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Passing the Buck in Congress: The Extent and Effectiveness of Blaming Others for Inaction (WP-17-14)

David Doherty and Laurel Harbridge-Yong

The health of a democracy relies on citizens holding elected officials accountable when they fail to implement policies that serve the public. However, the separation of powers embedded in the American political system can make it difficult for citizens to determine who to blame when policy solutions are not reached. Strategic politicians may take advantage of this by blaming the opposing party or those in other institutions when popular policies are not enacted. The researchers leverage three survey experiments to examine how people respond when legislators “pass the buck.” They also consider the extent to which responses to blaming rhetoric are conditioned by partisan affinity and whether the blaming legislator’s party controls both chambers of Congress. Their findings suggest that blaming may be an appealing rhetorical strategy for legislators as backlash for deflecting blame is confined to out-partisans. However, their evidence also suggests that blaming rhetoric may exacerbate public dissatisfaction with parties and legislative institutions.

David Doherty, Associate Professor of Political Science, Loyola University

Laurel Harbridge-Yong, Associate Professor of Political Science and IPR Fellow, Northwestern University

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