On the 13th of June, 2016 the largest British tabloid newspaper, the Sun, published a front-page article in which they urged British people to leave the European Union. Doing so, the involved journalists actively interpreted the issue in terms of a divide between the innocent ‘us’ and the culprit ‘them’. To provide an example: “We must set ourselves free from dictatorial Brussels. Throughout our 43-year membership of the European Union it has proved increasingly greedy, wasteful, bullying, and breathtakingly incompetent in a crisis.” In the United States, Donald Trump has taken the blame-game even one step further by blaming Barack Obama for founding the Islamic State.
But why is this strategy of shifting blame working for so many citizens?
Blame-games, as played by the Sun or Trump, are becoming increasingly more visible as a communication strategy used by both politicians and journalists. Shifting blame from the ordinary people to others seems to be effective: The media, in particular, pay a lot of attention to blame attributions communicated by politicians. At the same time, journalistic attributions of blame attract a lot of readers and spark a fierce debate among citizens. Most importantly, empirical research shows that, as an effect of reading messages that attribute blame, citizens are persuaded that their in-group of ordinary native citizens, such as the Dutch working-class, is blameless whereas others, for instance the bureaucratic EU, are culprit (1). There are at least two key reasons why citizens are appealed to attributions of blame: the attractiveness of simplifying political issues into blame and innocence and the centrality of belonging to the community of blameless people.
The simplification rationale postulates that politics, especially politics beyond the national level, such as the European Union, is extremely difficult to understand for ordinary citizens. When things go wrong, it is easy to accept that it is because of this unknown, bureaucratic ‘black box’ that keeps on eating their tax money. The blame-game’s simplification of the perceived crisis into black and white terms helps them to make sense of it: the people’s crisis can be alleviated if the ones responsible are punished. People are thus presented with an external cause that is responsible for all the problems they are facing. As people want to maintain a positive and innocent image of themselves, it is highly attractive to accept these easy to understand attributions of blame.
This positive self-image connects to the second explanation of identity. Attributions of blame create a symbolic divide between the in-group of ordinary people and a distant out-group, such as migrants. The ordinary people are united by their innocence: they face a common enemy that is threatening them from the outside. As belonging to community plays a crucial role in making sense of the individual’s position to the world, feelings of in-group attachment facilitate the acceptance of blame: those who are a threat to ‘us’ should be removed from the in-group.
Blame games are thus highly persuasive as they tap into two central psychological mechanisms driving human behavior: making sense and belonging. Trump and the Sun thus played their cards right: they made complex matters easy to understand and they created feelings of attachment to a great ‘us’ opposed to an evil ‘them’. To what extent can the activation of these two psychological mechanisms influence voting? We will find out soon, when U.S. citizens will vote for their next president.
(1) Hameleers, M., Bos, L., & de Vreese, C. H. (2016). “They did it”: The effects of emotionalized blame attribution in populist communication. Communication Research, (ahead-of-print)