Shutdown morality

October 15th, 2013 by Brad

The shutdown impasse has led to a great deal of speculation about the underlying causes of governmental dysfunction in the United States.

It has become clear that the parties have separated on moral issues. As politics has become more about engaging the mass public (as opposed to an earlier era of patronage politics), the parties have adopted increasingly divergent moral positions.

Moral diversity within parties

But the picture isn’t so clear cut as liberals on one side and conservatives on the other. While most metrics do show a better sorting of members of Congress and the mass public into parties by ideology (conservatives are much more likely to also be Republicans and liberals are much more likely to be Democrats today than has been the case historically). There still exists a great deal of heterogeneity within each party.

The shutdown fight is an interesting case of intraparty disagreement. It seems clear that Speaker Boehner would have preferred to keep the budget negotiations on the subject of entitlement reform and other long-term Republican goals. However, conflicts within the Republican Party have put him into a difficult position. The (very) conservative wing of his party has made the current imbroglio about health care.

In other work, I have generated estimates of the moral foundations at the Congressional District level. Does variation in the moral foundations of Republicans’ constituents help us to explain the current conflict?

The poison pill

One way to gauge support for the shutdown is to examine the cosponsors of Rep. Tom Graves’s Continuing Resolution (CR). Graves included language in his version of the budget resolution that would ‘defund’ the Affordable Care Act – a non-starter for the administration and senate Democrats and by all accounts contrary to Boehner’s wishes. Which moral foundations correlate with support for Graves’s CR among Republicans?

One-hundred and thirty-six (nearly 60%) House Republicans cosponsored Graves’s CR.

It turns out that even after controlling for Obama’s share of the vote in their districts (which explains a very significant portion of the variation), Republicans who represent districts that are particularly low on the Care/Harm foundation are most likely to support the CR.

The relationship (holding all of the other foundations and presidential support in the district at their mean values) [1] looks like this:

The plot shows the predicted probability of supporting the CR across the range of scores for the Harm/Care foundation in Republican districts. The points at the top and bottom of the plot show the actual positions of each district. The points at the top show the districts that cosponsored the CR and the points at the bottom show those that did not cosponsor it.

According to my model, a legislator who represents a district at the mean levels of each of the foundations and the average for Obama’s vote share in Republican districts is 60 percent likely to support the CR. An increase of one standard deviation in the Care/Harm foundation lowers the probability by a little over 10% making it dead even. A decrease in one standard deviation in the Care/Harm foundation increases the probability of cosponsoring the CR by about the same amount to 70 percent.

Given two districts that are equally Republican (gave the same proportion of the vote to Obama in 2012), variation in the Care/Harm foundation explains some of the remaining variance in position taking on the CR.

We can think about this finding in two ways. First, it might be that Republicans who represent individuals who place more emphasis on the morality of care and harm are less likely to go on the record as wanting to take away health coverage from those who will be added under the president’s new initiative. Perhaps their constituents would punish them for perceived cold-heartedness.

On the other hand, it could be that the effect is mainly driven by the fact that many Republicans represent districts whose constituents do not place particularly high emphasis on concerns about care and harm to individuals. Their mix of moral concerns tends to direct their attention toward the (perceived or actual) loss of individual freedom that is implied by compelling individuals to receive health coverage. In the weighing of costs and benefits of the new proposal, there is obviously a deep moral divide between the two sides.

Given that this is a single action at a single point in time, it is difficult to say definitively one way or the other. As with most things, the correct answer is surely some mix of the two explanations (along with a host of other unaccounted for factors).


The above analysis suggests that some of the conflict within the Republican Party can be explained by variation in the moral concerns of constituents. There is nothing inevitable or foreordained about the relationship outlined above, but it does perhaps tell us something about a way forward.

For the most strident parts of the opposition, arguments focusing on the harm being done by the shutdown aren’t likely to be very persuasive. Interestingly, there is some suggestion in my analysis that the Loyalty/Betrayal foundation is negatively associated with support for the CR (although the effect did not reach conventional levels of statistical significance). It is possible that framing the debate in terms of patriotism (our national obligation to pay our bills) or even good-old partisanship (the need of the party to stick together behind Speaker Boehner) would be more successful.

[1] I estimated a probit regression with cosponsorship of the CR as the dependent variable. The model included the five moral foundations and Obama’s share of the vote in the 2012 election as independent variables.

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6 Responses to “Shutdown morality”

  1. adam strange says:

    Great article. Watching this whole mess unfold, most all of the “tea party” attacks seem firmly planted in the liberty/oppression foundation, e.g. “we need to stop the gov’t from FORCING us to buy healthcare.” While progressives have a perspective narrowly centered on only two moral foundations, it’s interesting that this insurgent group in the Republican party seems mostly libertarian, with a moral perspective that’s even more narrow, centered solely on the liberty/oppression foundation.

  2. Marcel Kincaid says:

    There’s a strong correlation between being a right winger/Tea Partyer/”conservative”/Republican and being an asshole. The bigger an asshole, the further right wing one tends to be.

  3. […] of Haidt’s colleagues has shown, for instance, that Republicans whose districts were “particularly low on the Care/Harm foundation” were most likely to support shutting down the government over Obamacare. […]

  4. […] [p. 2] by Jesse Graham, Jonathan Haidt, and Brian A. Nosek [University of Virginia], 12.09.08 [2]; Shutdown morality by Brad (sic) – 10.15.13 [3] […]

  5. […] be anyone’s go-to option. It has become clear that the parties have separated on moral issues. As politics has become more about engaging the mass public (as opposed to an earlier era of […]

  6. […] be anyone’s go-to option. It has become clear that the parties have separated on moral issues. As politics has become more about engaging the mass public (as opposed to an earlier era of […]

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