When citizens develop grievances, autocrats try to deflect blame to retain popular support. Scott Williamson argues that regime type influences strategies and success rates of autocrats, who shift blame when confronted by popular discontent. The more personalist an autocracy, the more damaging blame attribution can be for autocratic survival in office
When people become upset about outcomes in their country, they look for someone to blame. The more blame is directed at a specific political leader, the less likely it is that the leader holds on to popular support, and the more likely they are to face mobilised opposition. Blame has important implications for public approval. Political leaders therefore go to great lengths to ensure citizens will not hold them at fault for unpopular outcomes.
Despite the political relevance of blame attributions, little research explores the politics of blame in authoritarian regimes. Identifying how and why autocrats can protect their reputations would make a valuable contribution to our understanding of popular support for authoritarian rulers. Reflecting the premise of Hager Ali's foundational blog piece in this Autocracies with Adjectives series, research on authoritarianism can benefit from theories that consider variation in the ability of different types of autocrats to shift blame when the public becomes dissatisfied.
A political leader is more likely to be blamed when clarity of responsibility is high and the public can clearly observe the leader’s influence over decisions that produced their grievances. Conversely, leaders can evade blame more easily when power is diffused across various actors, and responsibilities are harder to identify. Autocrats wield substantial influence over their political systems. You might assume, therefore, that they are highly exposed to the public’s anger. Indeed, it is easy to think of examples where that seems to apply. In Egypt’s 2011 uprising, many disaffected Egyptians directly blamed President Mubarak for their country’s problems. Protesters quickly coalesced around demands for his removal.
Leaders can evade blame more easily when power is diffused across various actors, and responsibilities are harder to identify
However, discontent in authoritarian regimes does not always escalate into direct opposition to the autocrat. This is even the case when opposition is severe enough to draw large numbers of protesters into the streets. In some instances, protesters may strategically target a specific policy or low-level official to avoid repression. By so doing, they can persuade the regime to implement their demands without questioning their loyalty to the system. There are other instances, however, in which people can believe sincerely that the autocrat is not at fault for their grievances and may even be on their side. In these cases, angry citizens may be less likely to target the autocrat, even if many people take to the streets alongside them.
Given the benefits of avoiding blame, many autocrats play blame games to redirect the public’s anger away from themselves. How do they do this, and why might some be better at it than others?
Political leaders shift blame through messaging, and autocrats certainly use propaganda to shape the public’s attributions of responsibility. In Russia, state-controlled media attributes positive economic news to Vladimir Putin and his government. Meanwhile, Russia blames foreign actors or the global economy for its domestic problems.
As I explore in my book manuscript, autocrats can shift blame more effectively when they share power with other political elites and institutions. Autocrats who govern alongside prime ministers, cabinets, parliaments, or other institutions that exercise meaningful influence over decision-making can reduce the clarity of their own responsibility, even as they remain politically powerful. This diffusion of responsibility limits the likelihood that people blame the autocrat for the country’s problems. As a result, when public expressions of opposition occur, protesters may be more inclined to fixate on changing specific policies or officials rather than to demand the autocrat’s removal outright.
Autocrats who dominate decision-making are more exposed to blame when popular dissatisfaction flares up. Such leaders may rely more heavily on repression to keep public anger in check
By contrast, autocrats who personalise power and dominate decision-making are more exposed to blame when popular dissatisfaction increases. These rulers may rely more heavily on repression to keep the public’s anger bottled up. The flipside is that compared with rulers who share power more widely, these autocrats are also more vulnerable to ouster when mass unrest spreads.
It may be harder to deflect blame for certain types of autocrats because of norms associated with their positions. For example, I argue that presidents and prime ministers may have a harder time avoiding responsibility for grievances. This is because, normatively, their authority is based on some form of popular sovereignty. They are expected to govern for the people and be accountable to them. When outcomes turn out poorly, the public is more likely to direct blame toward these leaders regardless of how they delegated their decision-making powers.
Presidents and prime ministers are expected to be responsible for governance, so the public is more likely to consider them at fault when outcomes turn out poorly
Monarchs, on the other hand, hold their positions through hereditary succession. They are not expected to govern directly or be accountable for the country’s problems. Where autocratic monarchs share power with cabinets or parliaments, people may be more likely to accept that the monarch is not to blame if things go wrong.
Jordan is an example of both dynamics. The autocratic king is politically dominant, but shares power with ministers, parliamentarians, and other political elites. This power-sharing protects the king’s reputation, shifting popular discontent towards the other actors. The regime also tries to reinforce these tendencies by propagating the idea that the king is meant neither to govern directly nor to be held responsible under the standards of constitutional monarchy.
The type of regime an autocrat controls can affect their ability to protect their popular support by avoiding blame for poor outcomes. Autocrats are less likely to be blamed in authoritarian regimes where power is diffused more broadly across various institutions. The same holds true when they hold positions that benefit from norms about how responsibility should be attributed.
Studying how autocrats deflect blame strengthens our understanding of popular politics under autocracy. Scholarship on authoritarianism could benefit from studying further how regime types affect autocrats' ability to secure the public’s support. For example, regime type may influence the effectiveness of autocrats’ legitimating claims. Or, it may affect their ability to persuade citizens that they do indeed govern democratically. New theories and creative empirical tests can explore these variations across regime types to provide insights into authoritarian politics.