The Psychology Behind Political Debate

How politicians use psychology, and what it means for democracy.

The Political Power of Words

How can health care reform be progressive and socialized medicine?

One of the arts of political rhetoric is figuring out the right way to frame an issue. We saw this most recently in the debate about Obama's health care reform, with the proposal being called socialized medicine by some, progressive health care reform by others.  In situations like these, if a proponent or opponent can successfully make a particular frame stick, that can be the difference between political success or failure.

The use of such words like progressive or socialism is common in American political discourse. It is common because it is highly effective, as pointed out in recent survey research by The Pew Research Center For the People and the Press.  The Pew Center conducted a survey of 1,546 American adults in late April, and in that survey they asked respondents whether they felt particular words or phrases that are common in American political discussion as positive or negative.

In the overall survey results, a handful of political phrases were viewed positively by at least 7 out of 10 survey respondents:  progressive, states' rights, civil liberties, civic rights, and family values.  It is interesting to note that family values was seen positively by 89% of survey respondents, and that tells you why every politician in America seems to wrap themselves in the mantle of family values!

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But two political phrases were seen in a more negative light, the phrase militia (65% negative) and socialism (59% negative).  That also gives you a good sense for why politicians don't typically want themselves or their causes associated with either phrase militia or socialism.

Finally, two other political phrases received mixed evaluations in the overall survey results.  The phrase libertarian received 38% positive reactions and 37% negative, while the phrase capitalism picked up a bare majority of positive evaluations (52%), with some seeing it as a negative phrase (37%).

Digging into the survey data a bit more, there are some very strong and clear patterns regarding how Democrats, Republicans and Independents react to these different political phrases:

  • Democrats react very positively to civil rights (91%), family values (83%) and the progressive phrase (81%).
  • Republicans react very positively to family values (94%), states' rights (85%) and civil rights (84%).
  • Independents react very positively to family values (91%), civil rights (86%), states' rights (78%) and civil liberties (75%).

On the negative side, Democrats react negatively to the militia phrase, Republicans to the socialism phrase, while Independents are strongly negative about the militia and socialism phrases.

Note that there are differences and commonalities here, and these help explain contemporary political debate in America.

Why is the phrase family values used by Democrats and Republicans alike? Because that phrase is overwhelmingly seen as positive by Democrats, Republicans, and Independents!  The same is true for the civil rights phrase.

Why do Democratic politicians use the progressive phrase?  Because Democrats respond so positively to that phase!

Why do Republicans use the phrase socialism against Democrats?  Because Republicans react so negatively to that phrase!

These simple phrases have very important political implications, and politicians use them to frame their opponents as well as to frame how issues are discussed. If you can successfully make one of these phrases stick to an opponent or an issue, you might be able to win an election, or deal effectively with a legislative issue. Simple words like these have important political power.

R. Michael Alvarez, Ph.D., is a Professor of Political Science at the California Institute of Technology.

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