From Personal Responsibility to Political Mobilization: Using Attribution Frames to Overcome Policy Feedback Effects

Published date01 March 2022
Date01 March 2022
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2022, Vol. 50(2) 173185
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211063215
From Personal Responsibility to Political
Mobilization: Using Attribution Frames to
Overcome Policy Feedback Effects
Mallory E. SoRelle
Public policies that promote personal responsibility while minimizing government responsibility are a key feature of modern
American political economy. They can decrease Americanspolitical participation on a given issue, with detrimental conse-
quences for the wellbeing of economically insecure families. Can this pattern be overcome? I argue that attribution frames
highlighting governments role in and responsibility for policies may increase peoples propensity for political action on an issue,
but only if the frame can increase the salience of their preexisting beliefs about government intervention. Drawing on the case of
consumer f‌inancial protection, I administer an experiment to determine the effect of attribution framing on peoples willingness
to act in support of a popular banking reform. I f‌ind that helping people draw parallels between an issue they feel responsibility
for and one they accept government responsibility for can boost political engagement on behalf of the original policy.
public policy, political communication, policy feedback, consumer credit, personal responsibility
When George W. Bush signed the 2005 bankruptcy reform
bill into law, a measure that made it considerably harder for
the average American to get a f‌inancial fresh start,the
president justif‌ied the new policy on the grounds that
America is a nation of personal responsibility where people
are expected to meet their obligations.His argument
probably resonated with Americans, who are inf‌luenced not
only by a deeply rooted individualist mentality (Feldman,
1988) but also by pervasive exposure to governmental pol-
icies that teach us we are rational market actors who bear
responsibility for our own f‌inancial decisions and misfortunes
(see, for example, Hacker, 2006;Soss et al., 2011). Scholars
have documented lawmakersincreasing fondness for poli-
cies that are characterized by market logic and that channel
benef‌its and protections through market structures (Hacker,
2006;Hackett, 2019;Howard, 1997;Mettler, 2011;Soss
et al., 2011). Jacob Hacker (2006) dubbed this trend
AmericasPersonal Responsibility Crusade,and Soss,
Fording, and Schram argue it is part of a broader neoliberal
project that turns citizens into prudent market actors who
bear personal responsibility for their problems(2011: 51).
Studies have also demonstrated that these types of policies
have political consequences. Work from scholars like Soss
(1999),Soss et al., (2011),Hacker (2006),Mettler (2011,
2018), and a bevy of others paints a vivid picture of the
demobilizing effects of policy regimes designed to promote
personal responsibility while burying governments role in an
opaque web of private distributive mechanisms. This pattern
can weaken the political voice of ordinary Americans who,
despite rhetoric of personal responsibility, often need a
helping hand from government to solve problems that result
from structural inequality at least as much as personal de-
cision making. In the absence of wholesale policy reform, is
there a way to overcome the demobilizing effects of policies
that teach people to blame themselves for problems that
government has helped to create (or failed to help solve)? Can
people be mobilized to take political action on behalf of issues
that they have come to think of as matters of personal, rather
than government, responsibility?
In this paper I contend that the feedback effects generated
by policies at the center of the Personal Responsibility
Crusadecreate a problem of attributionthe process people
engage in to develop causal stories that inf‌luence their
preferences and behaviors (Heider, 1958)that limits po-
litical mobilization for those issues. I turn to the growing
experimental literature on political communication to explore
one possible solution: the use of attribution frames.
Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, Durham, NC, USA
Corresponding Author:
Mallory E. SoRelle, Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy, 210
Sanford, Durham, NC 27708-0245, USA.

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