Political scandals and forgiveness: When we let go of indiscretions, when we don't, and why

Wab Kinew's recent leadership win for the Manitoba NDP came amid concerns about past criminal convictions and stayed charges.

There is no 'general theory of political scandals,' but there are factors that make us more likely to forgive

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      You don't have to look far back into Canada's political history books to find scandal.

      Some politicians bounce back from those scandals, though, while some don't — and a pair of political experts say it's not a simple task to determine why.

      Michael Atkinson, a professor at University of Saskatchewan's Johnson Shoyama Graduate School of Public Policy, said most of the literature on scandals is built on intense scrutiny of particular instances and attempts to wring general conclusions from individual cases.

      "Generally speaking, it's not been very easy to do that, and certainly not easy to put together a general theory of political scandals," he said.

      That may help explain why there's been such intense scrutiny of Wab Kinew, who on Sept. 16 became the leader of Manitoba's NDP, securing a decisive 728 votes to rival Steve Ashton's 253.

      The case of Wab Kinew

      Kinew's victory came around a month after an anonymous email was sent to Winnipeg media, bringing to light a pair of stayed charges from 2003.

      The charges, of assaulting his then-partner, re-ignited concern over his two criminal convictions in 2004 — one for driving drunk and another for assaulting a cab driver. He was pardoned for those convictions in 2015.

      Some New Democrats, including Manitoba MLA Nahanni Fontaine and federal leadership candidate Jagmeet Singh, have stood behind Kinew, and he's still bolstered by many supporters.

      Winnipeg Mayor Brian Bowman told media he believes Kinew's apologies are sincere, and that "redemption is possible."

      Max Cameron, a professor of political science at the University of British Columbia and the director of the school's Centre for the Study of Democratic Institutions, agreed. Politicians can come back from transgressions, he said, but it's not always clear why.

      Moral judgments of politicians are central to how we perceive them, he said. Politics can't be "bleached" of those assessments, even if politicians are otherwise doing their jobs well.

        "We could act as if we were simply rational, self-interested, calculative individuals who go about our lives pursuing our own narrow ends with a kind of grim relentlessness," said Cameron.

        "For people like that, it doesn't really matter whether our politicians are good or bad people, provided they're doing the things that we expect them to do that are going to serve our own narrow interests."

        But Cameron said he doesn't subscribe to that school of politics, partly because he thinks it's unrealistic and partly because he finds it depressing.

        Instead, he contends the public judges politicians viscerally, and rationalizes that conclusion afterwards.

        'Visceral, emotional reactions'

        "Those visceral, emotional reactions go to our identities and our commitments and moral beings, and we look to politicians to reflect back to us the kind of people that we are and want to be," he said.

        So what happens when one of them betrays those values and disappoints us, through human error or something worse?

        In large part, that depends on what they do next, said Atkinson. There are a few conditions he thinks a politician needs to meet to bounce back.

        New NDP Leader Wab Kinew will be subject to more scrutiny than ever. (Cliff Simpson/CBC)

        First of all, politicians recover better if they already enjoy a good public image, Atkinson said. If the bad behaviour fits into some kind of perceived pattern or if a misdeed is the first thing people learn about a public figure, that's a challenge.

        After that, the politician can help themselves out by avoiding cover-up.

        "The original [offence] can be handled. The original is mostly handled by simply coming completely clean," Atkinson said.

        "Anybody who does not provide the entire truth is offering up a hostage to the future."

        'Mature, moral judgment'

        Public willingness to set aside a scandal isn't just a question of forgiveness, Cameron said. Voters have to make a "mature, moral judgment" of the scandal and its subject.

        There are a number of ways to do that, depending on how you think about ethics, he added.

        Atkinson said missteps may be more easily accepted if a politician is appealing in other ways. He pointed to U.S. evangelists supporting President Donald Trump as proof people can look past some moral disagreements if the public figure appeals to them in other ways.

        "You're not just assessing a person's suitability for public office in terms of the scandal. You're also assessing it against other kinds of possibilities, other kinds of issues, including bread-and-butter issues," he said.

        Cameron's preferred approach — and what he calls a more compassionate and forgiving model — is to think about politics as a practical world where people learn to do the right thing by making mistakes.

        "We don't need to hold them to an unrealistic moral standard, but we should be able to ask ourselves the question … 'Is this person capable of learning from their mistakes?'" he said.

        It's not clear where the line is for what the public will and won't forgive on the spectrum of scandal, Cameron said.

        "I think we would find a lot of agreement on the extremes. But there may be many things that fall in the grey zone, where it's not quite clear whether the public can forgive or not."

        Even fairly serious transgressions may be forgiven, if the offender has enough character, he said.

        "The more reprehensible the transgression, the more character it would take to demonstrate the capacity to overcome it and to recover from that in the mind of the public," he said.

        The all-important apology

        How the politician chooses to apologize is crucial, Cameron added. It's an opportunity for the politician to tell a story that clarifies to the public what actually happened, he said.

        "People are also curious. I think we have a hard time as we are storytelling creatures. We are constantly engaged in meaning making. When there are gaps in the narrative of our lives, we try to fill them and we do that almost subconsciously, if not consciously," he said.

        "So if there's a story that's out there and it's incomplete, I think it's inevitable that people will try to complete the story and to fill in the gaps that don't make sense."

        The story is kept alive if a politician's apology or explanation has holes, or isn't consistent with other accounts of what happened, Cameron said.

        "The public doesn't know who to believe," he said.

        There's also the dangerous temptation to engage in spin, Cameron added. That can undermine an apology even as it's being spoken, he said.

        But if an apology is truthful and conveys remorse, Cameron said it can resolve the matter. Once that's done, people move on.