One obvious answer is politics: as candidates, all four men had sharply different visions for the country’s future.
But new research by William Brady, assistant professor of management and organizations at the Kellogg School, highlights another important way in which US presidential candidates stand out from one another: moral language.
The study — they co-sign Kobe Hackenburg of Oxford University and Manos Tsakiris of the University of London — is based on analyzes of candidate tweets from the 2016 and 2020 elections. It reveals that Democrats and Republicans rely on morally charged language, but do so in very different ways.
“Specifically,” Brady explains, “Democratic politicians tend to emphasize care and fair treatment, while Republicans tend to focus much more on things like in-group loyalty and respect for social hierarchy.”
Understanding these opposing values sheds new light on today’s highly polarized politics. “We’re seeing some of the roots of it because Democrats and Republicans see the world in fundamentally different ways,” Brady says. “They’re fed this rhetoric that appeals to very different values.”
Democrats and Republicans make conflicting moral appeals to voters
While there are many ways to think about morality, the researchers relied on an approach called moral foundations theory, which posits that different moral systems across cultures derive from a common set of foundational themes: care, justice, loyalty, power, and sanctity.
They wanted to know: Would candidates from the two political parties emphasize different issues?
To find out, researchers collected 139,412 tweets sent by 39 major party candidates in the 2016 and 2020 elections. (While there were more Republican candidates than Democrats in 2016, the reverse was true in 2020. rounds allowed researchers to analyze a similar number of candidates from each party.)
The researchers then turned to the Moral Foundations Dictionary, a tool developed and validated by other researchers, to analyze the value language candidates use in their Twitter posts. For example, the word “together” is categorized as a term of faith, while the word “bless” as a term of holiness. (Language with values need not be positive; the word “liar,” for example, was categorized as a term of justice.)
On average, the researchers found, Democrats used more terms related to care and justice than Republicans. They also tended to talk about these ideas in very similar ways to other Democrats, using words like “fairness” and “equality.” Republicans, by contrast, talked more about faith, authority and holiness, but the candidates’ specific language varied slightly more widely — a pattern driven in part by Trump, whose unique moral language set him apart.
Interestingly, Brady notes, the analysis highlighted how little has changed in Democrats’ moral appeals between 2016 and 2020. Candidates spoke about care and justice in about the same proportions in both elections. Despite losing in 2016, “their rhetoric really didn’t change — it was just ‘rinse and repeat’ and hoping people hated Trump enough.”
Ethical language mapping
The researchers also used a technique called network analysis to examine the moral rhetorical relationships among the candidates. They drew on the same set of moral language from candidates’ tweets to create visual representations of both the 2016 primaries and the combined 2016 and 2020 primaries, with lines between candidates representing common ground and distances between candidates representing the degree of similarity in their morals use of language. The maps reveal two distinct clusters clearly correlated with political parties—a clear sign of how deeply divided even moral discourse has become.
The maps also reveal surprising intra-party differences. In terms of moral language, “Trump is much further from Cruz than Sanders is from Clinton,” Brady notes. This finding, while consistent with the general trend of Democratic similarity, was also surprising given that the Sanders-Hillary Clinton battle was viewed as a fundamental conflict between two wings of the Democratic party, while the ideological differences between Trump and Ted Cruz were apparent. as comparatively smaller.
“Those are things that this method allows us to start looking at,” says Brady. “It’s interesting to think about—what would have happened if Bernie had stood out more than Clinton? These are all questions this chart poses.”
Some candidates stepped outside their party’s standard moral rhetoric, the researchers found. In 2016, for example, Trump talked a lot about one of the Democrats’ defining values—fairness—but used terms unique to him, like “liar,” “dishonest,” and “biased.” (Of course, he also spoke about Republican values in a different language than his party colleagues, making him an outlier in every way.)
Meanwhile, candidates like Biden, Pete Buttigieg and Marian Williamson discuss traditionally Republican values more often than other Democrats — sometimes using the same terms as Republicans and sometimes using their own language. For example, Biden and Williamson talked about holiness using words like “prayers” (a Republican favorite) and “soul” (not widely used by the GOP candidates). Buttigieg has focused his campaign on an un-Republican term associated with faith: “belong.”
“That shows you the different rhetorical strategies that the candidates were using,” says Brady. “Trump was trying to stand out. Biden was just trying to separate himself from Trump and look like a mainstream Democrat.”
The chicken and egg problem of divergent values
All of which raises the inevitable question: Are Republicans and Democrats invoking different values because their constituents already believe different things, or is it actually the different moral rhetoric? creating
Brady thinks it’s probably either. It is reasonable to assume that Republicans and Democrats probably prioritize different values. However, “one of the things we find in a lot of research, including some of my own, is that people, especially in the last 10-plus years, really overestimate the political and moral differences between themselves and the political out-group.” He says. The moral rhetoric of candidates and other party elites may well shape or deepen this important misconception.
But candidates could also turn the temperature on polarization — and win support — by adjusting their moral rhetoric. “There’s some work that suggests that when you make appeals within moral value frameworks that partisans are comfortable with, it’s more likely to be persuasive,” says Brady. In other words, the approach of trying to find a democratic way to talk about traditionally Republican values (and vice versa) can be effective and good for the nation. As Brady puts it, “what are the frameworks of shared value that candidates could really leverage to try to bring people together?”