Moral Foundations Theory: Pluralistic Framing and Reagan’s War on Drugs

Zeb Dempsey

Moral Foundations Theory (MFT) is a theory of moral psychology created by social psychologists. The theory claims that humans have five biologically ingrained ‘moral foundations’ that are affected by social learning and personality. While initially made for cross cultural studies, MFT became predominantly associated with political psychology after researchers found that liberals and conservatives tend to rely on different moral foundations. In this article, I test a claim that I call the ‘pluralistic framing hypothesis.’ The hypothesis states that we should expect broader levels of public support for policies backed by rhetoric that draws on a wider range of moral foundations. To test this hypothesis, I study Reagan’s rhetoric during the war on drugs. My findings show some initial support for the pluralistic framing hypothesis and, based on these findings, I argue that MFT offers important guidance for increasing support for policies of public interest.


1. Introduction

In the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25, 2020, a massive wave of protests erupted in support of the already existing Black Lives Matter movement. The well-established debates surrounding police brutality saw a level of attention that they had not seen before. The goal of the protests was clear—we need to reduce the level of police violence, especially as it is directed at black people in the U.S. The major question was what policies could we enact that would make a difference. One of the major proposals was ‘defund the police.’ While many people latched on to the idea of defunding the police, support for it among the general public was low (about 28% in June) and opposition remained fairly high (about 58%, “Poll: Voters oppose” 2020). Yet, around the same time, about 67% of Americans supported Black Lives Matter (“Support for Black Lives Matter” 2020).

As a matter of convincing the public, the defund the police movement was not able to get nearly the support that they needed even when a large percentage of Americans supported combating police violence. In general, if we want to determine how to implement a policy solution, we need to ask not only what the best policy solution is, but also how we can convince the general public to support that solution. It then seems worthwhile to ask what makes a rhetorical strategy successful or unsuccessful at gaining public support in general.

Optimistically, we might think that gaining public support for a policy is just a matter of creating and spreading the strongest argument in favor of the policy. However, as ethicists and political philosophers have had to recognize for thousands of years, strong arguments do not guarantee an end to disagreement. Even if we think our arguments are supported by the strongest reasons, people still end up disagreeing with us. To determine how to make a more effective case for policies, we cannot just try to find the strongest academically backed reasons in support of the policy. We have to determine what makes the general public respond positively and negatively to arguments and rhetorical campaigns. Why do people respond differently to the same arguments and rhetoric, and how can we change our rhetoric to gain a larger level of public support for policies that we favor?

To begin to answer this question, I use Moral Foundations Theory (MFT), which is a theory of moral psychology developed by social psychologists that has gained some degree of popularity recently. According to MFT, we have five moral foundations which are biologically ingrained in us, but which are expressed differently in individuals as a result of social learning and individual personality (Graham et al. 2013). A number of studies have found that the people’s scores on the moral foundations questionnaire are predicative over and above political ideology for voting behavior and political attitudes (Frank and Scherr 2015; Dickinson et al. 2016). Some scholars have argued that, as a result, we may be able to increase support for a given policy if we broaden the number of foundations expressed in the rhetoric supporting it. There has been relatively little work, however, testing this claim, and the work that has been done has primarily been in labs.

To test this claim, I explore a case study of the presidential rhetoric of Ronald Reagan from 1984-1988 surrounding the ‘war on drugs.’ I look at the war on drugs, because previous work has argued that Reagan’s rhetoric had a large impact on public opinion at the time (Hawdon 2001). As such, it offers a good opportunity to look at rhetoric that was successful (on its own terms at least). I argue that, given the broad impact Reagan’s rhetoric had on public opinion, we should expect Reagan’s rhetoric to express a broad range of moral foundations.

The structure of this article will be as follows: In section 2, I give a brief review of the theoretical commitments of MFT and the empirical evidence that it has produced. I argue that based on MFT we should expect broader support for a policy when the rhetoric supporting that policy draws on a broader number of moral foundations. Given the amount of the public who viewed the drug issue as a morally salient issue from 1984-1988, we should expect Reagan’s rhetoric to draw on a broad number of moral foundations. In section 3, I give a brief overview of the literature on presidential rhetoric during the war on drugs. In section 4, I use the Moral Foundations Dictionary to assess the moral content of all of Reagan’s speeches involving drugs from 1984-1988. In addition, I analyze recent literature in support of defunding the police to provide a baseline for comparison. My findings suggest that Reagan’s rhetoric employed a wide range of moral foundations to frame the war on drugs. In section 5, I offer some concluding remarks.


2. Moral Foundations Theory and Practice

2.1 Theory

Moral Foundations Theory rests on the idea that we have a certain number (five in the standard version of the theory) of ‘moral foundations.’ The foundations are basic functional systems that each react to a specific sort of moral stimuli. Together they constitute a “first draft” of morality (Graham et al. 2013, 12).

The five traditional moral foundations are Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation. Each moral foundation is seen as evolutionary adaptations to social coordination problems (Graham et al. 2013, 38). The first word in each word pair represents the virtue of the foundation and the second represents the vice. The first two foundations (Care/Harm and Fairness/Cheating) are called the “individualizing” foundations because they respond to the protection of individuals (Graham et al. 2020, 5). The other three foundations (Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation) are called the “binding” foundations because they relate to maintaining group cohesion (Graham et al. 2020, 5).

This “first draft,” however, is not biologically hardwired. Rather, it is “organized in advance of experience” (Graham et al. 2013, 7-8). Our brains are made to process and react to certain sorts of moral stimuli more than others. An individual’s specific tendencies to react to certain kinds of moral stimuli are somewhat like taste. What sorts of food any individual likes is not biologically determined. It is in part a product of cultural upbringing and personal experience. Our taste receptors, however, are still built to respond to certain sorts of food. Similarly, MFT assumes that our “first-draft” of morality makes us organized to respond to certain kinds of moral stimuli. Even so, our cultural upbringing and personality can change how we respond to those stimuli person to person, and group to group (Graham et al. 2013, 19).

You can think of our moral foundations almost like a sound mixer. We have a set number of moral foundations, but social learning and individual experience ‘slide’ the foundations up or down. Thus, someone can be heavily affected by moral stimuli relevant to the Care/Harm and relatively unaffected by moral stimuli relevant to the Sanctity/Degradation foundation, and vice versa. This is a simplification because social learning can also affect the “current triggers” of a foundation (Graham et al. 2013, 12). For example, two people can both be highly sensitive to eating habits they find disgusting, but which eating habits they find disgusting depend on the etiquette norms of a given culture. However, researchers typically focus on the effect social learning has on the intensity of a foundation in an individual.

Defenders of MFT maintain that our moral dispositions are rarely consciously constructed through careful reasoning. They instead adopt the Social Intuitionist Model (SIM), which states that most moral evaluations occur rapidly in evaluative feelings as a result of automatic processing (Graham et al. 2013, 10-11). Most conscious moral reasoning on SIM is post-hoc rationalization of intuitions. Putting this together, MFT sees human morality as inherently value pluralist, based on biologically ingrained, yet plastic, functional systems shaped by social learning and personality, and largely revealed to us through intuitions generated by automatic processing.

For the purposes of this article, we do not need to accept MFT as a whole. Instead, we only need a way to categorize moral content in rhetoric in order to study how moral content in rhetoric relates to public opinion. Thus, MFT may, for example, fail to adequately characterize explicit moral reasoning, but so long as much of our moral judgement comes from knee-jerk intuitive reactions, the analytical tools of MFT may still be predictively valid. Thus, MFT, even if theoretically flawed, may still offer a useful way of characterizing rhetoric.


2.2 Practice

While MFT was created to study cross cultural differences and perhaps the most discussed finding of MFT is that liberals and conservatives rely on different moral foundations (although studies also found that there were at least two other groups which could not be included into the typical liberal and conservative groupings, Graham et al. 2013, 19-22). Researchers found that liberals tend to rely primarily on the individualizing foundations (care and fairness). Conservatives, on the other hand, express the foundations more evenly, but rely particularly on the binding foundations (authority, loyalty, and sanctity).

Leaning on this finding, Jonathan Haidt, one of the main figures of MFT, claimed rather dramatically that when conservatives argue based on the foundations of sanctity or authority liberals only hear “theta-waves” (Haidt and Graham 2007, 99). In other words, when liberals and conservatives’ arguments rely on foundations that the other does not express in the same way, their arguments just sound like nonsense to each other.

Building on this finding, researchers have shown that a person’s score on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire (MFQ) can predict support and compliance with policies over and above a person’s political ideology (Graham et al. 2013, 20). Two independent studies found, for example, that a person’s MFQ scores were particularly predictive of their compliance with COVID-19 regulations, even when controlling for political affiliation and a number of other factors (Chan 2021; Graham et al. 2020). Similar studies found that MFQ scores are predictive of people’s overall voting behavior (Franks and Scherr 2015).

As a result, some authors have argued that these findings may help us understand how to increase support for policies among non-supportive groups. As Chan (2021, 8) puts it:


The strength of Moral Foundations Theory is that it explores people’s underlying intuitions. By understanding the moral foundations relevant, we offer guidance concerning how to design and frame public health communications that are aimed at increasing uptake of behaviors.


If we understand which foundations are associated with low levels of support and compliance, the idea goes, we can determine how to increase support and compliance by reframing or restructuring policies in ways that play off the moral foundation expressed by the non-supportive group.

Expanding the argument, different groups of people rely on different moral foundations, that means that different groups of people will be affected differently by the same kind of moral stimuli. As a result, if we rely heavily on only one or two moral foundations, we run the risk of creating rhetoric that is fundamentally unmoving for certain segments of the population. In order to broaden support and/or compliance with certain policies, we should develop rhetorical strategies that employ a broader set of moral foundations. If this is true, then we should expect broader levels of public support for policies backed by rhetoric that draws on a wider range of moral foundations ceteris paribus. I will call this the ‘pluralistic framing hypothesis.’

Limited work has been done to test the effect of MFT-guided framing on people’s opinions, which has offered some mixed support for this idea. Feinberg and Willer (2013) found that framing environmental issues with conservative moral foundations could almost eliminate the difference between liberal and conservative pro-environmental attitudes and increase conservatives’ belief in global warming. However, a more wide-ranging study by Day et al. (2014) showed that MFT guided framing could entrench people’s opinions on an issue, but found much more limited support for the hypothesis that targeted framing could shift people’s opinions.

These studies are undoubtedly important for establishing a causal relationship between moral foundations, framing, and public opinion, but crucially they were both conducted in laboratory conditions. Thus, it is not clear that we can draw valid inferences from their results to large-scale rhetorical campaigns. It seems important, then, to study how moral foundations in actual political rhetoric influence the public’s attitudes in real life scenarios. This will require sacrificing a degree of internal validity, but hopefully it will allow for a greater degree of external validity. In the next section, I discuss the literature on presidential rhetoric in the war on drugs.


3. Presidential Rhetoric and the War on Drugs

The ‘war on drugs’ started in 1971 after Nixon declared in a speech that drugs were the ‘public enemy number one.’ After Nixon’s resignation in 1974, however, federal concern with combating drug use declined dramatically. Ford simply did not think that stopping drug use was a realistic goal and generally neglected the issue. Carter even pushed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana (Nielsen 2010, 463). Public concern with drug use also seemed to decline during the Ford and Carter administrations with opposition to marijuana legalization falling from around 80% in 1975 to under 70% in 1978 (Nielsen 2010, 474).

This general decline in federal and public concern over drugs reversed dramatically, however, after Reagan took office. By 1982 Reagan had again declared war on drugs, and during Reagan’s administration the public increasingly saw both drugs and drug users as a major threat to American values (Nielsen 2010, 464). Most important problem polls showed that almost no one thought drugs were the most important issue facing the country in 1984. By 1987 around 15% of the public listed drugs as the most important problem. This number increased until 1990 where it spiked to almost 70% (Gonzenbach 1992, 138). By the end of 1990, however, the number dropped dramatically (Gonzenbach 1992, 138).

The second wave of the war on drugs (during the Reagan and early Bush administrations) saw a significant increase in federal spending meant to combat the drug trade. The Anti-Drug Abuse act of 1986 alone allocated $1.7 billion to the war on drugs (Nielsen 2010, 464). The allocation of funding also shifted to combat the supply-side, as opposed to Nixon’s war on drugs which focused more on demand-side prevention. Yet, even with the significant amount of funding that the war on drugs had, the number of people who thought that too little was being spent on combating drug addiction increased between 1986 (60.7%) to 1989 (73.8%) (Nielsen 2010, 474).

Based on data from the National Institute of Drug Abuse, the level of drug use, however, had actually decreased consistently between 1979 to 1990 (Hawdon 2001, 420). While, on some measures, the severity of drug abuse did increase between 1986 and 1989, the level of public concern about drugs is not consistently correlated with any measure of severity (Beckett 1994, 442). As a result, the dramatic increase in public concern from 1984-1990 does not seem to be explainable in terms of objective features of the drug problem. Sociologists have labeled this as a “moral panic,” which is “the widespread feeling on part of the public that something is terribly wrong in their society because of the moral failings of a specific group of individuals” (Hawdon 2001, 420).

According to Hawdon, the moral panic was created and sustained by the presidential rhetoric surrounding drug use. It was created, on this account, through Reagan’s use of communitarian rhetoric. According to Hawdon (2001, 425):


Communitarianism, at least in its extreme, emphasizes the group over the individual and argues that the collective has rights independent of, and sometimes opposed to, the rights of individuals.


The president used communitarian rhetoric to turn drug traffickers and users into ‘folk devils,’ labeling them as moral deviants standing in opposition to the welfare and values of the collective. As the war on drugs went on, the president’s rhetoric then shifted from primarily communitarian to a combination of communitarian and individualistic, and partially framed drug addiction as a disease. Finally, at the beginning of the Bush administration and near the end of the moral panic, the presidential rhetoric became primarily individualistic.

Hawdon’s analysis is certainly insightful. However, it relies on subjective analysis and the definition of communitarianism is vague. From the perspective of MFT, communitarian rhetoric, as Hawdon uses it, can encompass rhetoric drawing on a wide range of moral foundations, including the individualizing foundations. For example, infringing on the rights of individuals to protect the collective could be justified by citing the harm to individuals in the collective (drawing on the Care/Harm foundation), or it could cite the authority of the state (drawing on the Authority/Subversion foundation). Thus, Hawdon’s analysis does not offer much insight into the moral foundations used in the rhetoric.

Moreover, the president’s rhetoric is certainly not the only influence on public opinion. A study by Stringer and Maggard (2016) suggests that media exposure also has a strong impact on how the public thinks about the drug problem. While the level of drug use was decreasing, 1980 saw the introduction of crack, which received significant media attention (Nielsen 2010, 464). It has also been argued that the causal relationship between public opinion and the president is the reverse. Public opinion is really what drives the president’s concerns (Gonzenbach 1992, 132-3). All these claims may collectively be true. A study by Gonzenbach (1992) suggests that the causal relationship is triangular. Both the media and presidential rhetoric influenced public opinion, but what the president and the media focused on depended in part on the concerns of the public (Gonzenbach 1992, 143). However, a study by Beckett (1994) shows that, while public concern and state initiative generally move in parallel, changes in public concern tend to follow changes in state initiative rather than the other way around (Beckett 1994, 442). There seems, then, to be good evidence that the presidential rhetoric did impact public opinion even though the causal relationship is not exactly tidy.

The presidential rhetoric surrounding the war on drugs from 1984 to 1990 provides a good case study for analyzing the impact of the moral foundations used in rhetoric on public opinion. We know that the president’s rhetoric did have an impact on public opinion. More specifically, we know the president had an impact on how the public viewed the drug problem from a moral perspective.

Drug issues in general also offer a good case study for framing. Wendell and Tatalovich (2021) found that marijuana legalization was a ‘mixed’ or latent morality policy, i.e. it is an issue that is in between purely moral and purely instrumental. It is not a given that the public will view drug issues as a moral concern. Based on the pluralistic framing hypothesis, given the impact on public opinion that Reagan’s rhetoric had, we should expect Reagan’s rhetoric to employ a wide variety of moral foundations. Had Reagan used a limited number of moral foundations in his rhetoric it is not clear that it would have been able to create substantial moral concern in as much of the population as it did.

Like any case study, this is unlikely to firmly establish any sort of universally generalizable causal relationship, but it offers an opportunity to test the pluralist framing hypothesis in the field. In the next section, I discuss my preliminary data collection and findings.


4. Preliminary Findings

4.1 Methods

In order to study the moral foundations used in Reagan’s rhetoric surrounding the war on drugs from 1984-1988, I analyze all drug-related speeches Reagan made during that period using the Moral Foundations Dictionary (MFD), which was created by Graham and Haidt. The MFD associates words with a given foundation, and classifies the word either as a virtue or vice of the foundation. For example, violence is associated with the Care/Harm vice; family is associated with the Loyalty/Betrayal virtue; abandonment is associated with the Fairness/Cheating vice and the Loyalty/Betrayal vice, etc. The MFD produces a tally of the total number of words that fall under each vice and virtue of each foundation. For example, if there were five words that fell under harm-virtue, then the score for harm-virtue would be 5. Given the simplicity of the score there are a clear number of issues that need to be addressed.

First, we do not want to count phrases like, ‘the democrats want you to believe that this policy is unfair’ to count towards the fairness score of the rhetoric. There is no good automatic way of doing this. As such, I have gone through and manually removed phrases where moral words are not actually being used in the way that the MFD typically assumes they are. Second, if a speech talks about more than just drugs, we do not want to count the moral rhetoric associated with the non-drug related speech towards the overall analysis of the drug-related rhetoric. As a result, I have removed parts of speeches I have found to be irrelevant. This makes the results somewhat subjective, because there are difficult questions about relevancy. Are passages about communism in the middle of a speech on drugs relevant to the drug rhetoric? Arguably they are because they may affect public opinion about drugs by associating drugs with communism. These are difficult questions that may be answered differently by different individuals. Third, I have decided to keep repeated uses of the same speech. For example, Reagan gave the same ‘say no to drugs’ speech in 1986 a substantial number of times. I have decided to keep each use of the speech in order to capture the frequency of the kinds of rhetoric used.

Because this method only analyzes individual words, there are certainly some drawbacks. Several scholars have argued that the ‘just say no’ campaign made the public view drug use as a morally culpable act by framing use as a personal choice. The MFD clearly cannot offer that sort of analysis. As such, the results should be seen as more of a proxy measure because the words are evidence of framing, not framing itself. Still, this method allows for more objective analysis of substantial amounts of data, so it has merits on that account. The speeches can be found in the Public Papers of the President of the United States, which compiles all public speeches of every president since Herbert Hoover.

To measure the ‘spread’ of the moral foundations, I have adapted the Herfindahl-Hirschman Index (HHI). The HHI is used by economists to measure competition in a given market by measuring the relative size of firms. To measure the HHI of a sector, one finds the market shares of each firm in the market, squares them, and then adds them together. The HHI is closer to zero in markets with many firms with equal market shares and increases towards the theoretical maximum of 10,000 when a single firm dominates the market. The HHI can be used to measure the spread of the rhetoric’s moral foundations if we replace market shares with the percentage of moral words a given foundation takes up. I will call this measure HHI’. If rhetoric uses moral words from more foundations and uses them around even amounts, then the HHI’ will be low. If the moral words primarily cluster around one foundation, then the HHI’ will be high.

To give a baseline for comparison, I have used the same procedure to analyze 10 articles written in support of defund the police.[1] Given the low support for defund the police, we should expect a higher HHI’ for the defund the police articles than for Reagan’s war on drugs rhetoric based on the pluralistic framing hypothesis.


4.2 Results and Discussion

The moral content of the speeches, as analyzed by the MFD, was initially somewhat surprising, but consistent with overall expectations. In four out of five years, the most frequently used moral foundation was fairness, followed by authority. The exception was 1988 where sanctity rather than authority was the second most used foundation. Overall, words that fell under the fairness foundation took up 36.7% of all moral words. Care/Harm was 5.6%, Loyalty/Betrayal was 15.5%, Authority/Subversion was 22.1%, and Sanctity/Degradation was 20%. I expected to see care and sanctity as the primary foundations since those are the foundations that would cover the threat of drugs to general welfare and American values. The large number of fairness related words appears to reflect Reagan’s emphasis on the war on drugs as a matter of justice.

Overall, the speeches included a fair range of moral foundations as measured using HHI’. The average HHI’ was 2075. The HHI’ for 1984 was 1883, it was 2178 in 1985, 2039 in 1986, 2166 in 1987, and 2104 in 1988. For comparison, the HHI’ of the articles defending defund the police was 2773, making it higher than both Reagan’s average HHI’ and his high HHI’ in 1985. Moreover, so long as we restrict rhetoric to only the care and fairness foundations (which are the two foundations primarily endorsed by liberals), the lowest HHI’ we could get is 2500. This supports my hypothesis that Reagan’s rhetoric relied on a wide range of moral foundations.

More qualitatively, the moral content of Reagan’s rhetoric ranges from emphasizing the corrupt influence of drugs on American values (reflecting the sanctity foundation) to emphasizing the harm that drugs cause to drug users (reflecting the care foundation) to arguing that punishing drug traffickers is a matter of justice (reflecting the fairness foundation) to arguing that drug use is a threat to law and order (reflecting the authority foundation). Reagan’s rhetoric, then, relies both on the individualizing and binding foundations, expressing both the threat that drugs pose to individuals as well as the threat that they pose to the social fabric. This finding does not necessarily clash with Hawdon’s analysis that Reagan’s rhetoric was communitarian because Hawdon’s use of communitarian does not line up with the binding foundations.

In general, it appears that Reagan’s rhetoric cannot be unified into a single message. At points there even appear to be obvious inconsistencies in some of Reagan’s expressed views. One example is this excerpt from an interview in August 1986:


I do think that as a part of a campaign of the kind that we’re talking, where you’re going to want to identify the users in order to be of help to them, in this program now of turning them off on drugs, why, then, I think that we’re going to be—my own view is—far better off if we do as the military did and offer them—you can come in and you can ask for help and you won’t be punished if you will agree to take the help to try and cure you.


Here Reagan is explicitly talking about drug use as a disease to be treated rather than as a personal choice that ought to be punished. This quote is in stark contrast with a comment he made in a 1984 speech:


I made a point last year which some of our critics jumped on, but I believe it has merit. Government bureaucracies spend billions for problems related to drugs, alcoholism, and disease. How much of that money could we save, how much better off might Americans be if all of us tried a little harder to live by the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule?


Here, drug use is explicitly framed as a personal choice, rather than a disease. Drug users, alcoholics and victims of the AIDs epidemic are supposedly costing our society because of their failure to abide by Judeo-Christian moral rules.

It seems entirely possible that Reagan’s rhetoric had a large impact on the public because of this variation in his rhetoric. It allowed him to frame the issue using a pluralistic set of values and this helped in part to make the moral panic around drugs possible. The war on drugs was framed as a fight for the maintenance of America’s upstanding religious way of life, as a fight to keep our children safe, a fight for the re-establishment of law and order, and for just punishment of the offenders. This allowed drugs to become a morally salient issue for a public with a diverse set of moral concerns. No individual needed to view the drug issue in each of those ways, but so long as they bought into one of those framings, the drug issue could become a morally salient issue for them.


5. Conclusion

Just creating a policy alone will not do anything. Just creating an academically strong justification for a policy alone may not do anything. If we want our policy proposals to have an effect, they need to be passed and, in order to be passed, they need to gain public support. MFT offers a way of determining what may be missing from the rhetoric that is employed to convince the public that a given policy is worth its support. Common experience seems to show that what is a morally salient reason for us may not be a morally salient reason for another person. The potential importance of MFT is its promise to provide a framework for finding out what sorts of reasons are morally salient to groups that do not share our moral intuitions.

This initial study of Reagan’s rhetoric certainly cannot establish a causal relationship between the moral foundations employed in rhetoric and public support. There were certainly other factors behind the moral panic from 1984 to 1990. Nevertheless, the presidential rhetoric had its role in producing the panic and, given my initial results along with preexisting empirical work in MFT, it seems plausible that the reliance on multiple foundations was crucial to producing widespread moral concern during Reagan’s war on drugs. Had the issue been framed as only a matter of harm, or only a matter of protecting the American way of life, it is unclear that the public would have reacted in the same way.

If we want to improve our rhetorical strategies, the pluralistic framing hypothesis suggests that we ought to frame the issues in a number of different ways drawing on a variety of moral foundations. Doing this would help make the policy issue morally salient to a diverse group of people with diverse moral concerns. This does not mean that simply reframing the issue will solve the problem. For starters, some policies are more explicitly moral than others, giving us less ability to reframe the issue (Wendell 2021). For example, the public had a largely negative reaction to Reagan’s zero tolerance policy due to its excessive intrusiveness (Hawdon 2001, 432).

However, insofar as reframing is possible, we ought to frame issues in ways that allow the public to grasp them on their own (moral) terms. The pluralistic framing hypothesis suggests (i) that in a population with diverse moral concerns, making the policy issue morally salient is only possible if we frame issues in multiple ways, and (ii) that MFT offers a useful guide towards understanding what moral concerns are prevalent other than our own.



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  1. The Reagan study came from approximately 10,000 pages of Reagan speeches. For the purposes of this article, I was unable to make an equally in-depth study of the defund the police articles. The analysis of these articles should be seen merely as a baseline for comparison and is not intended as a full representation of the defund the police movement.


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