Polarization and the Delegitimization of Different Political and Moral Foundations

Polarization and the Delegitimization of Different Political and Moral Foundations

Polarization is in part due to an unwillingness to understand differing political and moral foundations of our fellow citizens. 

Mani was a third century Iranian prophet famous for an eponymous religious movement that saw the world as an ongoing battle between forces of good and evil. Within this framework, human beings were seen as the battleground where the ultimate fight played out. While few, if any, people adhere to this religion today, there are parallels that live on in the way we think about politics and people who disagree with us. Simply put, if we’re the good guys, everyone else must be bad.

While the extent of our current political polarization has been both well-discussed and well-established (see figure below), it is still not particularly well-understood. We read and hear charges of racism, sexism, and white supremacy, particularly coming from the left, and we have a general nagging impression that we’re hearing them more than we used to (see here, here, here, and here – where the last one is my own – for a few examples). We see evidence that ideological prejudice is the solitary type of prejudice not reduced by the transformative powers of education and we have an overall sense that things are different this time. Indeed, one informative Washington Post op-ed is titled “However divided you think our politics are, this chart shows that it’s actually way worse”.

That may be because this time the vitriol is grounded in more than just a critique of ideas – it’s a condemnation of underlying motives, leading to serial ad hominem attacks. In part, this is attributable to the (fortunate) lack of the kind of events that usually serve to unify societies — namely those associated with an external threat. The absence of such a threat has combined with an interconnected world that both allows us to become socially insular — remaining in our echo chambers — and to learn of instances of injustice that previous would have stayed off the radars of local news cycles. While these insights are helpful, they are ultimately unsatisfying in that they don’t help us understand the premise for the hostility. Adopting the framework of moral foundations theory may shed much-needed light on our situation. A primer, borrowed from the moralfoundations.org website, can be found in the table below.

Through the work of Haidt and colleagues, we understand that people form opinions on difficult and controversial topics based on six moral foundations. Moral foundations theory operates with the recognition that each foundation has intrinsic value, yet political groups vary in how they prioritize them. For instance, we know that liberals and conservatives draw upon these foundations to different degrees. Consistently and across studies, liberals draw upon the care/harm and fairness/cheating (defined as equality) dimensions more than any of the others, while conservatives appear to weigh the six more equally (a more detailed discussion can be found in The Righteous Mind).

Moral Foundations

1) Care/harm: This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.

2) Fairness/cheating: This foundation is related to the evolutionary process of reciprocal altruism. It generates ideas of justice, rights, and autonomy. [Note: In [the]  original conception, Fairness included concerns about equality, which are more strongly endorsed by political liberals. However, as [the authors] reformulated the theory in 2011 based on new data, [they]  emphasize proportionality, which is endorsed by everyone, but is more strongly endorsed by conservatives]

3) Loyalty/betrayal: This foundation is related to our long history as tribal creatures able to form shifting coalitions. It underlies virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group. It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.”

4) Authority/subversion: This foundation was shaped by our long primate history of hierarchical social interactions. It underlies virtues of leadership and followership, including deference to legitimate authority and respect for traditions.

5) Sanctity/degradation: This foundation was shaped by the psychology of disgust and contamination. It underlies religious notions of striving to live in an elevated, less carnal, more noble way. It underlies the widespread idea that the body is a temple which can be desecrated by immoral activities and contaminants (an idea not unique to religious traditions). 

6) Liberty/oppression: This foundation is about the feelings of reactance and resentment people feel toward those who dominate them and restrict their liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor. [The authors] report some preliminary work on this potential foundation in this paper, on the psychology of libertarianism and liberty.


Can the current zeitgeist be traced through this framework? Haidt and colleagues have suggested that the recognition that we have different moral matrices and moral foundations can help alleviate tension over political issues. In other words, if we can view others, rather than lacking morals entirely, as simply having moral foundations different from our own, then we should be able to engage in more reasonable conversations that engage across foundations. However, it may be that the mere recognition of the existence of multiple foundations is no longer sufficient — now some of us, in this case the political left, see certain foundations, to quote Animal Farm, as “more equal than others”. In other words, knowing is no longer enough because the politics of the left has changed in such a way that there is a de-legitimization of the foundations not germane to leftist positions (care/harm and fairness/cheating, where fairness is defined as equality). This has direct implications for how we relate to one another and how those on the left view other political positions.

This change refers not only to a sense of the other foundations as being “wrong”, but to how they now carry a racist/sexist/homophobic/etc… valence. This can be understood as the walling off of a sense of virtue — where the only foundations to exist inside the wall are fairness (equality) and care/harm. As an example, shortly after the 2016 election, author Mark Lilla wrote: “We need a post-identity liberalism, and it should draw from the past successes of pre-identity liberalism. Such a liberalism would concentrate on widening its base by appealing to Americans as Americans and emphasizing the issues that affect a vast majority of them. It would speak to the nation as a nation of citizens who are in this together and must help one another….A post-identity liberalism would also emphasize that democracy is not only about rights; it also confers duties on its citizens, such as the duties to keep informed and vote.” However, Lilla is trying to appeal to the loyalty/betrayal moral axis generally not highly valorized — and I would argue, actually devalued by — the left. As another author describes our current situation, “Republicans and Democrats are not just divided about whether and what to do about forms of social inequality. They’re divided about whether these inequalities exist. And that is an enormous problem.” This disagreement stems from differences in whether one views fairness as equality (liberals) or fairness as proportionality (conservatives) and the left has rejected the latter as a valid premise.

I posit here that the current political vitriol goes straight to the heart of the foundations people use to form opinions. One area where this transformation is clear is in case of attitudes towards U.S. immigration.

The Case of Immigration

By way of background, I have a joint Ph.D. in Demography and Sociology and wrote my dissertation on various aspects of U.S. immigration and adaptation. Indeed, it is a topic I studied for over ten years after receipt of my degree. In spite of that, I haven’t taught an undergraduate immigration class in several years — partly because it was unclear to me how to teach it in a way that would break through students’ preconceptions of good and bad sides on this topic. In this context, the last time I taught an undergraduate course on U.S. immigration was in 2011. Of course, immigration was a controversial issue at that time as well. But I attempted to inject a balanced perspective into a topic that had historically been complicated with respect to political positions — a phenomenon that has been documented in detail here. Indeed, there was a time when immigration didn’t lend itself easily to a clean breakdown along party lines. During that 2011 class, we talked through the following matrix:

Attitude Toward Immigration




*Value diversity in the U.S.

*Concern for the well-being of immigrants

*While not necessarily arguing that it’s good for business, usually denying claims that immigration is harmful for the economic well-being of natives

*Concerned about the impact of immigration on American workers and on low-middle income worker

*Worrying that immigration lowers wages and lowers employment

*Value ethnic diversity, but believe the first priority


*Cite benefits businesses receive from immigration in the form of cheap labor and the stimulus to economic growth

*Argue that immigration is bad for taxpayers who bear the burden of providing education, health, welfare, and other services for newcomers

While this is not an exhaustive list, each cell was populated with certain arguments — and no cell remained empty. From here, I can take each argument and map it onto its underlying moral foundations, described earlier.




*Fairness/cheating (equality)


*Care/harm (denial of harm)



*Fairness/cheating (equality)




In the second of the two tables, we see a pattern consistent with the research of Haidt and colleagues with respect to which foundations are invoked by which groups. Further, we know from media coverage that there is an explicit link drawn between a restrictionist position on immigration and racism — meaning that any argument not founded in either care/harm or fairness (equality) has been subject to that valence (given the narrowing of liberal perspectives on immigration, the top right cell is now sparsely populated).

To place the immigration question in recent historical context, the next three graphs use General Social Survey data to chart attitudes towards immigration over time. On two out of the three graphs, self-identified liberals have shifted more than either of the other two groups (moderates or conservatives). If we look at the percent wanting to decrease immigration, this figure among conservatives has gone from about 27 to 30 percent, a three percentage point shift upwards. However, the liberal percentage has changed from 23 to 14, a downward shift three times as large. For all three groups, the percent wishing to keep immigration about the same has increased, and increased at approximately the same rate. Last, for the percent wanting to increase migration, again liberals have made the biggest shift — from 4.5 to 20 percent, where the other two groups have changed little.

These suggest that the political left has modified its position on immigration more than conservatives or moderates, effectively reducing the variation in liberals’ viewpoints on this topic. The logical link that I’m proposing is that the decrease in variation on the left coincided with a deepening sense of righteousness. Of course, it’s impossible to decipher whether the narrowing of the liberal perspective is the cause or result of the theorized increase in righteousness. Although, if one were to look for an exogenous factor to explain the shift — or at least a contributing factor operating at a different level of aggregation — the dramatic increase in immigrant numbers (although not in population share) and change in origin composition might fit the bill (shown below from the Migration Policy Institute).

One could imagine that the increase in numbers, particularly in non-traditional immigrant destinations, of non-white immigrants might particularly heighten one’s sense of the potential for harm (tapping the care/harm dimension). From a state of heightened awareness, it’s a short step to a shift in how non-leftist moral foundations are evaluated. There are also two legislative and societal changes that occurred in the latter half of the twentieth century that likely contributed (via the heightened awareness) to the delegitimization of non-leftist foundations: first are the various rights’ revolutions, as discussed by Pinker in The Better Angels of Our Nature, where the momentum that began with the Civil Rights movement was extended to other groups, including animals, the elderly, and children and led to an overall increased awareness of rights for all groups. The second is the Hart-Cellar Act of 1965 that altered our immigration system to its current form. The transition to an immigration system that prioritizes family reunification played an important, albeit not singular, role in changing the origin composition of the immigrant population (which had already been shifting away from the European-dominated streams of the early twentieth century). The combination of these two factors set the stage for a growing awareness and concern over harm that could be done and its related concerns over fairness (equality). Once the variation in liberal views decreased, righteousness could begin to take root and de-legitimization was underway.

Moral Foundations of Other Controversial Topics

Although analogous time trend data are not data are not available for every issue, we can briefly consider the most common arguments invoked in a number of other controversial themes and determine if they fit the pattern. Here is a reduced form view of three controversial topics and the moral foundations invoked on each side:



Gender pay gap


*Fairness (equality)

*Fairness (proportionality)

Affirmative action


*Fairness (equality)

*Fairness (proportionality)

Masterpiece Cakeshop lawsuit

*Fairness (equality)


We know that on each of these three issues, the positions on the right have alternately been referred to as sexist, racist, and homophobic — which is exactly what we’d predict with a delegitimization of the other four moral foundations. Indeed, if we combine this known pattern with the shift in righteousness described in the immigration case, it no longer seems like a logical leap to surmise that it’s the moral foundations themselves that are viewed with disdain. In each case, arguments based in foundations other than the care/harm or fairness (equality) invoked by the left have invoked the vitriol with which many are familiar.

Equality, Moral Relativism, and Multiple Truths

In addition to its effect on political discourse, we can draw a straight line from the de-legitimization of non-leftist moral foundations to the emergence of identity politics and moral relativism — both firmly situated within a leftist portfolio. Both of these positions require a denial of the legitimacy of the moral foundation of loyalty/betrayal. Recall from the moralfoundations.org website description, loyalty/betrayal’s focus on “virtues of patriotism and self-sacrifice for the group.” It is active anytime people feel that it’s “one for all, and all for one.” Indeed, one of the central ideas underpinning identity politics is the importance of each individual’s truth. This was invoked during Oprah’s speech when she received the Cecil B. DeMille Award for lifetime achievement at the Golden Globes in January 2018, saying “speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have”. While it’s clear that, for instance, I will never know what it’s like to live life as a transgender man, the denial or devaluation of a common set of experiences requires an implicit rejection of the value of the foundation of loyalty/betrayal. The only way one can place group identity as higher than national identity, and demonize those who do not follow this trend, is with a rejection of the value of this principle.


I have argued here that the recent sea change lies in the fact that any justification not based in the two leftist moral foundations of care/harm or fairness/cheating (from the perspective of equality, not proportionality) is no longer considered legitimate. Once other foundations have been de-legitimized, it’s a quick hop to considering them, and therefore those who base their positions upon them, as racist, sexist, or otherwise indefensible. Again, this can happen because we’re not longer talking about ideas, but about moral foundations themselves. This is apparent as recently as Michelle Goldberg’s NY Times op-ed, where she writes on accusations of a lack of civility among progressives:

“Liberals are using their cultural power against the right because it’s the only power they have left, and people have a desperate need to say, and to hear others say, that what is happening in this country is intolerable.”

Ostensibly, the cultural power she’s referring to is public shaming along the lines of the Red Hen incident and countless other examples. In order to justify this position, two factors have to fall into place. First, there has to be an assumption of complete overlap between the far right (Richard Spencers) and anyone with a political opinion that doesn’t line up with the progressive left. But, second, and directly to the point of the current essay, there has to be a complete denial of the utility and legitimacy of moral foundations other than care/harm and fairness (equality) as motivating political positions.

In other words, seeing and believing that others have moral matrices that differ from our own is no longer sufficient to build bridges in political discourse. When people talk about ideological rigidity of the left, perhaps what they’re referring to is an inability or unwillingness to recognize the validity of a moral matrix that looks unfamiliar. It is worth noting that the thesis I put forth here does not require that the left recognize that this is what is going on; righteousness combined with the patterns described above provide confirmation that delegitimization undergirds the hostility.

The left in particular has to move away from its Manichaeist worldview of a struggle between good and evil (a worldview that will always place the one making the argument on the former side, not the latter). After all, no one has ever been shamed into changing their mind. The good news is that there’s nothing inevitable about demonizing moral foundations that differ from one’s own. But this also suggests that simply being aware of variation in our moral matrices is not sufficient — one has to also recognize the other foundations as legitimate. If one is open to the  legitimacy (and is willing to see something other than thinly veiled racist motives), this is not a difficult step. Even if moral foundations are hereditary or immutable, we can still choose how we view those that differ from our own. For Haidt, the cure for his narrow view of morality as a young man was a three-month stint in India, with cultural immersion and minimal contact with other expatriates. For those who are not in a position to take such a drastic step, one could start with stepping outside of one’s social network, talking openly to someone with views different from their own, or understanding that there is no real reason to devalue foundations that differ from one’s own. There’s a difference after all between having a different moral foundation and having none at all, synonymous with the view we take when we only recognize our own as valid. If we can get there, perhaps we can return to a state of “normal” political disagreement.

Ilana R. Akresh is an Associate Professor of Sociology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She obtained her Ph.D in Demography and Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. Her research interests include gifted education, viewpoint diversity, and the adaptation of permanent immigrants. You can follow her on twitter @irakresh

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