Julius Caesar once said, “Fere libenter homines id quod volunt credunt.” Of course, nobody understood him, because he was speaking some crazy moon-man language instead of English, but it turns out that the saying translates out to, “Men willingly believe what they wish.” Or, to paraphrase, “People believe lies easier if it’s what they already believe.” This is why Julius Caesar made such a good politician, excepting the bit about convincing people not to stab him to death with knives.
But the point still stands, and has in fact stood throughout all of human history. There are certain lies that will always work in politics, no matter how often they’re used, no matter how often they’re debunked, and frequently, even if both the speaker and the listener know they’re lies. Because they’re seductive. They’re things we want to believe are true, and so we let ourselves go along with them because the truth is nasty and unpleasant and the lie is warm and comfortable. There has always been an audience for these lies, and there always will be. The three lies are:
1. It’s somebody else’s fault.
2. There are easy answers.
3. You shouldn’t have to pay for it.
#1 is the most popular, and usually the ugliest. Whether it’s communists, Jews, Muslim terrorists, Hutus, or any group you care to name, there’s always a popular trade to be made in scapegoating an “enemy” as the source of all your problems. Once that enemy is defeated (and “defeated” can be a vague term covering a wide variety of nasty options) your problems are over. If they’re not, of course, you can always find another enemy.
But it isn’t always about wiping out the “enemy” group; sometimes it’s more profitable to keep them around as perpetual scapegoats. Race has been used for this purpose a lot in America; back in the early days of unionization, when business owners wanted to prevent the working class from organizing, they’d usually play one ethnic group against another in an effort to keep them from realizing they’d get further together than separately. “We’d love to pay you more, but those (Negroes/Irish/Chinese/Italians/insert group here) work for cheap, you know…” It can be handy to have someone to blame for everything.
#1 and #2 go hand in hand a lot, especially when passions have gotten high enough that scapegoating has moved to brutality, but it’s more often seen by itself. Anyone who has a pet cause will trot out #2 at some point to support it, usually as a way of solving a complex or intractable problem. “All we need to do is reduce the capital gains tax, and the economy will improve!” “All we need to do is get rid of pornography, and violence against women will stop!” “All we need to do is drill in Alaska, and we’ll find all the oil we’ll ever need!” This one works especially well because the lie is always short, simple, and direct; while the truth that contradicts it is usually long, complicated, and involves fiddly technical bits that it’s easy to pick holes in. (Sometimes, of course, the lie is as simple as, “Problem? What problem?” This works very well with situations that gradually deteriorate, instead of being big, obvious crises.)
And of course, #2 combined with #3 is a perennial favorite of the entrenched interests that feel that (in the words of Despair.com) “if you’re not part of the solution, there’s good money to be made in prolonging the problem.” Most problems, especially the endemic or systematic ones, need a lot of hard work and sacrifice to fix. And when one guy is telling you, “Hey, we can fix this, but it’ll take a lot of hard work and effort and sacrifice and time,” and the other guy is saying, “Nah, we just need to build a big wall along the Mexican border,” which one are you going to try first?
Of course, it’s not just politicians that make use of these lies. Generals do it too; after all, Clausewitz said that war was just a continuation of politics by other means. In World War II, as they were discussing the best way to fight the Japanese offensive in China, General Claire Chennault suggested that the new science of air power could be used to fight the war with minimal casualties, bombing the Japanese from forward air bases and bringing them to their knees with very little manpower or supplies. General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, who was commanding the US ground forces at the time, said that Chennault’s strategy was foolish–the Japanese would just overrun the air bases and take the territory. Only a hard-fought ground campaign, one with a major commitment of men and material, would take back China.
Unsurprisingly, everyone went with Chennault’s plan. Unsurprisingly, the Japanese overran the forward air bases and took the territory. Because in war, unlike politics, lies get exposed quickly.