Politics and Economics Wheaton

Who or What is to Blame: An Interview with Gail Sahar

The extent in which political polarization has influenced the state of politics across the United States, for better and for worse, has become the topic of numerous political conversations for quite some time now. But what most of these heated conversations fail to address is the prevalence of an individual’s political attitudes being impacted by their inclination to attribute blame. In her newly published book entitled Blame and Political Attitudes, Jane Oxford Keiter Professor of Psychology at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, Gail Sahar, “addresses the polarization of political attitudes in America” by examining the role that blame has on forming hot-button opinions on topics such as poverty, race, sexuality and terrorism. 

Considering that “so many controversial issues seem to be revolving around blame in one way or another,” Sahar had been compelled by what she refers to as “little glimmers” she kept seeing that inspired her to dig deeper into related works. While scavenging through lots of professional literature by psychologists, political scientists and sociologists, Sahar noticed “a really big hole in the literature.” Not only did she struggle to find a book for the general public about the topic, but Sahar felt that even in the hundreds of books about political polarization and individual issues, she couldn’t seem to find any that have properly focused on “how we see the causes of social problems.” Sahar has written a few books geared towards an academic audience about people’s blame in the social world, however, none have been about people’s blame in the political world, compelling her to produce this refreshing new text. 

In hopes that she could challenge “people’s assumptions about the way people think about politics,” Sahar took all the time necessary to prepare a book proposal, which forced her to conduct research on books that were similar to what she was trying to accomplish with her own. What Sahar found most difficult during the writing process was having to write for a popular audience, especially since she felt “very out of the habit.” 

Gail Sahar via Wheaton College staff page

Sahar got into the particular mode of writing empirical papers in which she struggled to find her voice for a popular audience. Sahar knew that in deciding to write a book geared towards a popular audience, she was setting herself up for more criticism. But she was willing to take this risk. Even though she has opened herself to possible critiques that she hasn’t experienced before, Sahar couldn’t let that deter her from filling a gaping hole in the literature. In addition to gearing her writing toward a popular audience, Sahar found that it was especially challenging to write before she had an official publishing contract. One of her biggest worries while writing her book proposal was that “if nobody publishes this, I will have wasted all this time writing all this stuff.” Without the motivation of a set deadline, Sahar found it difficult to stay focused.

To collect research for her book, Sahar found herself carefully combing through various databases and setting aside time for finding related content. Sahar remembers setting aside at least an hour every morning to search through the popular press and feeling quite drained from doing so at times. Nevertheless, the “feeling that … maybe in a small way, I could do something to address the way that people think about these things” was what kept her going. Even during the instances where she experienced writer’s block (a setback many writers experience), Sahar found it helpful to talk to her family members, and friends since “we don’t realize how much we’re processing when we are not actually trying.” There would be good days where Sahar could bang out a few pages, and other days “where nothing would come.” For days at a time, Sahar would write, read, reread, and delete to a demoralizing degree, but she refused to let these setbacks stop her from accomplishing her goal.

She most enjoyed writing the chapter about former President Donald Trump. Sahar was originally quite nervous about writing the section, but once she dove into the literature, she found the content interesting to explore. In fact, she was surprised to find that it was easier to write than some of the other chapters. 

In what felt like an elongated process, Sahar made sure to set aside time to reward herself for the hard work she was putting into writing her book, especially since “in this kind of work, the rewards are very few and far between.” For example, Sahar sometimes rewarded herself with a glass of prosecco wine when she would finish a chapter of her book, but she also celebrated some of the more tangible accomplishments, like getting her publishing contract. One particular accomplishment Sahar is proud of is the fact that she was able to finish her book project by the deadline, which she credits Wheaton College for helping her do. 

After receiving her book contract, she was stressed out about finishing the book on time. Wheaton granted Sahar an endowed share providing her with a slightly reduced teaching load and more time to work on writing her book. Sahar notes that Wheaton was “incredibly helpful” in granting her the endowed share. 

Part of Sahar’s argument in her book Blame and Political Attitudes is that “polarization has been grossly exaggerated.” While addressing what has taken place as far as the demonizing of the other side, Sahar argues that there isn’t polarization “in the way that most people think of it. It’s more that they’ve been conditioned to hate each other.” By clarifying reality, Sahar aims to open communication between the political right and left.