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A Nation under Joint Custody: How Conflicting Family Models divide US Politics


Across the globe and throughout history, politics are regularly divided into "left-leaning" and "right-leaning" camps. Explaining the sources of this conservative-liberal divide has become a major quest in the cognitive and social sciences. Early attempts have focused on self-interest as a possible explanation. However, as the self-interest hypothesis repeatedly failed, researchers' belief in its explanatory power dwindled. Recent investigations have thus begun to tap into genetic material, personality traits, psychological needs, and moral concerns as possible explanations.

One early account of the moral underpinnings that guide conservative and liberal politics is Moral Politics Theory (Lakoff, 1996). It proposes that conservatives and liberals endorse different moral worldviews, which conceptually unify their positions on issues as diverse as abortion, education, the economy, or the environment. Those worldviews are grounded in different beliefs about ideal parenting: conservatives endorse a strict-father and liberals a nurturant-parent model. The theory proposes that parenting beliefs are mapped onto national politics via the NATION AS FAMILY metaphor, and that language use in synch with the two models can significantly influence people's perception of political issues.

More specifically, Moral Politics Theory has three principal components: First, it holds that the two parenting models form unified and independent belief systems that are predictive of conservatism and liberalism. Second, it predicts that people engage in a metaphoric mapping process when making political judgments, mapping parenting beliefs onto governance. Third, it predicts that issue framings in terms of the two worldviews result in framing effects, and that only those who endorse a given worldview are susceptible to framings that echo it.

Despite the academic and political world's fascination with Moral Politics Theory, its three principal components have not been tested to date. The present research is a comprehensive test of Moral Politics Theory's principal components in a series of six studies. Studies 1 and 2 test the two parenting models' internal consistency, conceptual independence and predictive power for conservative and liberal political attitudes. Studies 3 and 4 examine the mediating role of the NATION AS FAMILY metaphor for political judgments in terms of parenting models. Finally, Studies 5 and 6 investigate framing effects associated with the two worldviews.

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