July 12, 2011

In defense of 'flip-flopping'

One of the curious features of American politics is how the pejorative label of 'flip-flopper', if successfully pinned on a candidate, can seriously hurt that person's electoral chances. The term is used to describe someone who has made a 180-degree turn on some issue, taking a position now that is diametrically opposed to one he or she took before. This issue dogged John Kerry's candidacy in 2004. Some people pay a surprising amount of attention to this question, even to the extent of looking into what a politician said or did even as far back as in college or high school. Journalists sometimes pore over a candidate's past statements on some topic in order to confront them with some contradiction.

Behind this there seems to be this assumption that someone whose views have never changed during his or her entire adult life is more virtuous than someone who has changed. But is this a reasonable assumption? Why is holding steadfastly to one's views all through one's life seen as such a good thing? After all, as time goes by, we learn more things and acquire life experiences and these can cause us to re-evaluate our positions. Why is this a bad thing? The economist John Maynard Keynes, when he was confronted with an old statement that contradicted his current views reportedly riposted, "When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?" Even if this story is apocryphal, it illustrates the fact that changing one's views is sometimes the most reasonable thing to do.

When I look back on my own life, I can see many areas where my views have changed dramatically. I used to think that US involvement in Vietnam was a noble thing. I now think is was an atrocity. I used to be a devout believer in god and now am an atheist. I used to disparage the feminist movement as making much ado about trivial things but now realize what an important role they played in the drive for women's equality. I used to be indifferent to gay issues but now strongly support their move towards full equality. If I think harder, I am sure that I can come up with more examples of my own flip-flopping on important issues. But I don't see myself as a rudderless person, drifting this way and that on the basis of whims or expediency.

Perhaps the crucial issue is motive, that it is acceptable to change one's mind because of new facts or because one has been persuaded by arguments, but that to do so for the sake of political expediency is to justly invite criticism This is the charge currently being laid against Mitt Romney, that he changed his views from his time as governor of Massachusetts merely because of his desire to appeal to the evangelical Christian tea party base of the Republican party, requiring him to make increasingly emphatic affirmations that what he says he believes now represent his core beliefs, that he always had these beliefs, and leading to contortions to show that his previous positions were consistent with them.

Leaving aside the specifics of Mitt Romney, changing one's public views to meet external needs without actually changing one's beliefs lays one open to the charge of hypocrisy or opportunism and that may seem to be obviously wrong. But is it that clear cut? Surely hypocrisy is also not always a bad thing? Suppose some elected official really thinks that women should not be in leadership positions or that gay people are sinners who will go to hell or that all Muslims are particularly susceptible to terrorist influence. But this person is also smart enough to know that to say any of those things publicly is to doom the chances for election. If such a person adopts a neutral stance or even asserts support for equality for those groups, surely that hypocrisy is better than his adamant opposition? In fact, don't we want politicians to be people we can influence to vote our way? Political demonstrations, marches, rallies, etc. are all designed to pressure public officials to take actions that they might not take otherwise. Why is it such a bad thing for elected officials to be swayed by public opinion to take actions that are contrary to their own beliefs?

To my mind, what is truly inexcusable in politics is lying, where a politician says one thing while campaigning for office and does the opposite after being elected, even though nothing else has changed. That is something that should be strongly censured and punished by the voters. But even here one has to be careful not to be too rigid and to carefully take into account the important caveat about nothing else changing. In real life, things can change and one should not hold people to account for taking those changes into consideration when forming policy. This is why I disapprove of these pledges that some candidates are forced to sign as a condition of support. Right now there seems to be an epidemic of such pledges on the Republican side, requiring pledges against raising taxes, gay marriage, and so on.

If the facts change, good governance may require a change in policy and there is nothing wrong with that, as long as a good case can be made as to why the change is necessary.


Trackback URL for this entry is:


Well said. I remember that G. H. W. Bush got creamed on raising taxes though he made the famous pledge "read my lips, no new taxes".

He should have been criticized for making such a stupid pledge to begin with.

As far as Mitt Romney: he has become more regressive just to meet the insane desires of his conservative base and I have no problems with the Democrats using that in a campaign.

Posted by ollie on July 12, 2011 10:58 AM

I don't know how one can discern if someone is lying on a position issue. We can never get inside their heads to know their intentionality. I once lost a court case, which was based on my intentionality. In other words, the judge felt he knew why I did something, better than I did.

Posted by healthphysicist on July 12, 2011 11:35 AM

Might one go so far as to conclude that we judge politicians on what they do, and not on what they say?

Posted by Jared A on July 12, 2011 11:47 AM

Is lying even important? Why not judge based on actions alone?

I don't care what you say. Only what you do.

Posted by henry on July 12, 2011 02:23 PM

I don't understand what point Jared & henry are making....what actions do politicians do? They basically provide a point of view (by voting themselves, or directing along certain principles).

How do you judge a politician based solely on his vote/direction?

You don't know if he/she knows more or less than you on the issue, or if he/she voted for/against something for the same reason you would have.

Unless you listen to them.

Then you can compare their reasoning against your reasoning in order to evaluate them.

You still won't know if they're lying, though.

You may convince yourself he/she is lying or not, but you won't know.

Posted by healthphysicist on July 12, 2011 02:45 PM

According to some, Ronnie Ray-Gun changed his pro-nuclear war attitude after seeing "The Day After" when it appeared on TV in 1983.

Too bad Reagan didn't smarten up on other topics.

Reagan's worst flip flop was his cowardice regarding Ryan White and HIV/AIDS victims. Reagan went along with the reichwing attitude of "round them up let them die in a leper colony", but then tried to take credit for White's courage in the face of bigotry that Reagan promoted. (See also Clinton's flip-flop on ruining Haiti's farming system with US dumping of exports and Monsanto crap.)


Posted by P Smith on July 12, 2011 03:37 PM

I think one of my favorite lines on this issue comes from Stephen Colbert's speech at the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner, regarding G.W. Bush:

"You have to hand it to this guy. He believes the same thing on Wednesday that he does on matter what happened on Tuesday."

Posted by Eric on July 12, 2011 04:54 PM

This is one of those things that I've long thought about, but didn't hear anyone else talking about. Like the possibly apocryphal quote from Keynes, I also like to think that I change my view when there is a preponderance of evidence contrary to my former opinion. The corollary of this is that the judgement used at one level of elected office isn't necessarily the same as that needed for a different office. Contrast the bailiwick of the Senator (my Senator's job is to protect interests from the whims of the other Senators) and the Mayor (my Mayor's job is to protect me from the whims of my neighbors).

For that matter as Governors of US States it was entirely reasonable and sensible for Sarah Palin and Mitt Romney to pursue policies that, since they are being considered as (un)official Republican Presidential Candidates, are now pilloried.

In Palin's case, there is that infamous 'Bridge to Nowhere' and all those 'Thanks, but No-Thanks!' sound-bites. The truth of the matter is, there was a federal grant issued to Alaska to aid the construction of a bridge between a regional airport on a lightly populated island and the "mainland:. But it was going to cost a ton of money, so the federal government was helping out. Why on earth she chose to go the 'Thanks, but No-thanks' route is beyond me.

And Mitt Romney's health insurance system in Massachusetts is not only wildly popular but also fiscally successful. Isn't this sort of successful outcome the sort of thing that a candidate running for higher office should be able to use to bolster their credentials?

No. In our schizophrenic and irrational political process success on one level of the ladder (as a governor, in these cases) isn't seen as an indicator of success on a higher level. Maybe I'm not being objective here, but it seems that Republicans far and away lambast gubernatorial (I prefer the word governoral) success as dreaded compromise or, even worse, outright failure.

This makes no sense at all. A governor's job is to manage the public affairs of the citizens of that state. And one way of doing that is advocating for federal help when the state can't afford a public works project. Another way of doing that is by setting up a system that delivers affordable health care to all the residents.

It's a very sad state of affairs when one can be penalized while running for higher office for doing the very things that made them effective at the lower level.

It may seem that I'm a supporter of either of these potential candidates. I am not. At least, not until the facts change.

Posted by peter on July 12, 2011 08:25 PM

I don't know too many politicians that do not flip-flop on issues. It appears once someone is elected and makes it to Washington, there are other goals that make a person change their mind and flip-flop. Or do they have access to information that's help from the rest of us, so we can't consider it when we decide?

Posted by Kurt on August 9, 2011 04:46 PM