Narratives of Blame

This workshop will take place on Zoom

Many facets of 21st century populism are at odds with standard models of political competition. I argue that these issues can be resolved when viewing political competition from the lens of narratives. I define narratives as simplified causal models of socioeconomic outcomes. Narratives are adopted by individuals to make sense of observed socioeconomic outcomes whose true causes are difficult to identify. Among other factors, narratives offer assessments as to how wages relate to individuals’ underlying characteristics as opposed to luck, and how much the social prestige of a group reflects their underlying qualities. In order to compete for votes, populists can leverage narratives of blame, which scapegoat other groups (e.g. migrants) or outside factors (e.g. globalisation, automatisation) for socioeconomic outcomes. In a model, I show that such narratives can gain majority backing under the combined effect of negative economic shocks and a loss of relative social standing among voters. On their own, economic shocks are neither necessary nor sufficient to generate majority support for populist parties with narratives of blame. My model explains a few features that are difficult to reconcile with other frameworks: (1) right-wing populists who use an agenda of blame source from the lower part of the income distribution but are against redistribution; (2) populists are supported by a significant number of well-off individuals; (3) populists can do well in the absence of economic shocks.