In a period of economic and political crisis, political rhetoric varies and blame shifting increases (Boin, Hart and McConnell, 2009). By looking at the ‘crisis’ period in Greece (2009-2015) and the parliamentary bailout debates we argue that when it comes to ‘who should we blame’, the discourse moves towards the form of ‘historical blame shifting’, which does not only focus on blaming the external enemy but mainly blaming previous governments for colliding with the external enemy (Ladi and Tsagkroni, 2019). We highlight that party leaders often use a more polemic discourse than the MPs and conclude by indicating that blame-shifting diminishes once a party comes to power.
Across the political spectrum, from party leaders, to parliamentarians and party members, people choose to engage in a controversial shift in political discourse, which is characterised by exaggerated claims, blame shift, populistic appeals, a lack of attention and in some cases the promotion of fake news in order to achieve political aims (Bennett, 2016). However, we move forward from theories of scapegoating and electoral strategies to expounding the idea of ‘exogenisation’ of blame (that is shifting accountability) during the crisis as well as its implication for the political system and policy reform processes of crisis-ridden countries. In other words, we argue that blame shifting is not just about affecting voting behaviour, but also about determining policy change.
Problems during the crisis in Greece have often been defined not with a focus on the introduction of reforms but rather by aiming to find somebody to blame for the problem and thus for the crisis. The ‘exogenisation’ of the crisis by policy makers meant that long-standing endogenous causes of the problems were often overlooked. Instead, a populist discourse put emphasis on emotions and on shifting the blame to an exogenous ‘enemy’ and its cooperation with previous governments. Such a discourse closed opportunities for meaningful agenda-setting and viable solution and undermined the ownership of the austerity measures.
The ‘exogenisation’ of the crisis serves politicians and policy-makers whose primary aim is to avoid blame. Politicians are very often motivated by their desire to avoid blame for unpopular action or policy mistakes rather than to claim credit for popular actions. When political forces become members of governing coalitions the ‘exogenisation’ of the crisis appears to decline. This can be seen as evidence of the old dilemma of representative versus responsible government (Mair 2009). ‘Protest’ parties during crisis act as representatives – amongst others – by articulating interests as well as citizens’ disappointment and anger but when they come to government they have to deliver on their promises, and this becomes almost impossible since they have to act in a responsible way and deliver in areas that are not about politics but about policy, continuity and prior international agreements.
Greece has been selected as a case, since it was the country that was most dramatically hit by the financial crisis both economically and politically. The Greek economy was in a recessionary phase in 2008, with continuous declines in inflation and rising unemployment levels. Nevertheless, the causes of the Greek financial crisis arise from chronic aggravating problems and policy decisions that have been implemented along with the financial and economic global crisis. The increase in public debt in combination with the country’s recession since 2008, resulted in the Greek economy being particularly vulnerable to the effects of the 2008 global crisis, and this ultimately required the use of a support mechanism in order to avoid its permanent cessation. Since 2010 there have been three Economic Adjustment Programs (2010, 2012 and 2015)
Exploring the Greek case, we highlight a pattern of blame-shifting on the ongoing economic and political crisis, in which the blame shifts from internal factors (e.g. established political scene and the government) to exogenous factors (e.g. EU). And while we rarely see the government taking responsibility for its previous actions, in most cases the ‘exogenisation’ points clearly to the ‘old’ establishment, the major parties that created the dipole in the country’s political scene and a prominent ‘exogenisation’ discourse of both causes and responsibility (blame shifting) over solutions during the crisis. On the argument of responsibility versus responsiveness governments, exogenisation cannot be disconnected from the general goal of political parties to maximise their vote share. In their effort to pursue office, they seek and promote policies relevant to their cause and interests. And while, it appears that party leaders communicate blame shifting with a much stronger and often populist discourse in comparison to party members, the ‘exogenisation’ of the blame creates a trend, a generalised shift of blame and a change of strategy, depending on whether a party is in government or in opposition.
A research seminar on the topic took place on Tuesday, 26 March 2019 at the LSE, organised by the Hellenic Observatory. For more information please visit the event page.
Note: This article gives the views of the author, not the position of Greece@LSE, the Hellenic Observatory or the London School of Economics.