Why Some Blame Politics for Their Personal Problems

Date01 September 2021
Published date01 September 2021
Subject MatterArticles
American Politics Research
2021, Vol. 49(5) 478 –489
© The Author(s) 2021
Article reuse guidelines:
DOI: 10.1177/1532673X211013463
“A 30 rack of coors light is $23 now at Sun Stop. Thanks,
Obama.” @CampaignRPoz, September 21, 2014.
When things go wrong in our lives, it is natural to try to
determine who or what is to blame. Some blame karma or
bad luck, while some find fault within themselves or others.
Interestingly, some hold the government responsible when
things in their personal lives do not turn out as they had
hoped. Why do some people believe that the political sys-
tem is to blame for the problems in their lives? We explore
the origins of people’s personal grievances with govern-
ment, focusing on individual level differences in why peo-
ple attribute negative personal outcomes to the nature of
the political system.
For the most part, people’s political judgments have been
thought to be separate from what is happening in their
personal lives. People evaluate the performance of elected
officials based on the health of the national economy, not
the state of their personal finances (Fiorina, 1981; Kinder &
Kiewiet, 1979). Demand for government investment in
redistributive policy have more to do with people’s ideology
and values than their personal socioeconomic status (Fong,
2001; Schlozman & Verba, 1979). Symbolic considerations,
such as core values, partisanship, and ideology, typically do
a better job explaining political preferences than self-inter-
ested personal concerns (Sears & Funk, 1991; Sears et al.,
1980). Yet even if most people’s political preferences are not
driven by self-interested concerns, we show that there are
meaningful variations in the degree to which people see their
personal lives as intertwined with politics.
We explore why some people see their personal chal-
lenges as a product of the political system. Rather than
reflecting merely people’s material hardships, we propose
that personality traits also help explain how people assign
blame when things go wrong in their lives. We focus on
how people’s self-evaluations shape how they assign blame,
particularly the effects of personality differences in locus of
control and self-esteem. Drawing on responses to a module
of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we
show that those who feel less control over their own futures
and those who hold negative self-perceptions are more
likely to blame the political system for their personal cir-
cumstances. Political socialization serves as a counter-
vailing force, where factors like education and support for
democratic principles predict lower likelihoods of assign-
ing blame to government. The personal challenges people
face seem to play only a minor role in explaining people’s
tendency to blame government for their problems. We fur-
ther demonstrate that people’s beliefs about the political
origins of their personal problems are consequential for
how they evaluate elected officials. Those who believe that
their personal challenges have political origins are more
likely to weigh self-interested considerations in their evalu-
ations of officeholders and less likely to lean on sociotropic
1013463APRXXX10.1177/1532673X211013463American Politics ResearchBaird and Wolak
1University of Colorado, Boulder, CO, USA
Corresponding Author:
Jennifer Wolak, Department of Political Science, University of Colorado,
333 UCB, Boulder, CO 80309-0333, USA.
Email: wolakj@colorado.edu
Why Some Blame Politics for
Their Personal Problems
Vanessa Baird1 and Jennifer Wolak1
Why do some people blame the political system for the problems in their lives? We explore the origins of these grievances
and how people assign responsibility and blame for the challenges they face. We propose that individual differences in the
personality traits of locus of control and self-esteem help explain why some blame the political system for their personal
problems. Using responses from a module of the 2016 Cooperative Congressional Election Study, we show that those
with low self-esteem and a weaker sense of control over their fates are more likely to blame the political system for the
challenges they face in their lives. We also demonstrate that this assignment of blame is politically consequential, where those
who intertwine the personal and the political are more likely to evaluate elected officials based on pocketbook economic
conditions rather than sociotropic considerations.
self-esteem, locus of control, personality, attribution of blame

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