The King Can Do No Wrong: Blame Games and Ruler Survival in Authoritarian Regimes

Research on blame avoidance suggests that dictators should struggle to avoid blame for poor governance outcomes because of their significant and highly visible power, but the nature of authoritarian political systems makes it difficult to know how individuals attribute blame for outcomes they dislike. Nonetheless, these attributions have important implications for patterns of opposition and regime survival under autocracy. My dissertation book project explores this issue by evaluating how individuals attribute responsibility in authoritarian political systems and how these attributions shape interactions between the dictator, elites, and the public. Specifically, I show that dictators can minimize their exposure to blame successfully by distancing themselves from policy design and implementation, and I demonstrate that this possibility influences when and for which issue domains dictators are willing to share power with other elites. I also consider how this blame game relates to ruler durability and whether certain types of autocrats are better at playing it than others. The project sheds light on how, when, and why dictators are able to evade accountability for the poor performance of their regimes.

The core of the dissertation involves a detailed case study of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan, based on one year of fieldwork in the country. Evidence for the case study is drawn from more than 100 elite interviews, text analysis of documents from official Jordanian government websites, original survey and experimental data, the Arab Barometer surveys, and archival research in the National Library of Jordan and the National Archives of the United Kingdom. In addition, the dissertation includes a case comparison of blame avoidance dynamics in Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and Egypt prior to the Arab Spring, leveraging process tracing, survey data, and experimental evidence. I also use cross-national regime-type data and historical case studies of European monarchies to illustrate the theory's application to authoritarian rule more generally.