It’s probably just an artefact of having grown-up during the 1990s (arguably the most cynical decade in North American history), but if there is one thing that I have always considered to be a tautology, it is this:
Politicians lie. Not all of the time, obviously, but if there was any one group of people who could definitively be identified as ‘not to be taken at their word’ it is politicians. And the reason for this, sadly, is that a politician who tells the truth constantly tends not to get elected, or at least, not to get his way when in office.
But recently, however, I have noticed an alarming trend among certain people, once their favourite politicians have been called out on having promulgated a blatant falsehood, of arguing that they couldn’t have really been lying, since any politician having been caught lying would suffer ‘dire consequences.’ In the past few months alone, I have heard this uttered from the (metaphorically) syphilitic lips of Canada’s great journalistic whore John Ibbitson in his attempts to defend Prime Minister Harper from mounting evidence that he committed massive fraud in the last Federal election, and from some random idiot online trying to claim that the Bush administration couldn’t possibly have lied about the existence of Weapons of Mass Destruction in Iraq in the lead-up to the invasion.
Does anyone seriously believe that? Can anyone seriously be so dull-witted?
Here’s the problem: if liars and criminals thought that they were going to be caught, then surely most of them wouldn’t be liars or criminals in the first place! Moreover, this argument glazes over the fact that in many cases (in fact, frankly, in most cases) politicians do lie and get away with it. During the 1993 federal election, Jean Chretien claimed that he would scrap the GST, kill NAFTA, and institute a national public daycare program. He did none of these things* and went on to serve as majority Prime Minister for more than ten consecutive years. Hell, even by 2004 it was pretty damn obvious that there were no WMDs in Iraq, and Bush still managed to coast to an easy victory against John Kerry.
So let us be honest here; the few times when politicians actually have suffered consequences for their lies are those occasions when they have been in power for so long and accumulated such an unimpressive record that the electorate (and the media) are no longer prepared to give them the benefit of the doubt; witness Richard Nixon over Watergate, Gordon Campbell over the HST and (I would argue, perhaps wishfully thinking) Stephen Harper now. These are the outliers, not the rule. But in any case, I should hope that it’s rather obvious that the very fact that these examples even exist is proof that this line of reasoning is bullshit.
*And, in fact, ratified NAFTA