It seems like every conservative conference these days has a panel focused on how to reach independent, true middle Americans. It’s an important conversation to have, and as part of our research at Principles That Matter focused on better understanding voter behavior, we’ve identified resources that could be an important part of reconnecting Americans with their natural pro-freedom beliefs.
Assumptions about our founding principles are no longer widespread, and decades of a post-modern, Alinsky-driven Left has created deep divisions in America on even the most commonsense views.
Conservatives have responded predictably: with facts, logic and history. The response is also predictable: nothing works.
To be fair, many conservatives have broken through with creative, engaging approaches that connect with people beyond the conservative base. But what makes one message work while another doesn’t?
The Two Axes of Political Communications
Too often, we confuse policy and messaging. But really, they move along two different axes. Check out this chart:
As you can see, ideology moves along the horizontal axis, from liberal to conservative. This is the context within which we think we make most decisions related to politics and policy. However, there’s another, vertical axis, related to emotional connectedness that is the real decision driver.
The vertical axis is based on how well we connect with target audiences with our messages. It’s the wrapping on the package. The shiny bow and the card with your name on it.
Please don’t miss this: emotional connection is completely independent of ideology. Emotional connection is the wrapping paper. The policy is the actual present. But it’s the wrapping that gets your attention.
A policy can be ideologically conservative but have zero connection to audiences outside a small group. Same for ideas that are ideologically liberal. Why did Democrats fight tooth and nail against the nomination of US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos? They were serving a narrow, liberal group: public-sector teachers unions.
When we separate policy and communications according to these two axes, it opens up a world of possibilities.
The largest benefit? The freedom to pursue policymaking based on proven principles without the fear of people rejecting the idea. When citizens get upset about an issue — or support one — it is often the presentation of the idea that they see, not the idea itself.
The objective then becomes not to change the underlying principles from which we govern, but to be thoughtful and strategic in how we present our ideas to the public.
So in this piece, let’s set aside the ideological axis and just look at how we better connect conservative thought with the mainstream, non-political public.
For inspiration, the field of intercultural psychology offers some solutions to break through and move the middle.
The Theory of Basic Human Values, first formulated in 1990 by professor Shalom Schwartz, holds that all people — globally — have ten basic, emotional values. We’ll go through these values below but here’s the important part to know: different populations prioritize their values differently.
So while everyone might care for other people, only some people prioritize that care (or benevolence) above their own safety or achievement.
As we begin to better understand the priority values within the True Middle, we unlock the potential to develop messages that connect directly with those values.
Connecting with someone’s priority values creates an emotional connection — much stronger than a logical one — and opens the door to sharing conservative ideas and policies in the context of that emotional connection.
In our own research at Principles That Matter, we have found that connecting with the right values can increase the impact of a message six times over a message that is not directly focused on priority values.
Below is a list of Schwartz’ ten basic human values, in order of priority among most people globally.
- Description: Preservation and enhancement of the people with whom one is in frequent personal contact [meaning especially family].
- Keywords: helpful, honest, forgiving, responsible, true friendship, mature love
- Example message: “New regulations hurt our jobs, and that hurts our ability to provide for our families.”
- Description: Understanding, appreciation, tolerance, and protection for the welfare of all people and for nature.
- Keywords: broadminded, social justice, equality, world at peace, world of beauty, unity with nature, wisdom, protecting the environment
- Example message: “Sure, I want everyone to have access to quality healthcare. If the government gets involved, does that make our healthcare better and more accessible?”
- Description: Independent thought and action—choosing, creating, exploring.
- Keywords: creativity, freedom, choosing own goals, curious, independent
- Example message: “I know there’s a lot of people who think this new tax will fund programs that help our schools. I’m just afraid it’s going to take away my family’s freedom to choose what’s best for our kids.”
- Description: Safety, harmony, and stability of society, of relationships, and of self.
- Keywords: social order, family security, national security, clean, reciprocation of favors, healthy, sense of belonging
- Example message: “I hear people calling for more gun control, but what I really care about are safe neighborhoods. Does gun control make us safer?”
- Description: Restraint of actions, inclinations, and impulses likely to upset or harm others and violate expectations or norms.
- Keywords: obedient, self-discipline, politeness, honoring parents and elders
- Example message: “Liberals today are outside of the mainstream. They support ideas and behavior that just don’t belong in our society.”
- Description: Pleasure or sensuous gratification for oneself.
- Keywords: pleasure, enjoying life, self-indulgent
- Example message: “Live and let live! Seize the day!”
- Description: Personal success through demonstrating competence according to social standards.
- Keywords: ambitious, successful, capable, influential
- Example message: “We live in a country where anyone who is willing to work hard can achieve the American Dream.”
- Description: Respect, commitment, and acceptance of the customs and ideas that one’s culture or religion provides.
- Keywords: respect for tradition, humble, devout, accepting my portion in life
- Example message: “Americans have always stood for free markets and a limited government, that is who we have always been.”
- Description: Excitement, novelty, and challenge in life.
- Keywords: a varied life, an exciting life, daring
- Example message: “Resist! Protest! Show up and yell so loud they can’t ignore us!”
- Description: Social status and prestige, control or dominance over people and resources.
- Keywords: authority, wealth, social power, social recognition, preserving my public image
- Example message: “Tax increases put everything we’ve worked so hard to build at risk.” “This bill will put them in their place.”
In reading through these ten values, you may notice that some messages resonate with you more than others. Yes, that could be due to the lack of creativity of the author. But hold that thought for a minute. As I mentioned earlier, Schwartz and other researchers have found that different groups of people prioritize their values differently.
That’s where the Basic Human Values holds so much potential to improve how we communicate conservative ideas.
Values in Action
Armed with our understanding of basic human values, how do we apply this to communicating conservative ideas? Here’s a simple 3-step process to effectively leverage values to persuade moderates, and a process we have seen be very successful in the field.
- Identify the issue and its core principle.
- Identify the target audience and communicate to their priority values.
- Identify the solution.
Too often when a debate starts about an issue, we already know the solution so we jump right to it. But then our friends roll their eyes and go back to the guacamole. They’re not listening, even though we have correctly identified a good solution.
Why? Because we haven’t framed the solution in a way that connects with their values.
What’s even worse is when we do make an emotional appeal, but it’s one that speaks to our values — not theirs.
Here’s an example that comes up all too often. In the wake of any crime in America involving a firearm, the Left and their friends in the media have a pavlovian-like instinct to blame the tragedy on the lack of “common sense gun control.” They rapidly and ferociously attack their opponents’ character, daring someone to say, in the wake of a school shooting, “no really, we need more guns.”
So how can the values theory help conservatives? Here’s the process in action:
1. Identify the issue & principle: Many people on the right point to the Second Amendment as the counter to gun control. But really, the principle is a more fundamental one: the right to self-defense. We all have a fundamental right to protect our family and property. The Second Amendment is just an expression of that principle.
2. Identify the target audience & values: Most of the time (all of the time) liberals are talking to moderates. In this case, they’re likely hoping to influence suburban women who have children in school. So that’s our audience too. From what we know about people generally, security is one of their top values.
So now we communicate a message like this: “There’s a lot of people talking right now about gun control. I want to talk about making our communities safer. Making sure our neighborhoods, shops, and schools are safe should be the number one priority for all of us.” (threw in a little universalism there at the end)
3. Identify the solution. Gun control is obviously not the solution, so what is it? Now that we’ve connected with the values of our audience, we’re ready to go there.
“If we really care about the safety of our neighborhoods, we can just look at Chicago or Washington, DC and know that more gun control is the last thing we need. What we do need are people in our community who have been trained for crises like this, and the resources to provide law enforcement and our intelligence community the tools they need to stop these tragedies from happening in the first place.”
You can see how communicating to our audience’s values gives us the opportunity to first create an emotional. value-based connection, then — once we have their trust that we are talking about a shared value — talk about a solution.
How different can we really be?
Is this really a necessary step? Don’t all people basically believe in the same objectives, even if we have different approaches?
Check out the example below to find out just how much political orientation can impact our worldview.
In the Italian national election of 2001, after a spirited campaign, a center-right coalition led by Silvio Berlusconi won a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, making Berlusconi the Prime Minister. However, this was no ordinary election. After years of shifting political coalitions, Italians were given a clear choice between Berlusconi’s center-right coalition and a liberal-progressive coalition led by Francesco Rutelli.
The two campaigns represented clear ideological differences. One was clearly center-right, advocating entrepreneurship and the family, while the other was clearly center-left, advocating social justice and equality. There was very little overlap between their pitches to the voters.
Researchers used this election as an opportunity to study the differences in values between partisans on the right and the left. In the months following the election, they surveyed 3,044 Romans who had voted for one of the major coalitions. Researchers first gave voters a survey to determine their priority values, and then asked how they voted.
Here’s what they found:
Overwhelmingly, voters who backed the center-right coalition prioritized the following values:
Meanwhile, center-left voters prioritized the following values:
What’s especially interesting about this research is that surveys were conducted at different intervals for 27 months following the election. Each time, the values held, meaning the values were not driven by the campaigns’ messages, but were already core motivators for these voters.
What’s Wrong with This Picture?
Knowing that center-right citizens prioritize different values than those on the center-left would be welcome news to those in the business of advancing conservative principles, right? Just check the box for those values and be on your merry way.
There’s just one problem. If you look at the results from the 60,000+ values surveys that have been administered across the globe over the past 20 years, you find a different, but familiar, order of priority values:
That’s right, even though Rutelli’s center-left coalition was defeated in Italy in 2001, the base of the center-left prioritizes the exact same values as most people around the world.
As conservatives, we really do have to intentionally think through the values we are communicating, because the ones that speak to us may not resonate with the rest of the world.
The Theory of Basic Human Values presents a lot of potential to help refine how we communicate conservative ideas. The danger, however, is too much of a good thing.
It would be easy to try to slap crude, blunt messages using keywords associated with values on a press release and call it a day. That would have no more benefit than converting a think tank’s endowment to cash and then lighting it on fire.
Note that in the Italian example, Berlusconi’s center-right coalition won, even though Rutelli’s center-left coalition was speaking to the values shared by most of the electorate. The conservative win, in this case, is in-part attributed to a page from Newt Gingrich’s playbook, where Berlusconi went on TV shortly before the election and personally made a pledge to the Italian voters — Contratto con gli Italiani (translation: “Contract with the Italians”). His authentic, personal promise to the Italian people created an impact.
So the warning label that comes with using the values theory is this: there is no substitute for authentic, personal, direct communications. In fact, if consumers feel like they are being manipulated, it breaks trust and pushes them further away.
In 2008, Barack Obama came to the White House promising hope and change. Within weeks, voters saw that they had been duped as the president and his allies in Congress rammed through ideological policies aimed at protecting special interests. Obama paid dearly for his deception in 2010 and nearly lost his 2012 reelection.
In 2017, conservatives are at a crossroads. Americans have trusted conservative policymakers with governing majorities in both in Washington and state capitols across the country. Will they govern as Obama, Reid and Pelosi did in 2009, breaking citizens’ trust for the sake of an ideological scorecard?
Or will they take the opportunity to connect with the real values that the American people hold, be proactive in how they communicate their principles, govern on principle, and build trust in a nation plagued with division?
The Theory of Basic Human Values is a tool to connect with target audiences. The opportunity for policymakers and influencers is to leverage that tool to both govern based on proven principles and connect with modern audiences.
The outcome will impact generations to come.