Doctoral Dissertations

Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Political Science

Major Professor

Michael R. Fitzgerald

Committee Members

Elizabeth A. Foster, David J. Houston, Anthony J. Nownes


Partisan-based conflict rhetoric has grown more important in political strategy over time and is very often focused on delineating the differences between the parties. But, political messaging frequently involves targeting different social groups or non-political entities as responsible for social problems rather than political parties and opponents. Blame as a rhetorical strategy involves appeals to group identities other than those based upon partisanship. The brilliance of a blame strategy is that the group membership of the audience at which the blame appeal is directed need not be explicitly defined. Much of the research studying the various forms of conflict rhetoric (i.e. attack advertising) focuses on the partisan tensions inherent in these messages, but only limited literature can shed light on how the public feels about or responds to politicians blaming non-political groups. Through two original experiments reported in three articles, dissertation attempts to fill this gap by exploring the parameters and effects of strategically placed blame on various dimensions of political support. It seeks to answer the degree to which political and policy goals are facilitated or impeded by this divisive form of rhetoric.Each article approached this question within the framework of social identity theory (Tajfel, 1978, Tajfel & Turner, 1986). As suggested by social identity theory, politicians can use conflict rhetoric to maximize the perceived differences between their in-group and the out-group, thus stimulating favoritism with the in-group through the perceived threat from the out-group. By examining the different effects of variations in blame, these articles offer an overview of whether and when politicians may benefit from attacking the opposing party, attacking a non-political group, or refraining from an attack. The results indicate that blaming an opposing party offers more harm than good. Blaming a non-political group can be effective at manipulating perceptions of the attacked group as well as raising demand for punitive policies. No blame messages elicit positive reactions that are beneficial to political parties, but arouse emotions that both help and harm measures of democratic support.

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