Good Flip Flops and Bad Flip Flops
As a debt deal approaches—or doesn’t—and as the campaign season heats up, I write to suggest the virtue of the flip flop—the political kind, not the silly things some people wear on their feet.
What I want to address today are flip flops in the political sense: when politicians change their minds or their positions, disavowing past beliefs and statements in favor of some new orientation.
Whether for debt deals or campaign politics, we are about to enter “flip flop” season in American politics. As the Republican primary unfolds, for example, the “debate”—such as it is—will be suffused and at times dominated by discussions of who has “flip flopped” on some issue, policy or value. Indeed there are times in our campaigns when it seems like the entire conversation is about how one candidate or another once did or said something different from what they said or did today … and how that difference “matters.”
The same accusations will fly if—when—John Boehner and other House Republicans accept that a few hundred million in taxes is “worth it” to them to slash more than a trillion dollars worth of social programs. Having said “never,” they will face the flip flop charge should they change their minds.
The heart of the flip flop debate is the issue of credibility. To be accused of flip flopping is to be accused of being untrustworthy. If I can’t believe what you said in the past, the argument goes, why should I believe you now? Better, the accuser says, to trust me: I have remained true to my principles for all time. I mean what I say. Believe me.
The thing is, this is absolutely insane. The notion that one should have a set of principles and never change one’s mind or attitude is at its core a demand that we should never adjust our actions or our beliefs in the light of our experiences. In other words, no matter what happens, no matter what events transpire or facts are uncovered, we have to be willfully, dogmatically ignorant. It’s remarkably stupid.
Let me offer a few examples to back my point up. Had Abraham Lincoln not flip flopped on the issue of slavery, he would never have issued the Emancipation Proclamation. He had been an advocate for returning slaves to Africa—in specific to Liberia, which was created for the purpose—for the bulk of his political career. Lyndon Johnson would not have promoted civil rights: he flip flopped from being a career, conventional Southern politician into the leader who signed the civil rights legislation of the 1960s. And, for my conservative readers, Ronald Reagan would have remained the union president, New Deal Democrat he was prior to his flip flop to the cause of contemporary American conservatism in the 1950s.
Arguably, it was flip flopping that made each of these leaders great. No flip flops, no greatness.
So why the seemingly obsessive focus on flip flopping today? I think there are at least two reasons.
First, the flip flop “debate” makes great television and blog fodder. You can show candidates (and ads) sniping at one another; you can write snarky posts about one candidate’s evident hypocrisy: it’s all a great show. Moreover, it doesn’t require any actual work to do this kind of “analysis”: the candidates bring the material to the chattering classes of reporters and bloggers, who then run down the road with it. Flip flop politics fit nicely with the gestalt of modern media culture.
Second, there is a moralistic component to the “flip flop” slur. At some level, the accuser is insisting that the change is insincere. The flop is seen not to represent a deep commitment to a new way of being, as it was for Lincoln, Johnson and Reagan, but rather is seen as an expedient tool to achieve a particular purpose—as it seems to have been with George H.W. Bush’s acceptance of supply-side economics (and pro life politics) when he joined Reagan on the 1980 presidential ticket, or with John McCain’s utterly “non-maverick” run for the presidency in 2008.
So, “good” flip flops are those that are recognized to represent authentic life changes. “Bad” flip flops are seen to be self-serving and untrustable.
As both the debt ceiling debate and the 2012 presidential primary unfold, it should be fascinating to see who the good flip floppers are and who the bad flip floppers are. Each candidate will work hard to explain their own political evolutions as sincere and dare I say “evolutionary”; they will work equally hard to frame their opponents’ flops as mere pandering. And don’t kid yourself: framing matters. Whoever succeeds in establishing the “I’m good and they’re bad” frame is a long way towards winning the nomination.
(As an aside, I have to admit that it is possible that someone running for President has never changed their mind on anything. But don’t get me started on them. Anyone who has actually never changed their mind on a political matter is so dangerously brainless as to be too scary to contemplate as President of the United States.)