Moral Foundations and Presidential Rhetoric

July 19th, 2011 by Brad

I have recently been interested in looking into the ways that politicians use the morally charged language to garner support for their agendas. Over the next couple of weeks, I plan on doing a few posts on the use of moral foundations language in State of the Union (SotU) addresses. These will be largely exploratory in nature, and it is very possible that I will miss something important (so please point out these omissions in the comments!).

Why focus on SotU speeches? First, the SotU provides modern presidents with an opportunity to lay out their legislative priorities. While political scientists have reached different conclusions as to the actual impact of the speech, several studies have found substantive effects. Hoffman and Howard’s Addressing the State of the Union (2006) finds that presidents achieve about 40 percent of the policy goals they outline in the SotU. The speech serves as a signal as to the priorities of the administration, but more importantly for my purposes, it gives the president the opportunity to frame the debate in favorable terms. This framing is often done by appealing to basic moral values.

A second and by no means secondary consideration for focusing on this particular speech deals with the ever pressing concern for data availability. The good people at the Policy Agendas Project ( have generously made their comprehensive datasets available. On the State of the Union addresses, they have coded each statement in the speech as belonging to one of about twenty different policy areas. Combined with the Moral Foundations dictionary available on Jon Haidt’s website (here), moving forward into analysis is a relatively painless process.

One of my key expectations going into this data exercise is that Republicans and Democrats will emphasize different moral foundations. A portion of this variance will be due to their focus on different policies. Political scientists have long known that each of the major parties is seen to “own” a particular set issues of issues in the mind of the voter (e.g., Democrats are trusted more with relation to social welfare programs and Republicans have traditionally been perceived to be better at handling foreign policy issues).* It is also probably true that certain moral appeals are just harder to make (for example, it might be difficult to credibly frame an appeal to increase spending on transportation infrastructure in terms of the authority foundation). To the extent that partisans gravitate to the issues that their parties own and these issues lend themselves to a certain kind of framing, we would expect to see differences in the moral appeals of Republicans and Democrats as a function of the subjects that they talk about. But, I would also expect Republicans and Democrats to differ in terms of their emphasis of moral foundations even after controlling in some sense for the particular policy they choose to focus on.

In future posts, I will look more directly at the way in which the different parties talk about different policy arenas. For this post, I want to just give the broad outlines of the data.

Using the Moral Foundations Dictionary (referenced above), I coded (or rather I had the computer code) each statement for whether or not it included one or more morally charged words. Of the 18,854 statements listed in the Policy Agendas dataset (which includes SotU speeches from 1948 to 2005), 3,378 (just under 18 percent) included one or more of the words associated with the moral foundations.

The table below breaks out the data by issue area. The cell entries are rankings (1-20) for the proportion of statements in that particular issue area that refer to one of the moral foundations. For example, Law/Crime ranks 3rd in the Harm/Care foundation. Statements made concerning law and order were much more likely to use language drawing on concerns for harm and care than those dealing with science and technology (which ranked 19th overall in the Harm/Care foundation). The last two columns present the proportion of statements using any of the words from the moral foundations dictionray and the total number of statements included in the dataset on each topic.

Harm Fairness Ingroup Authority Purity Prop. Moral n


1 10 3 9 1 0.36 781

Civil Rights

14 1 14 1 13 0.36 478


3 7 2 2 7 0.30 681


4 4 4 5 11 0.23 845


2 16 12 6 6 0.20 2,493

Community Development/Housing

18 15 1 14 12 0.20 304

Lands/Water Management

5 11 18 3 2 0.18 233

International Affairs

6 5 13 10 5 0.17 3,059


9 2 6 12 15 0.17 434


12 6 9 8 10 0.16 245


7 17 19 4 3 0.15 293

Social Welfare

10 14 5 17 9 0.15 711


11 12 8 15 4 0.14 2,546

Government Operations

15 9 11 11 8 0.14 1,072


17 13 7 16 14 0.13 2,761

Foreign Trade

13 3 16 19 19 0.12 387


8 19 20 7 20 0.12 207


16 8 15 20 18 0.11 363


20 20 10 13 16 0.10 702


19 18 17 18 17 0.08 259

The table is sorted on proportion of statements using moral language. This gives a (very) rough sense for the degree to which presidents choose morally charged rhetoric when speaking on each topic. Health, Civil Rights, Law/Crime, and Labor/Employment issues are much more likely to be spoken about in moral terms than Transportation, Energy, Education, and Science/Technology.

Another way to look at these data is to examine the trends over time.This first figure shows the overall use of moral foundations words (don’t make too much of the exact divisions between the presidents as these were added by hand — in the figures that follow the divisions between the presidents are more precisely delimited).

The figures below show the proportion of statements that included words found in the moral foundations dictionary broken out for each of the five moral foundations separately between the period from 1948 to 2005.

One of the most striking things about these figures, from my point of view, is the lack of clear patterns based on partisanship. For several of the foundations, the secular trend seems to be more significant than the partisan differences (for example, the general increasing use of Ingroup language from the 1960s to the mid-1990s or the rapid decrease in Fairness language from Carter through Clinton).

There are several things that these simple trend lines miss, and in the coming posts I will drill down deeper into the data in an effort to better understand how American presidents use moral rhetoric in pursuit of their policy goals.

* For more on the theory of issue ownership, see John Petrocik’s work:

Posted in moral foundations, moral psychology, political psychology, Uncategorized, unpublished results2 Comments »
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2 Responses to “Moral Foundations and Presidential Rhetoric”

  1. [...] _uacct = "UA-2529404-1"; urchinTracker(); YourMorals Blog Home Create an Account Explore Your Morals About Us Our Blog Links « Moral Foundations and Presidential Rhetoric [...]

  2. Ravi Iyer says:

    Very interesting stuff, Brad. I agree that the lack of a clear partisan relationship is the interesting story. I’m always struck by how Democrats attempt to go out of their way to use the language of patriotism sometimes.

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