The Policy Blame Game: How Polarization Distorts Democratic Accountability across the Local, State, and Federal Level

Democratic accountability relies on voters to punish their representatives for policies they dislike. Yet, a separation-of-powers system can make it hard to know who is to blame, and partisan biases further distort voters’ evaluations. During the COVID-19 pandemic, precautionary policies were put into place sometimes by governors, sometimes by mayors, and sometimes by no one at all, allowing us to identify when voters hold out-party versus in-party politicians responsible for policies. With a survey spanning 48 states, we test our theory that attitudes toward policies and parties intersect to determine when selective attribution takes place. We find that as individuals increasingly oppose a policy, they are more likely to blame whichever level of government is led by the out-party. This is most pronounced among partisans with strong in-party biases. We provide important insight into the mechanisms that drive selective attribution and the conditions under which democratic accountability is at risk.

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License CC BY
Type Journal Articles
C-ID POLS 110 - American