Political scandals and subsequent ‘blame games’ might be an an inevitable part of government, but Markus Hinterleitner and Fritz Sager argue that we need to look beyond the usual focus – the fall-out – to study the political maneuvering that occurs before a scandal breaks. To do this they take inspiration from the philosophical prince of the political plot, Machiavelli.
As media consumers, we’re all familiar with different kinds of political scandals. These might regard personal failures such as covering up driving offences or a plagiarized PhD thesis, an isolated media story like the feeding of a baby giraffe to lions in the zoo of Copenhagen, or a policy failure such as the Edinburgh tram ‘debacle’ or the total shipwreck of the plan to construct Berlin Airport. It is this latter form of political scandal that is most telling for scholars interested in the functioning of political systems.
Political scandals usually proceed in three stages: 1) The discovery of a contentious issue is followed by heated debate about reasons and responsibilities; 2) A culprit is found and (sometimes) punished; 3) Public attention quickly moves on to the next attention-grabbing issue. Often, we can be left wondering why politicians and also high-ranking bureaucrats stumble over the most irrelevant personal demerit or, in comparison, get away despite considerable wrongdoings. Blame games, as those publicly visible interactions between ‘blame-makers’ and ‘blame-takers’ are called in the literature, have been covered by researchers in considerable detail.
In a recent paper, we argue that publicly visible blame games are only one side of the coin. Most officeholders are smart enough to know that they’re swimming in dangerous waters; complex policy problems, rising public demands, and heightened transparency make governing an increasingly risky task. Politicians and bureaucrats know that even minor issues can be politicized and turned against them.
This is why officeholders go great lengths to anticipate and alleviate potentially dangerous situations. So there aren’t just ‘reactive’ blame games in which politicians defend themselves under the eye of the public, but also ‘anticipatory’ blame games happening behind closed doors. Both blame games require distinct skills and capabilities, which are nicely captured by a quote from the Italian philosopher, Niccolò Machiavelli:
The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.
‘Anticipatory’ blame games cover the fox’s mission not to get caught and ‘reactive’ blame games embody the lion’s resolution to defeat adversaries. The following diagram illustrates the differences between the two:
Conceptualising the blame game
When officeholders realize that an issue in their ‘responsibility sphere’, i.e. the area of tasks and duties for which they are held publicly responsible, has the potential to develop into a scandal, they can try to increase the likelihood that the issue does not attract blame but goes unnoticed. For instance, politicians can try to reach deals on contentious issues behind closed doors, or shift dicey policy decisions to bodies such as central banks or independent regulatory agencies, which are often not directly politically accountable. A concrete example is officeholders responsible for the granting of early parole to potentially dangerous criminals, who frequently rely on expert commissions to back up decisions for which they bear political responsibility.
If an issue gets politicized and attracts blame nevertheless, politicians are now in a good position to deflect the blame to those actors to which they shifted decision-making power in the first place. Politicians can also demonstrate commitment by launching inquiries or propose symbolic reforms to resolve the problem and tackle its consequences. The strategic demotion of subordinate officials can also be used to stymie adversaries.
Both types of blame games have distinct implications for our understanding of politics. The pressing questions which guide the study of reactive blame games is whether, and under which conditions, they lead to policy and system change that effectively addresses the problem(s) at the root of the scandal. Do reactive blame games fulfill a spotlight function or do they represent mere acts of political entertainment?
The crucial question that guides research on anticipatory blame games is whether they translate into blame-deflecting institutional arrangements that may negatively influence the effectiveness of policies and ultimately damage democracy. After all, the much-debated declining responsiveness of political systems to various kinds of problems must also be discussed in the light of policymaking arrangements deliberately designed for reasons of blame avoidance.
A more careful and systematic look at both anticipatory and reactive blame games should advance our understanding of how politicians make decisions and act under risk. It constitutes an important step in creating a more realistic understanding of politicians, their behavior, and the consequences this behavior may have for the functioning of democracies.
Markus Hinterleitner is PhD researcher at the KPM Center for Public Management at the University of Bern, Switzerland. His research interests include elite behavior, public policy and political economy. His dissertation project aims to situate the phenomenon of blame avoidance in a wider public policy context and illuminate its consequences for the political process and the workings of political systems.
Fritz Sager is professor of political science at the KPM Center for Public Management at the University of Bern, Switzerland. He is specialized in administrative studies and theory, policy research and evaluation, organizational analysis, and Swiss politics.