Brandon Warmke, Ph.D., and Justin Tosi, Ph.D.

Moral Talk

"Values Voting" May Help Explain Political Polarization

New research suggests a common voting strategy may be pushing us apart.

Posted Apr 16, 2020

If you think you’ve noticed that American politics has become more polarized in the past decade or so, you’re not alone. Researchers have shown that politicians, the news media, and ordinary citizens are all becoming more ideologically extreme. People in general have moved away from the center by adopting more extreme political beliefs and becoming more hostile to those on the other side.

There are many possible explanations for these trends. Some argue that politicians are causing polarization among the general public. Others think it’s the other way around. According to some theories, economic factors or changes in media consumption are to blame for polarization. Others chalk it up to changes in media consumption. A new paper in the Journal of Political Economy by Harvard University economist Benjamin Enke suggests another factor that might be driving polarization: values voting. 

Element5 Digital/Pexels
Source: Element5 Digital/Pexels

Values voters support politicians primarily on the basis of their perceived moral character or values. There is considerable evidence that people care about the character and moral values of the politicians they support. Citizens want to know that the person they vote for shares their values. Values voters use their assessments of candidates’ character as a heuristic in deciding who to vote for. It’s much easier to figure out what values a person stands for than it is to learn about all their policies and figure out whether they’ll actually work. Politicians realize this, of course, and so they tailor their campaign messaging and public statements to create an impression of themselves as good people in the eyes of their constituents.

Enke’s insight is to fit this dynamic into the economic framework of supply and demand. Voters demand public displays of support for the values they like, and they are willing to vote for the candidate who best expresses those values. In response, politicians use their political rhetoric to supply voters with expressions of the values they like. Voters demand a morality pageant, and politicians perform in exchange for votes. 

Enke tests this model by comparing presidential candidates’ vote share in each U.S. county with the most common moral beliefs in that county. Based on Jonathan Haidt’s Moral Foundations Questionnaire, counties were placed along a moral values spectrum. A county is placed at one end of the spectrum if its voters have mostly universalist values. Universalist values include things like treating people as equals, respecting their rights, and caring for the weak. A county is placed at the other end of the spectrum if its voters possess mostly communal values. Communal values include things like loyalty, punishment for betrayal, and respect for authority. Generally, moral psychologists have found that conservatives put more weight on communal values, with liberals favoring universalist values. Of course, people and groups can emphasize any mix of these values along the spectrum from universalist to communal. 

Here’s what Enke found. Since 2008, there has been a general trend in the U.S. of voters putting increasing emphasis on communal values over universalist values. This is especially so in rural areas, and urban areas are still more likely to favor universalist values. Enke also found that during that same period, politicians from both parties started to emphasize communal values more frequently in campaign messaging and speeches recorded in the congressional record. 

Although Enke is cautious about drawing conclusions from his findings, they provide some initial support for thinking that because voters demand certain kinds of moral displays from their politicians, politicians will return in kind by proposing policies that express those values. People want their politicians to share their values and they vote for the ones who do, and so politicians invoke those values in their rhetoric. Those who want to be elected in rural areas are more likely to invoke communal values, whereas candidates in urban areas more often appeal to universalist values. If this model is accurate, then it may suggest that the general public is one driver of polarization among political elites, as they create an incentive for politicians to appeal to their values with moralized political rhetoric. Values voting may drive politicians to polarize.

This study doesn’t aim to answer other natural questions about polarization. It doesn’t tell us why the general public has become more polarized, for instance. It is hard to say exactly what role moral language has played in people becoming more polarized just from this study, but it is plausible that politicians are expressing more extreme moral beliefs to keep up with voter demands. Greater demand yields greater supply. Further study of the framework of supply and demand for moral talk is needed, but this marriage of moral psychology and economic methodology is an important contribution to our understanding of why polarization is on the rise.


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