The Brexit referendum campaign was characterised by blaming of the EU, with blame seemingly inextricable from politics. However, what is not clear from existing research is what blame actually does to the people who read, hear, or otherwise consume it (the ‘audience’). Does blame actually matter? Specifically, in what ways does exogenous blame make villains in politics, as characters who are bad, strong, and active, and whom we feel negatively towards? Such a question is vital in the context of affective polarisation, where it is not simply that we disagree with our opponents—it is it that we experience negative emotions towards them.
This research applies an abductive approach grounded in a critical realist ontology that cycles between theory and empirical data. Feldman Barrett’s Theory of Constructed Emotions is introduced to connect societal ‘feeling structures’ discussed in prior international relations work with the human body that has hitherto been absent, while blame is defined as a discursive practice in which a speaker claims a party is doing, or has done, a harmful thing. A data analysis framework is developed that permits for investigation of the effects of discursive practices, calling for identification of context, performance, effects, and points of resistance and contestation. The empirical chapters address each stage of this framework in sequence.
The Brexit referendum campaign is selected as a case study, and a mixed methods design utilising both qualitative content and statistical analyses emerges in-depth meaning and wider generalisability alike. Data analysed includes pre-referendum materials from Nigel Farage and the Leave campaigns, particularly Leave.EU, as well as the Remain campaign (355); this is compared with three months of articles and public commentary from the ‘Metro’ newspaper (60 issues), providing insight into context, performance, and contestation. In-depth semi-structured focus groups and interviews with Leave voters (18) and a survey-experiment conducted amongst UK voters (1368) enables identification of both contestation and the effects of blame—specifically how blame makes people feel, and how it makes them feel about a party who is blamed.
This research finds that blame makes villains in politics directly where it engenders negative, ‘villain-type feelings’ towards a blamed party, with annoyance predominant; and indirectly where it engenders compassion for victims. Its effects are mediated by the audience who consume the blame and may be mitigated by contestation strategies employed by that audience or others such as alternative campaigns. These include strategies that engage directly with the blame—counter-blaming, rebuttal, naming and shaming blame—as well as indirectly through use of alternate discursive practices such as credit or threat, and by changing the subjects and objects of blame.
This work exceptionally investigates the effects and contestation of ‘exogenous’ third-party blame, contributing to the fields of international relations, political science, and social psychology; shows that it is not what we ‘are’ but rather what we ‘know’ that circumscribes the effects of blame, defraying concerns over psychometric targeting; provides insight into how communication professionals and EU staff may contest blame, beyond avoiding or shifting it; and demonstrates the effectiveness of blame in creating a villain of the EU in the specific case of the Brexit campaign.