Pass the Buck If You Can: How Partisan Competition Triggers Attribution Bias in Multilevel Democracies
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Voters’ ability to hold politicians accountable has been shown to be limited in systems of multilevel government. 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. However, much less is known about how the vertical division of responsibility affects citizens’ propensity to rationalize responsibility attributions on the basis of group attachment. While these two processes have similar observable implications, they imply markedly different micro-mechanisms. Using experimental and observational data, this paper examines how the partisan division of power moderates the impact of voters’ partisanship and feelings of territorial attachment on attributions of responsibility for the regional economy. Our analyses show that partisan-based attribution bias varies systematically with the partisan context, such that it only emerges in regions where a party other than the national incumbent controls the regional government. We also find that responsibility judgments are rationalized on the basis of territorial identities only when a regional nationalist party is in control of the regional government. Our results contribute to explaining the contextual variations in the strength of regional economic voting and more generally to understanding one of the mechanisms through which low clarity of responsibility reduces government accountability.
KeywordsMotivated reasoning Clarity of responsibility Partisanship Territorial identity Spain
We would like to thank Dani Marinova for her guidance in preparing an earlier version of the manuscript. We are also very grateful to three anonymous reviewers, whose constructive comments greatly helped to clarify and improve the paper. This research was supported by the project “Stability and Change in Political Attitudes,” funded by the Spanish Ministry of Science and Innovation (CSO2010-18534), and by a Ramón y Cajal grant to Guillem Rico (RYC-2012-09861).
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