How Liberals and the GOP Can See Eye to Eye: The Art of Political Persuasion

In his inaugural address Trump declared to unify our country stating that “A new national pride will stir ourselves, lift our sights, and heal our divisions.” Since his signature on the disruptive executive order banning refugees from seven Muslim countries dried, he has ushered in what some politicians believe is the most divisive political climate since the Civil War. Protests have ensued with no end in sight as most Americans declare the order unconstitutional, un-American and, frankly, illogical given that virtually no refugees have committed terrorist attacks on the United States. Perhaps the most surprising reactions from Americans have originated from Republicans in their unwavering support of the clearly inhumane order. Top Republicans, including Speaker of the House Paul Ryan and Vice President Mike Pence, even reversed their stances on the ban as both previously classified the concept of a ban as unconstitutional:

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Liberals have tried to reason with their conservative brothers, citing the fact that these people are fleeing from terrorism, not causing it, as well as by using examples of Anne Frank and survivors of the Holocaust who were denied asylum by the United States after World War II (including Trump’s top adviser/ son-in-law Jared Kushner’s own grandparents). The problem with this is that the morality of conservatives and liberals differ so greatly to the point that trying to tug at the heart strings of Republicans is a waste of breath and cleverly drawn protest signs.

Psychologists have recently begun to study the deep divisions between the GOP and everyone else in the world through the Moral Foundations Theory. This theory states that there are five moral judgements that act as the foundation for the formation of moral beliefs and judgements. They include: harm/care foundation (concerned with one’s suffering and need to alleviate suffering), fairness/cheating foundation (concerned with justice, equality and discrimination), loyalty/betrayal foundation (prioritizes one’s in group over all other groups), authority/subversion foundation (respect for higher-ranked individuals) and sanctity/degradation foundation (concerned with sacredness, impurity and avoiding disgust-inducing behaviors).

Researchers have been able to effectively apply the Moral Foundations Theory to political ideology worldwide. Conservative parties rely on the foundations of loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation in order to make moral judgements in policy. Their admiration for the current executive order arises from the fact that they prioritize and value American’s over immigrants, see Trump as a high ranking official that knows what he is doing and deserves respect, and that immigrants and refugees are dirty people that will dirty our own country.

Conversely, research has shown that liberals rely on the foundations of harm/care and fairness/cheating in their development of political ideations. To democrats the immigration ban is unconstitutional because it infringes not only on the Constitution but defiles these moral foundations. Liberals want to welcome refugees into our country in order to alleviate their suffering and cite the fact that America is a country built on immigrants and that it is only fair to extend immigration policies that benefited our ancestors to a new generation.

While liberals and conservatives are wired differently in terms of morality, new research has shown that these moral foundations can be used to our advantage in political persuasion. Matthew Feinberg, an associate professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, has painstakingly researched the behaviors of Democrats and Republicans, including how they interact with one another. Recently, Feinberg has published studies on how to use the concepts of moral foundations to elicit political persuasion. His solution? You have to appeal to the other groups morals.

 

“Some existing research suggests the plausibility of moral reframing as a strategy for political persuasion,” writes Feinberg in his paper From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence? “A variety of studies shows that messages are more persuasive when they match the traits of the target.”

This means that in an effort to persuade conservatives to see their side on a variety of issues liberals must find a way to frame their arguments that hits one of their moral foundations of loyalty, authority, or sanctity. Olga Khazan, a writer for The Atlantic provides a good statement that encompasses republican morals in a persuasive statement against the ban:

“These refugees and immigrants are just like our family members who came to America in years past to seek a better life. All our ancestors wanted was to live the American dream, and that’s why today’s immigrants and refugees have chosen to come to America, so they too can live that same American dream that brought our families here. That dream is what our nation was founded on, it is what brought our grandparents and great-grandparents to this great land, and it is the great success story that these immigrants want to be a part of.”

 On the other hand, if conservatives want to persuade liberals to see that this immigration ban is in fact good for our country then they must try to steep their argument with ideas that include care and fairness.Arguing that refugees can take needed resources away from American children, elders and the sick may soften some liberal tensions about the ban.

But do these alternative arguments really work in political persuasion? Feinberg tested whether statements tailored to either a conservative or liberal audience can shift their perceptions of public policy in two separate studies.

The first of the two studies delved into public perception of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). Both liberals and conservatives were asked to gauge their support for universal health care after reading a short article that framed the policy in terms of fairness (a liberal moral foundation) or purity (a conservative moral foundation). Arguments in the articles either heralded the ACA as an instrument of fairness (that health care is a universal human right) or that it combated impurity (by the avenue that sick people are dirty and impure).

Amazingly, conservatives that read the article positioning Obamacare as a way to rid America of the sick and impure showed more support than conservatives that read a paragraph arguing that health care is a human right and should be allowed to all out of fairness. This effect was not just limited to conservatives as liberals showed opposite results. More liberals supported the ACA when it was described as being fair than as a way to help sick people.

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Feinberg expanded upon this study to include debate over traditional conservative viewpoints. Similar to the first study, both democratic and republican participants were asked to measure their support after reading an article of information, this time in regards to increasing military spending. Traditionally, conservatives in the United States are for amplified military spending while liberals would rather see the billions of dollars on other governmental programs such as Medicaid.

Again, arguments were framed as either appealing to the fairness moral foundation of liberals or the conservative moral foundations of loyalty and authority. One paragraph described increasing spending as a way of increasing the size of the military to include disadvantaged and poverty-stricken individuals saving said individuals from inequality issues(promoting fairness),  while the other paragraph ensured a tone of loyalty and authority by describing our military as a means for unification and keeping America the “greatest nation in the world.”

Unsurprisingly, Liberals were significantly more supportive of increased military spending when it was posited as a means of helping the poor than the condition in which the spending was justified to keep America great. Conservatives on the other hand, were more likely to show support after reading the article that was framed in terms of loyalty than after the article rooted in fairness.

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These studies support the fact that differing parties can persuade others on individual issues if they can effectually engage their audience. Feinerg concludes in his paper that:

“Research has shown that while liberals are unmoved by arguments in favor of a conservative policy that are grounded in the more conservative moral foundations, their support for the conservative position increases after reading messages grounded in the more liberal foundations, and this research also demonstrates the reverse when it comes to liberals persuading conservative targets.”

The 2016 election proved to be like no other election as individual actions became the center of attention rather than their proposed legislation. We can all famously remember Trump attacking Clinton for her email “scandal” while the message of Clinton’s advertisements largely revolved around the revolting behavior Trump showed throughout the election cycle. Debates seldom saw talk of any actual policy but rather became a boxing match: the heavyweight GOP elephant vs the spry lightweight donkey. So how can we persuade people of opposing parties when they care more about candidates than policy?

Luckily, Feinberg continued his research to include this past tumultuous election.  In a yet unpublished study, the researchers adapted the concept of moral reframing to Trump and Clinton supporters. This study revolved around the liberal moral foundation of fairness and the conservative moral foundation of loyalty out of sake for brevity.

The first study conducted centered on the public perception of our now President Donald Trump. Participants, who identified as conservative, were presented with arguments against Trump with one framed in the context of loyalty and one in the context of fairness.  Information regarding Trump’s lack of loyalty pointed to the fact that he had dodged the draft during the Vietnam War and implications that Trump is using the presidency to advance his own fiscal gains from his businesses. Fairness arguments against Trump included his quotes that discriminated against Muslims that would prevent them from being treated fairly as well as the opinion that his statements against Mexicans, African Americans, women, the disabled and practically anyone who isn’t a rich white male are discriminatory and would foster prejudice throughout America. The subjects were asked to rate Trump on warmth, acceptance as President, and likelihood to vote for him.

Similar to the first study conducted a year prior, the conservatives who read the statements against Trump rooted in loyalty registered him as less warm, said that they would not accept him as President, and stated that they were less likely to vote for him than the conservatives who read the arguments regarding fairness.

Hilary Clinton was not immune to the study as it was replicated for a second audience of Democrats, this time with arguments of fairness and loyalty being made against the former First Lady. In terms of fairness, researchers argued that Clinton accepted money from Wall Street Bankers to give speeches while millions of Americans experienced poverty during the recession. The loyalty arguments framed Clinton as less loyal by bringing up her involvement in Benghazi and that she failed our military (a huge prospect of loyalty to conservatives as pointed out in the previous study).

Liberals who were presented with information regarding Clinton as less fair described Clinton as less warm, but had no effect on whether they were less likely to accept her as President or whether they would vote for her in the election compared to liberals who were presented with the loyalty arguments.

Feinberg’s multiple research studies exist as proof that conservatives and liberals can be persuaded by each other if they reach out on issues that exist within the parameters of their morals. But in our tortuous political climate it is being made clearer day by day that our ability to sit down and argue peacefully with opposite parties is dwindling down to nothing, put into effect by our candidates who could not do the same no doubt. When conservatives cannot accept factual arguments, liberals become upset and succumb to protesting in an effort to get their view point across.

If we are to truly unite, as Trump emptily promised, we must see the differences in our judgements and appeal to those, as seen in Feinberg’s research. Conservatives must learn to see factual statistics not as attacks on authority but as a way to keep our nation great. Liberals must not automatically judge conservatives as unfair but try to see their concerns for safety and loyalty as viable. If not, we will surely be in perpetual limbo of protests and attacks, stuck in the same boxing match between elephant and donkey.  And when a TKO happens, we will all feel it.

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