In a world in which politics becomes increasingly conflictual, blame games are commonplace. They start with the (often accidental) discovery of a controversial event that shows that those in power and office failed to live up to agreed upon rules, standards, or previous promises. Upon this discovery, media outlets, pundits, and politicians in the opposition quickly take up the controversial event and start to assign responsibility and blame for it. Governing actors react to the controversy with excuses and explanations. Sometimes they give in to criticism and engage in activism to address it, and sometimes they kick the can down the road in the hope that the attention will quickly move on to the next issue on the political agenda.
Political blame games of this sort happen by the dozens in modern democracies – year in, year out. A large part of them revolves around policy controversies. Governments regularly develop new policies to manage the many problems that modern and complex societies encounter on an almost daily basis: from the reduction of economic inequality to the regulation of new technologies to the fight against climate change. What unavoidably comes with this policy activity is an increase in the number of policy controversies: policies can be poorly designed, work only on paper but not in practice; and even the best policies seldomly please everyone. Little wonder then that governments’ policy activity is frequently accompanied by blame games, be they about failed infrastructure projects, food scandals, security issues, or flawed policy reforms.
In many ways, a blame game is similar to a boxing match: two contenders (the opposition and the government) battle each other in a ring (the political playing field) in front of an audience (i.e. citizens and the media). While there are similarities between blame games across countries – especially in a media era that is animated by the same types of issues and scandals – there are also important differences. In fact, over time, countries have developed their peculiar blame game styles, i.e. they manage their policy controversies in an idiosyncratic manner. What explains a country’s blame game style are its institutions. Political institutions influence the strategic choices that politicians make during blame games. For instance, while in countries such as Germany the opposition has the possibility to initiate a parliamentary inquiry into a controversial issue, in countries such as the UK the power of doing so rests with the government. This difference has profound implications for the course of a blame game: An opposition able to initiate an inquiry can decide to drag on a blame game to keep it in the news and in the hope that the inquiry will reveal compromising information. In countries where institutions deny the opposition this strategic possibility, it can only publicly pressure the government and hope that it gives in to its demand. It is these differences between countries that largely determine whether blame games are primarily a form of political entertainment or whether something ‘good’ can come out of them, i.e. whether the public pressure that develops during blame games pushes governments to make an honest attempt at addressing an underlying policy problem.
Blame games are therefore interesting also from a larger standpoint. As ‘microcosms’ of conflictual politics, they allow us to peer into a democracy’s problem-solving capacity under pressure. Democracies that manage to address tricky policy problems even when politics gets rough are better prepared to overcome the many challenges that await societies in the 21st century than democracies whose blame games produce only hot air.