support for such policies is increasingly popular among young voters, a fact GOP politicians are keenly aware of, and many Republicans feel that their party must do more to shake the label of climate deniers or else suffer long-term reputational damage. Democrats seeking electoral victories in 2022 and beyond would be wise to hold Republican feet to the wildfire. Doing so by appealing to the entire range of moral concerns can increase the burn.