Activating Populism: The Role of Blame Attribution


Wednesday, March 1, 2017, 2:15pm to 4:00pm


CES, 27 Kirkland Street, Harvard University, Adolphus Busch Hall at Cabot Way, Hoffmann Room

Speaker: Kirk Hawkins, Associate Professor of Political Science, Brigham Young University; Ryan Enos (Discussant) Associate Professor of Political Science, Government Department, Harvard University 

Scholars have long known that the rhetoric of populist politicians is an important part of their appeal; however, less is known about how that rhetoric operates. Drawing on data from two large experiments conducted with American adults, we show that survey questions encouraging individuals to consider political problems within a dispositional blame frame activates latent populist attitudes, while an encouragement to consider these same problems in a situational blame frame does not. In our second experiment, we connect this framing change to voting intentions and find that subjects exposed to dispositional frames are more likely to express support for Donald Trump and less likely to express support for Hillary Clinton than subjects exposed to situational frames. Importantly, the impact of framing is contingent on pre-existing populist attitudes; subjects with moderate levels of populist attitudes are much more likely to demonstrate an increase in expressed populism and support for Trump.

The CES-WCFIA Study Group on Populism, Nationalism and Radical Politics brings together social scientists studying the recent rise of populist and nationalist movements, parties, and candidates in Europe and beyond. The group is co-organized by Bart Bonikowski (Associate Professor of Sociology; CES Resident Faculty), Colleen Driscoll (PhD Student, Department of Government), Max Goplerud (PhD Student, Department of Government), and Noam Gidron (CES Research Associate). A video of study group’s inaugural event on the future of populist politics, which was held last fall and featured Theda Skocpol, Dani Rodrik, Joachim Fritz-Vannahme, and Daniel Ziblatt, is available here:

For more information, please click here.