Our politics are driven by the ethical codes we live by. That idea has gained significant support since psychologist Jonathan Haidt and his colleagues proposed it a decade ago. It seems clear that liberals and conservatives are driven by different sets of moral values, which shape our opinions on issues from immigration to abortion.
But new research suggests these "moral foundations" may not be as foundational as we thought. A new study finds that, at least in Trump-era America, our reaction to moral transgressions depends in large part on whether they were committed by someone from our party, or the opposition.
"These foundations seem malleable when partisan actors are involved," write Annemarie Walter of the University of Nottingham and David Redlawsk of the University of Delaware. "Partisans of both parties express significantly greater negativity when a politician of the other party violates a moral foundation."
The study, conducted during President Donald Trump's first year in office, helps explain how he can retain solid support from his party while trampling on the ethical norms it formerly claimed to stand for.
For many voters, it seems, alignment with one's fellow partisans apparently trumps one's professed values.
The study, in the journal Political Psychology, featured 2,026 American adults recruited online. All reported their political party affiliation and took the Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which measures the degree to which they endorse each of the five moral "foundations": caring for others/preventing harm; fairness and reciprocity; group loyalty; respect for authority; and purity/sanctity. Much research has found that liberals relate almost exclusively to the first two, while conservatives are influenced more strongly by the final three.
Participants read one of 15 vignettes and reported their emotional reactions. These vignettes described the full range of moral transgressions; for example, "fairness" was represented by the statement: "You see a politician making sure that those who voted for him get first access to jobs." The politician was randomly described as a Democrat, Republican, or not identified with either party.
"In general, voters respond with negative emotions to politicians' moral violations," the researchers report. Unexpectedly, though, they found that Democrats responded to alleged violations more strongly than Republicans did. The team suspects this may reflect "the many accusations of [offenses against] moral values by President Trump," which may have decreased "Republican voters' sensitivity to moral violations by politicians more generally."
The researchers' most important finding, however, is that "voters judge the opposing candidate more harshly for moral transgressions than their own candidate." They note that "this holds even when voters themselves feel strongly about a given moral foundation."
So if you're a Republican, you can feel very strongly about the importance of national loyalty, and still be OK with a GOP politician calling Americans stupid or lazy.
"When the effects of partisanship and strength of support for moral values are tested against each other ... partisanship usually comes out the winner," the researchers conclude.
The researchers noted that this study was conducted in a highly polarized environment, less than a year after Trump's victory. Attitudes might be different in a less highly polarized time. But as political scientist Lilliana Mason has shown, we are clearly moving in the opposite direction, increasingly defining ourselves along ideological lines.
Perhaps there are impulses even more foundational than our innate moral compasses: the desire to fit in with our group, and the instinct to distinguish between "us" and "them."