The Moral Spectrum of Conservatives

The Moral Spectrum of Conservatives

January 13, 2012

One of the challenges 2012 Republican candidates face is trying to appeal to both the base and to moderates, at a time when politics are partisan and views vary widely. USC psychology professor Jesse Graham recently studied the varying moral ideas held by different political factions, by surveying 35,000 self-identified conservatives and liberals. (He talks about his research in the video below.)

Graham found that social conservatives, like Rick Santorum, care more about loyalty to
family and nation, respect for tradition and authorities, and
maintaining physical and spiritual purity. But libertarians, like Ron
Paul, typically don’t care about these group-focused concerns. Their
central moral value is liberty, according to Graham.

Political values have become entangled with morality, which can thwart compromise, Graham observes.

“Values speak much more powerfully than compromises,” Graham says. “Mitt Romney’s challenge will be to combat the perception that he only says what is politically expedient, and has no core values that he’ll stick to even when unpopular.” He adds: “Romney’s biggest problem with primary voters is the perception that he’s a flip-flopper, not just on particular issues, but on core values and principles. In many ways his vacillations have been attempts to appeal to the values of his two main rivals, Ron Paul and Rick Santorum. These two have been much more ideologically consistent.

“Santorum has strongly endorsed the group-focused moral concerns of loyalty, respect, tradition and purity, even when politically disadvantageous (supporting government programs for families, going on about gay marriage when most voters care more about jobs),” Graham says. “Ron Paul has embodied the moralization of liberty above all other values, and he too has done so in ways that are politically disadvantageous (supporting legalization of all drugs, urging the dismantling of government agencies that no other nominee would suggest).”

Front-runner Romney “will have to convince supporters that his compromises, position changes, and nuances are means to achieve principled ends, not evidence of a lack of moral character,” Graham concludes.

In research published in the August 2011 issue of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Graham and colleagues mapped the full range
of human moral concerns using their Moral Foundations Questionnaire, which measured universal sets of
moral intuitions, including care, fairness, loyalty, respect and
sanctity. Try taking Graham’s morality survey yourself at

Contact Jesse Graham, assistant professor of psychology in the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, at (213) 740-9535 or

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