Mapping Moral Language on US Presidential Primary Campaigns Reveals Rhetorical Networks of Political Division and Unity

New research from William Brady, an assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, sheds light on the role of moral language in setting apart U.S. presidential candidates. The study, coauthored by Kobi Hackenburg of the University of Oxford and Manos Tsakiris of the University of London, analyzes candidate tweets from the 2016 and 2020 elections. The findings reveal that Democrats and Republicans both utilize morally charged language, but in distinct ways. Democrats tend to emphasize care and fair treatment, while Republicans focus more on in-group loyalty and respect for social hierarchy.

Contrasting Moral Appeals of Democrats and Republicans

The researchers employed moral foundations theory, which suggests that different moral systems draw from shared fundamental themes such as care, fairness, loyalty, authority, and sanctity. Analyzing 139,412 tweets from 39 major-party candidates, the study found that Democrats used more terms related to care and fairness compared to Republicans. Democrats also used similar language within their party, emphasizing words like "justice" and "equity." On the other hand, Republicans discussed loyalty, authority, and sanctity more, but with slightly more variation in their specific language, influenced in part by Trump's distinct moral rhetoric.

Examining Intraparty Differences and Unique Approaches

The analysis of candidate tweets revealed surprising intraparty differences. Trump, for instance, discussed fairness, a signature value of Democrats, but used unique terms like "liar," "dishonest," and "biased." Candidates such as Biden, Buttigieg, and Williamson also diverged from their party's typical moral rhetoric. They discussed traditionally Republican values, sometimes using the same terms as Republicans and sometimes with their own language. For example, Biden and Williamson talked about sanctity using words like "prayers" and "soul." Buttigieg centered his campaign on the non-Republican term "belonging." These unique approaches highlight the different rhetorical strategies employed by candidates to distinguish themselves or stand out.

The Chicken-and-Egg Problem of Diverging Values

The study raises the question of whether Republicans and Democrats appeal to different values because their voters already hold differing beliefs or if the divergent moral rhetoric actually contributes to the divide. Brady suggests it is likely a combination of both. While it is reasonable to assume that Republicans and Democrats prioritize different values, research indicates that people often overestimate the policy and moral differences between themselves and the opposing political group. The moral rhetoric of candidates and party elites may shape or deepen this misperception. Adjusting moral rhetoric to make appeals in the value frames that partisans are comfortable with could potentially reduce polarization and garner support from a broader audience. In conclusion, understanding the contrasting moral appeals of Democrats and Republicans provides insights into the origins of their fundamentally different worldviews. The use of morally charged language by candidates reflects the values they prioritize and the rhetoric that resonates with their respective voter bases. By examining these rhetorical networks, there is an opportunity for candidates to bridge the divide by finding shared value frames that can bring people together.

Implications of Moral Language in Politics for the US Business Market

The findings from William Brady's study on the role of moral language in US presidential campaigns can have significant implications for the US business market, particularly for new companies. The study reveals that Democrats and Republicans use morally charged language in different ways, reflecting their distinct values. This understanding of the contrasting moral appeals can be crucial for businesses in shaping their communication strategies, marketing campaigns, and stakeholder engagement.

Understanding the Political Landscape

For new companies, understanding the political landscape and the moral values of different political groups can be instrumental in navigating the market. Businesses can tailor their messages to resonate with the values of their target audiences, potentially reducing polarization and attracting a broader customer base.

Addressing the Chicken-and-Egg Problem

The study also raises an important question: do businesses shape their values based on their target audience, or do they influence their audience's values? This chicken-and-egg problem can be a critical consideration for new businesses in defining their brand identity and value proposition. In conclusion, the study's insights into the use of moral language in politics can provide valuable guidance for new businesses in the US. By understanding and leveraging these moral appeals, companies can effectively engage with their stakeholders and succeed in the market.
Original Story By: Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University
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