Your morality isn't their morality

Why people don't wear masks, why political persuasion falls on deaf ears, and how Barack Obama is one of the only politicians that can speak to "the other side"

Note: The name of this publication recently changed from Masters of the Craft to Masters of the Message. I realized that although I’m interested in great work, any analysis that comes from me will be better if it’s related to psychology and communication (which are my areas of expertise).

In this piece:

  • How “moral foundations theory” explains the hottest political divides of the year (like mask-wearing and #BlackLivesMatter)

  • Why moderates matter, and what it actually means to be “moderate”

  • The communication techniques that make Barack Obama so persuasive to liberals and conservatives alike

8.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Donald Trump in 2016.

Keep that number in mind as you read on.


“I Don’t Know How To Explain To You That You Should Care About Other People.” 

Why is America so divided? Why are the messages that appeal to people on the left and right so different – and what stops communication across the aisle? 

The above headline is from this viral HuffPost article published in 2017, an article that’s still shared and often used as a reply to conservatives on Twitter. The most recent tweet (as of writing; they happen ~every 3 hours) expresses the divide perfectly. 

“This article/headline has just rattled around in my head all the time since it came out in 2017. It’s the depressing existential cry of helplessness that underlies almost every single modern issue and divide.”

The article’s title expresses frustration. It’s subtitle gets at a core truth of American politics today – a truth that, when understood, helps explain the rise of populism, seemingly contradictory policy positions, and the failure of progressives (and relative success of moderates) in national elections.

“Our disagreement is not merely political, but a fundamental divide on what it means to live in a society.”

Research, as you’ll see, shows that there is a fundamental moral divide – about morality. 

It turns out that morality means something different to folks on the left and right. The different “sides” feel that morality depends on different values:

  • The left cares more about caring for others and fairness

  • The right cares more about loyalty, authority, and purity

People don’t always vote in their objective self interest. But they do tend to vote in their moral self interest.

Who are the moderates, and why are they so important? How does “morality” change across the political spectrum? And what does Barack Obama – the only president of the last 20 years to win his first term with the popular vote – do differently to reach across the aisle?

What makes moderates so important? There are a darn lot of them around.

“This idea of purity and you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke. You should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids. And share certain things with you.” – Barack Obama

Warning: Fast stats ahead.

According to Pew Research, only 15% of Democrat and Democrat-leaning voters consider themselves “very liberal.” Another 32% consider themselves “liberal.” 

People who self-identified as “conservatives” or “moderates” make up 51% of Democratic voters. Half of all Democratic voters are conservative or moderate, before you even look at Republican-leaning voters.

The percentage of liberal and very liberal democrats has increased over time – but its peak is currently at 47% of Democrat/Democrat-leaning voters. 

As of April 2020, Gallup polls show that 25% of Americans identify as Republicans, 31% identify as Democrats, and 40% are independent. A follow-up question for independents (“As of today, do you lean more to the Democratic Party or the Republican Party?”) shows that the overall percentage of people who lean Democrat is 50%, compared to 38% who lean Republican.

That means, to get a majority, a Democrat needs every Democrat-leaning person to vote (and vote Democrat). A Republican needs to win some independents.

There are other factors that affect elections, of course, some of them contentious on their own: 

  • Likely voters. Younger folks tend not to vote as often, but sway Democrat. Older folks vote more often and sway Republican.

  • Access to the polls. Voter ID laws, lack of mail-in ballots, and lack of polling locations can reduce the number of voters (and skew that number in favor of Republicans).

  • Proportional representation. Gerrymandering is relevant, but also it’s likely that more than a simple majority is required to implement significant policies.

All of these percentages are to say: moderates matter.

Even in primary elections, which tend to be more extreme, most people are moderates. 

The 2020 Democratic primary largely created a narrative of “progressives” vs “moderates,” with the moderate wing of the party emerging ahead after Joe Biden’s victory. 

By the numbers, this shouldn’t be surprising. If only 15% of Democrats are very liberal, a moderate Democrat should be much more likely to win votes – and win a general election that requires winning over independents. 

In a presidential election, candidates have to win over moderates and independents. Remember: 8.4 million people who voted for Barack Obama in 2012 voted for Donald Trump in 2016. Some pundits argue that – because these voters tend to be in swing states – they account for two-thirds of the swing-state votes that defeated Hillary Clinton. 

It probably isn’t possible to create a sustained, lasting political movement and policy agenda without eventually winning support from moderates. 

(Note that this doesn’t imply you always need moderates. It’s likely for such movements to start left/right of center, local elections in more liberal/conservative areas may not need to capture moderates, major reforms often start unpopular before becoming accepted, and flash-in-the-pan movements can rely on extremism).

So there are a lot of moderates. What does it actually mean to be moderate?

“Terms like "conservative," "liberal," and "progressive" do not, and cannot, do justice to the complex reality of our politics and our experience as humans. There are indeed two worldviews in use, general progressivism and general conservatism, as we have just discussed them, but they do not exist in separate spheres. Though many self-identified "conservatives'' use the general conservative worldview in areas that matter for them, they may use the general progressive worldview in other areas. – George Lakoff, The Political Mind

Cognitive linguist George Lakoff argues that people are not completely conservative or completely liberal – and neither are they smack dab in the middle. 

Polling data supports this perspective (which Lakoff refers to as “biconceptualism”). Although polarization is increasing, most people still support a mix of liberal and conservative policies. 

To understand why, let’s turn to Moral Foundations Theory.

People vote for their moral interests. But liberals and conservatives have different moral interests.

Why do people oppose simple, inexpensive, evidence-based policies that improve general wellness and otherwise don’t affect them in the slightest?

Needle exchange programs, a simple example, let drug users exchange used hypodermic needles for clean ones. The research on needle exchange programs is great. Programs are inexpensive, reduce the spread of HIV and hepatitis, and may contribute to reducing drug-related crime.  

Needle exchanges seem like simple, uncontroversial policy. Except that they’re controversial. 

A large scale survey (n = 5,369) measured attitudes towards needle exchange programs and “moral foundations.” The researchers found that people who valued “caring for others” tended to support the programs – but people who valued “purity” and sanctity did not. 

Needle exchanges are mostly not politicized compared to issues like abortion, sex education, and immigration. But the results help explain opposition to similarly effective policies.

Moral Foundations Theory, created by psychologist Jonathan Haidt, shows how people can have very different ideas of what is “moral.”

In his work, Haidt examined moral and ethical texts throughout history, then compared the results to data collected from modern people. He discovered that there are five “foundations” of morality – five independent values that determine what a person considers moral or immoral. 

Adapted from his website, moralfoundations.org, the five moral foundations are:

  1. Care/harm: How much does an action cause or reduce harm for other people? 

  2. Fairness/cheating: How much is an action “fair?” Are people generally getting what they deserve, or are some people cheating?

  3. Loyalty/betrayal: How does an action support or denounce the in-group?

  4. Authority/subversion: How does an action respect or subvert authority, including both hierarchical leaders and overall tradition?

  5. Sanctity/degradation: How much does an action activate feelings of disgust? Relates to the desire to be “pure” or “less carnal.”

(Note that he has proposed a sixth foundation, Liberty/Oppression, but has not officially added it to the list as of writing).

Do you care more about whether your actions harm someone, or about whether they go against the popular opinion of your family? Do you care more about whether a decision is “fair,” or whether it goes against the boss?

Your answers show which moral foundations are more important to your personal morality. Notably, these answers are different for liberals and conservatives. 

Liberal people tend to rate higher in Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating. Conservative people tend to be more equal across the five foundations. Haidt and colleagues showed how secular liberals, libertarians, religious liberals, and conservatives rate across each foundation.

What does this mean practically? Moral foundations predict voting patterns. People higher in the Purity foundation (now called Sanctity) were more likely to vote for Mitt Romney in 2012. People higher in Fairness were more likely to vote for Obama. 

Remember the HuffPost article from the beginning of this piece? “I Don’t Know How to Explain to You that You Should Care About Other People.” It’s a clear expression of the Care/Harm moral foundation.

Moral Foundations Theory suggests that conservatives don’t not care about other people. They just also care more about loyalty to communities, respect for authority, and purity. 

Differences in morality explain some of the hottest divides in American politics:

  • Liberals wear masks because of Care/Harm. Conservatives don’t because of Authority/Subversion (and Liberty/Oppression, the proposed sixth foundation).

  • Liberals support #BlackLivesMatter because of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating. Conservatives support #BlueLivesMatter because of Loyalty/Betrayal and Authority/Subversion.

  • Liberals are generally pro-choice because of Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating. Conservatives are generally pro-life because of Authority/Subversion and Sanctity/Degradation.

People vote in their moral self interests, but moral interests are different across the political spectrum. 

How can you reach across such a political divide? If moral differences are so pronounced, what can you do to sway the minds of the many, many moderates?

The best example in recent times is Barack Obama, a politician who has shown himself able to reach people of a wide range of backgrounds and political persuasions. How was Barack Obama – a first-term senator running for president in a racially charged country – able to persuade 8.4 million people who eventually voted for Trump? 

How does Barack Obama reach moderates? How does he speak to progressive issues without alienating conservatives?

“More work to do for the workers I met in Galesburg Illinois, who are losing their union jobs at the Maytag plant that’s moving to Mexico. And now are having to compete with their own children for the job that pays seven bucks an hour.” – Barack Obama, speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention

“Our jobs are fleeing the country. They’re going to Mexico. They’re going to many other countries. You look at what China is doing to our country in terms of making our product.” – Donald Trump, in a 2016 debate against Hillary Clinton

As noted earlier, most people are not actually liberal or conservative, and there are very few “pure” moderates. 

People tend to be conservative on some issues and liberal on other issues, which means there’s an extremely simple (in theory, if not practice) way to win people over to your side:

  • If you’re conservative and want to win liberals, target beliefs they share with you

  • If you’re liberal and want to win conservatives, target beliefs they share with you

Combine this idea with moral foundations theory, and you get a slightly different approach:

  • When you talk to conservatives about liberal policies, make sure to emphasize loyalty, authority, and sanctity

  • When you talk to liberals about conservative policies, make sure to emphasize care and fairness

Although this sounds simple, it’s extremely rare. As cognitive scientists George Lakoff and Elisabeth Wehling write in The Little Blue Book:

“Liberals assume their own values are universal values, and then further assume that all they need to do is present the facts and offer policies that support these universal values. But values are not universal.”

People and politicians try to persuade by appealing to their own moral foundations. That works to rile up people who already agree with you – but it’s less likely to win an election on the national stage.  

Barack Obama was different. Jonathan Haidt himself observed this in his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind

“When Barack Obama clinched the Democratic nomination for the presidential race, I was thrilled. At long last, it seemed, the Democrats had chosen a candidate with a broader moral palate, someone able to speak about all five foundations. In his book The Audacity of Hope, Obama showed himself to be a liberal who understood conservative arguments about the need for order and the value of tradition.”

His books The Audacity of Hope and Dreams From My Father are excellent expressions of these ideas, as are many of the speeches he made throughout his candidacy and presidency. 

But maybe the best example is the 2004 address that many call “the speech that made him president.” 

An entire essay could analyze this speech, minute-by-minute. Instead, I want to call your attention to a few ideas and a couple of the quotes that illustrate them.

  • Appeals to tradition (Authority foundation). Obama refers to a “debt to all who came before him,” quotes the Declaration of Independence, and refers to “the legacy of our forebears.”

  • Appeals to unity (Loyalty foundation). References to “the larger American story,” a declaration that there is only the United States (not liberal/conservative America).

  • Appeals to duty/service (Authority, Loyalty), care, and fairness almost in the same breath. 

Over and over, Obama uses conservative moral foundations (Authority, Loyalty, Sanctity) to introduce liberal ideas (Care, Fairness). 

Here are a few of the specific quotes that stand out, with the areas of interest in bold.

 “As I listened to him explain why he'd enlisted, his absolute faith in our country and its leaders, his devotion to duty and service, I thought this young man was all any of us might hope for in a child. But then I asked myself: Are we serving Shamus as well as he was serving us? I thought of more than 900 service men and women, sons and daughters, husbands and wives, friends and neighbors, who will not be returning to their hometowns. I thought of families I had met who were struggling to get by without a loved one's full income, or whose loved ones had returned with a limb missing or with nerves shattered, but who still lacked long-term health benefits because they were reservists.”

Obama uses Authority and Loyalty to introduce Fairness and Care. 

“This year, in this election, we are called to reaffirm our values and our commitments. To hold them against a hard reality and see how we’re measuring up to the legacy of our forebears and the promise of future generations. And fellow Americans, Democrats, Republicans, independents I say to you tonight: we have more work to do.”

Although he is addressing the Democratic National Convention, he works to appeal to a broader political audience.

“Even as we speak, there are those who are preparing to divide us – the spinmasters, the negative ad peddlers – who embrace the politics of anything goes. Well I say to them: ‘tonight there is not a liberal America and a conservative America, there’s the United States of America.’

We coach little league in the blue states, and yes we’ve got some gay friends in the red states. There are patriots who opposed the war in Iraq and there are patriots who supported the war in Iraq. We are one people.”

Barack Obama is an incredible communicator, and has proven himself uniquely able to appeal to voters across the aisle.

To do that, he uses moral foundations – recognizing that the values of so-called “liberal” and “conservative” America are different, realizing that moving moderates is the way to move the country – and creates messages that reach across America.