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Moral reframing

Beware the new political Trojan horse


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JUST UNDER A YEAR AGO, three Stanford sociologists—Jan Voelkel, Joseph Mernyk, and Robb Willer—published a paper titled “Moral reframing increases support for economically progressive candidates.”

Candidates “who champion redistributive policies designed to reduce inequality rarely win elections in the United States,” the researchers wrote. “Here we propose that progressive candidates achieve greater support by framing their policy platforms in terms of values that resonate beyond their progressive base.”

What kind of values? Well, conservative ones like patriotism, family, and respect for tradition. The trouble here is obvious: Today’s progressivism is antithetical to both patriotism and tradition. Progressives are fine with family, of course—as long as they get to define the term.

When Willer and company analyzed speeches by progressive candidates, they found the candidates rarely appealed to such values. The professors suggest progressives could “build broader coalitions” by “reframing” the values they associate with their platforms. You know, wrap ’em in the flag. Serve up some apple pie. While you’re at it, throw in dear old Dad.

Across two experiments, the professors found that when a presidential candidate reframed his progressive economic policies using such “binding” moral foundations, instead of individualistic ones such as “equality” and “social justice,” he received significantly higher support. This spike came from moderates and conservatives.

It was Robb Willer, with University of Toronto sociologist Matthew Feinberg, who first introduced the phrase “moral reframing.” In a 2015 study, the duo found that reframing political arguments to appeal to an opponent’s moral values is persuasive because it increases “the apparent agreement between a political position and the target audience’s moral values.”

Apparent agreement. Oxford offers this definition of apparent: “Seeming real or true, but ain’t necessarily so.” (OK, I added the “ain’t.”)

You may be asking, So what? All politicians prevaricate. They all spin and tap dance, hoping to yank the mushy middle their way. Certainly, the left doesn’t own the technique of approaching touchy topics by appropriating a target’s language. For example, I wrote last year about “He Gets Us,” the television ad campaign funded by deep-pocketed conservative evangelicals.

“He Gets Us” is peppered with left-friendly hashtags like #activist and #socialjustice. The technique, one might argue, is in step with the Apostle Paul’s becoming like the Romans in order to win them to the gospel.

But Paul’s gospel—Christ and Him crucified then raised to glory—never changed. By contrast, moral reframing dresses progressive values in fig-leaf phrases meant precisely to deceive.

This is not theory. In Europe, for example, the International Centre for Policy Advocacy (ICPA) now offers a reframing “toolkit” to help “progressive campaigners and activists/advocates” push back against the “populist narrative.” ICPA notes that “only arguing facts and rights is not serving the progressive agenda” on immigration. Instead, ICPA recommends progressives target the ignorant and skittish middle by creating “a warm feeling that easily engages the audience, feels nearly like common sense to them, and ultimately is appealing to the heart, rather than the head.”

Willer and Feinberg have also examined what kinds of moral arguments people typically make. The researchers asked liberals to convince a conservative to support same-sex marriage and asked conservatives to convince liberals to support English as America’s official language. Across two studies, most participants crafted messages with significant moral content, most of which reflected their own values—just the kind of arguments Willer and colleagues have shown are ineffective at persuading political opponents.

“The most effective arguments are based on the values of whomever you are trying to persuade,” Feinberg noted in a Stanford article about the research.

But when political values occupy opposite poles, when does moral reframing cross into lying as described in Psalm 12? “Everyone utters lies to his neighbor; with flattering lips and a double heart they speak.”


Lynn Vincent

Lynn is executive editor of WORLD Magazine and producer/host of the true crime podcast Lawless. She is the New York Times best-selling author or co-author of a dozen nonfiction books, including Same Kind of Different As Me and Indianapolis. Lynn lives in the mountains east of San Diego, Calif.

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