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The Divisive Consequences of Moral Appeals in Political Elite Communication

Political Psychology
Survey Experiments
Survey Research
Big Data
Linda Bos
University of Amsterdam
Linda Bos
University of Amsterdam

Research on morality in politics shows that by moral framing political elites can “moralize” various issues by connecting them to beliefs about what is right and wrong. In their political moral appeals politicians and parties refer to these moral beliefs, making clear why policies are morally good or bad. U.S. research has shown that liberals and conservatives endorse different moral belief systems, and that conservatives tend to moralize more than their liberal opponents. Knowledge on the use of moral appeals by European political elites is limited, but preliminary analyses from the Netherlands, Germany and Austria show that they tend to moralize their statements in both formal and informal political communication.

This knowledge is relevant in light of U.S. research showing that using moral appeals is not without its consequences. Morality not only elicits emotional reaction, but the morally convicted attitudes, or ‘moral convictions’, voters have on various issues foster interpersonal intolerance. In a similar vein it has shown to increase (affective) polarization, which goes hand in hand with a lower acceptance of compromise. These findings give sufficient reason to find a similar mechanism in the European context, raising the question whether the moral appeals as used by politicians are dividing the continent.

This study uses a multi-method approach to investigate the consequences of moral appeals in political elite communication, focusing on three European countries: the Netherlands, Germany and Austria. In each of these countries the presence and content of moral appeals in party manifestos is assessed with the use of automated content analyses. In a first step the impact of the intensity of in-party moral appeals on affective polarization is tested using survey data. In a second step the causal mechanism is studied by investigating whether voters are affected by the moral intensity of the appeals, and whether this depends on their endorsement of the appeal, by testing the extent to which congruent and incongruent moral appeals impact affective polarization, interpersonal tolerance and the willingness to compromise. The results will show the extent to which political moral appeals evoke political divisiveness.
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