Pass the Buck If You Can: How Partisan Competition Triggers Attribution Bias in Multilevel Democracies

Guillem Rico and Robert Liñeira

In federations and other decentralized systems, subnational conditions may be seen as the responsibility of either regional governments or the national executive. Previous research has shown that the existence of multiple tiers of government blurs the lines of responsibility, making it more difficult for voters to assign credit or blame for policy performance (Anderson 2000; Powell and Whitten 1993; Whitten and Palmer 1999). However, the information and cognitive barriers posed by the vertical division of power is not the sole obstacle to the formation of accurate responsibility judgments. Attributions of responsibility may be further hampered by voters’ propensity to bring responsibility judgments in line with their group attachments.

In this article, we argue that the institutional dispersion of power not only makes it harder for citizens to know which institution is responsible for policy outcomes, but also facilitates individuals’ rationalization of blame attributions. The two processes have similar observable implications, but imply markedly different micro-mechanisms at work. In the former scenario, the unclear responsibility judgements are due to voters’ inability to attribute responsibility accurately in a complex institutional setting. In the latter scenario, the same complex institutional setting facilitates motivated rationalizations that allow citizens ‘‘pass the buck’’ and adjust their attributions of responsibility according to their identity group attachments; in particular, according to their partisan and territorial identifications.

Party and territorial identifications constitute powerful markers that allow voters to distinguish governments in ‘‘us versus them’’ terms. We advance the argument that group identifications towards parties and territories bias attributions of responsibility only when the regional government and the national government belong to different parties that represent a relevant ingroup-outgroup conflict. In outparty contexts, voters claim success for governments that represent their party and territorial attachments and blame opposite governments for policy failures.

We test this claim using data from one national survey experiment and five regionally representative surveys in Spain. This research design gives us leverage on several grounds. First, by combining the survey experiment with regional surveys greatly improves the external validity of our results. The use of regionally representative, face-to-face surveys allows us to obtain fine-grained, region-by-region descriptive evidence of differences in responsibility attributions when respondents in a real-world situation are not explicitly given an economic treatment. Second, the fact that the experimental and the observational studies are drawn at different points in time allows us to test if the same pattern of attribution bias emerges under very different political and economic contexts. Third, by focusing on subnational cases within a single country, we control for factors such as the regions’ government institutions or the characteristics of the national political system to a far greater extent than is possible in studies that compare units within different federations.

In our online experiment, we use a between-subjects, one-shot design where respondents are randomly assigned to one of three conditions with varying information about the recent evolution of the economic situation in the respondent’s region of residence. The dependent variable is the net regional attribution, that is, the difference between the level of responsibility attributed to the regional government and the level of responsibility attributed to the national government. For the observational study, we test the conditions that affect the net attribution of responsibility for the economy in five different regions that represent the different partisan contexts: inparty, non-nationalist outparty, and nationalist outparty governments.

We find partisan motivated reasoning in action. Our experiment reveals that the influence of partisanship on responsibility judgments varies consistently with both the partisan context and perceptions of the policy conditions: when offered the opportunity to counter-argue a valenced assessment of the regional economy, voters in out-party regions systematically adjust their responsibility judgments to reach a conclusion more in line with their group attachments. By contrast, the attributions of voters under inparty regional governments are not consistently affected by information about the economy. The evidence from out observational study further validates the key role of partisan conflict in activating directional motives.

We also find that territorial identities feelings of attachment may indeed bias attributions in a similar way than partisanship. However, the mere presence of alternative national identities does not appear to automatically translate into the adjustment of attributions in favor of a particular level of government. Rather, substantial rationalizations driven by territorial attachments only occur when regional governments are controlled by nationalist parties seeking to advance a distinct national identity and promote greater autonomy or even independence for the region. Under such circumstances, voters with strong feelings of regional (national) identification will tend to claim successes for the regional (national) government, holding constant their partisan allegiances.


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