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Moral Foundations in the 2015-16 U.S. Presidential Primary Debates: The Positive and Negative Moral Vocabulary of Partisan Elites

School of Politics and Global Studies, Arizona State University, Tempe, AZ 85287-3902, USA
Soc. Sci. 2019, 8(8), 233; https://doi.org/10.3390/socsci8080233
Received: 29 June 2019 / Revised: 29 July 2019 / Accepted: 2 August 2019 / Published: 6 August 2019
(This article belongs to the Section Contemporary Politics and Society)
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Abstract

Moral foundations theory (MFT) suggests that individuals on the political left draw upon moral intuitions relating primarily to care and fairness, whereas conservatives are more motivated than liberals by authority, ingroup, and purity concerns. The theory of conservatism as motivated social cognition (CMSC) suggests that conservatives are more attuned than liberals to threat and to negative stimuli. Because evidence for both accounts rests on studies of mass publics, however, it remains unclear whether political elites of the left and right exhibit these inclinations. Thus, this analysis uses the 2015-16 United States presidential primary season as an occasion to explore partisan differences in candidates’ moral rhetoric. The analysis focuses on verbal responses to questions posed during party primary debates, a setting that is largely unscripted and thus potentially subject to intuitive influences. The Moral Foundations Dictionary is employed to analyze how frequently candidates used words representing various moral foundations, distinguishing between positive and negative references to each. Consistent with CMSC, the Republican candidates were more likely to use negative-valence moral terminology, describing violations of moral foundations. The direction of some partisan differences contradicts the expectations of MFT. Donald Trump, a novice candidate, was an exception to the typical Republican pattern, making markedly lower overall use of moral-foundations vocabulary. View Full-Text
Keywords: moral foundations theory; motivated social cognition; presidential debates; partisan differences; ideology; Donald Trump moral foundations theory; motivated social cognition; presidential debates; partisan differences; ideology; Donald Trump
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This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited (CC BY 4.0).
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Lewis, P.G. Moral Foundations in the 2015-16 U.S. Presidential Primary Debates: The Positive and Negative Moral Vocabulary of Partisan Elites. Soc. Sci. 2019, 8, 233.

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