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The Language of Liberals

Progressive activists need a good lesson in moral perception.

Key points

  • Reframing messages can make them more broadly appealing.
  • Many liberals can't (or don't want to) reframe their messages.
  • This dynamic must change if we're going to advance progressive goals.
Image by suju-foto from Pixabay
Source: Image by suju-foto from Pixabay

In my last post about combating vaccine hesitancy, I wrote about how it’s important for us not only to understand people’s everyday moral concerns, but also to work on reframing our rhetoric to appeal to a broader number of people. This is a really important idea, so let’s spend a bit more time exploring it as a means to achieving other progressive goals more broadly.

A large body of research has shown that “meeting people where they are” is an effective political strategy. We can be more persuasive, and thus more successful, in creating positive change across society by understanding individuals’ motivations and appealing to them directly. Moral reframing is one way to accomplish this. When liberals and conservatives craft statements that appeal to each other’s moral foundations, they can garner more support for issues ranging from health care to military funding to environmental policies.

How can we "meet people where they are?"

Say you support antidiscrimination protections for LGBTQ+ folks. How would you rally other people to this cause? You might suggest that expanding antidiscrimination protections is the morally right thing to do because it’s ethical to treat everyone equally, or because it’s important to defend marginalized groups. These arguments would probably resonate with many liberals, who share strong concerns about fairness and compassion. But it would be less appealing to conservatives, who may have differing ideas about what is “fair,” may prioritize other moral concerns (such as respect for traditions and institutions), and may be apprehensive about how other groups’ rights clash with their own.

A reframed argument would instead focus on how LGBTQ+ individuals are proud and patriotic American citizens, because conservatives generally prioritize national loyalty as a core value. Researchers Matt Feinberg and Rob Willer found that by framing the argument in terms of group loyalty (compared to stereotypical social justice values), conservatives' support for LGBTQ+ legal rights significantly increases and is statistically about as high as liberals’ support. At a time when transgender folks’ rights are being taken away by GOP legislatures, we desperately need more support from conservatives. I suggest deploying more reframing techniques.

But Feinberg and Willer’s experiments also revealed a political asymmetry. They showed that while 85 percent of conservatives were able to correctly identify the more persuasive reframed statements, only 64 percent of liberals were able to do so. That’s a 20-point gap in what I would call “moral perception.” Among those who correctly identified reframed arguments as more persuasive, 94 percent of conservatives said they would use them while speaking with others. But that number was lower among liberals (80 percent).

This is consistent with other findings by researchers Jesse Graham, Brian Nosek, and Jonathan Haidt. They show that liberals are less accurate compared to conservatives when they are asked to estimate each other’s moral concerns. Not only did liberals misunderstand conservatives, but they also misunderstood themselves! According to those authors, “The largest inaccuracies were in liberals’ underestimations of conservatives’ Harm and Fairness concerns, and liberals further exaggerated the political differences by overestimating their own such concerns.”

This shows some evidence that (a) liberals are less aware than conservatives about what kind of rhetoric/statements would be more broadly appealing, (b) liberals are less enthusiastic than conservatives about using such persuasive rhetoric, and (c) liberals show generally lower awareness than conservatives about moral psychology, and perhaps over rely on political stereotypes. As a liberal myself, it’s this type of research finding that I find particularly maddening because I desperately want to see progressive societal changes happen. It seems that the American left is its own worst enemy.

Why don't liberals use moral reframing?

I’m speculating a bit here, but I suspect that moral reframing is especially unpopular among more ideologically dogmatic, “woke” American liberals, or what the Hidden Tribes research team calls “progressive activists.” This group represents a small percentage (< 10 percent) of the American public but has a large voice in shaping cultural trends. These folks are passionate about framing just about every issue in terms of injustice or prejudice, but this rhetorical strategy often backfires.

Let’s look at two more examples. Single-family zoning has particularly negative effects for economically underprivileged Americans, and liberals advocate for eliminating zoning laws to promote more affordable, multifamily-unit housing. But it’s a challenge to change others’ minds about housing policies, due to concerns about the value of their home, the safety of their neighborhood, and increases in general traffic/density.

A solution can be found in national polling data. Framing this policy change as something that would spur economic growth (i.e., “More people will be able to move to high-opportunity regions with good jobs”), support for multifamily home construction is 10 percentage points higher compared with a racial justice framing (i.e., “Single-family zoning requirements lock in America's system of racial segregation”). According to Vox, shift in opinion on this issue was strongest among Republicans, who showed increased support by 14 percentage points. That’s a remarkable turnaround among the people least inclined to support progressive housing policies. And yet, progressive leaders still choose to discuss the issue in terms of the (less popular) racial justice framing.

Elsewhere, liberals are pushing for sweeping action to stop climate change, although it has been challenging to muster broad political will to do this. However, some environmentalist conservatives, including Debbie Dooley (a Tea Party activist), give us clues on how to do this type of work more effectively. Dooley argues that we shouldn’t lead off with “climate change” as a key phrase.

“That is the wrong message,” she says. “If you deliver the message of, ‘energy freedom,’ ‘energy choice,’ ‘competition,’ ‘national security,’ ‘innovation,’ all of a sudden you will have a receptive audience and they will listen to you.” Dooley’s action group is called, Conservatives for Energy Freedom.

And yet, progressive activists and academics continue to frame this issue in less popular “climate justice” terminology.

The wokest American liberals need to wake up (pun intended) and add a strong cup of social psychology to their morning routines. If we are going to create meaningful societal change, we need to better harness the variety of moral motivations.


Haidt, J. (2012). The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. United States: Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group.

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2015). From Gulf to Bridge: When Do Moral Arguments Facilitate Political Influence? Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 41(12), 1665–1681.

Feinberg, M., & Willer, R. (2019). Moral reframing: A technique for effective and persuasive communication across political divides. Social and Personality Psychology Compass, 13(12), e12501.

Graham, J., Nosek, B. A., & Haidt, J. (2012). The Moral Stereotypes of Liberals and Conservatives: Exaggeration of Differences across the Political Spectrum. PLoS ONE, 7(12), e50092.

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