February 24, 2010
In Praise of Political Flip-Flops

It is striking that we seem to have built a political culture and a political system on what are fundamentally inhuman grounds: the assertion of certainty and the unflinching adherence to eternal rightness of one’s own positions.

The demand for political certainty derives from multiple sources.  Perhaps the most important of these is the nature of mass democracy itself.  Whatever the Framers’ intentions—which, as it happens, were a lot more inconsistent and complex than some today would admit—we today do not for the most part know the people we elect to office, or if we have met them, we can’t claim to have great personal knowledge about them.  I have met many elected officials, both locally and at the state and even national levels, but I don’t for the most part know where they live.  They don’t shop at the same grocery store I do, and while I might see them at church (if I went very often), they’re unlikely to go to the church I would.  (The last elected avowed Unitarian was … . Jefferson?)  I am, in the end, electing people I don’t know very well.

In such circumstances one’s ideological consistency becomes a proxy for trustworthiness.  I know—or at least perceive—that I can trust you because I can see that you have continued to assert the same values, and policies, and programs over time.  You’ll do what you promise because you don’t change your promises.

The media, particularly television, also plays an important role in the establishment of certainty as a touchstone of political character, wisdom and trustworthiness.  In order to make this argument, however, I need to make one declarative statement: there is no liberal media.  There is no mainstream media any more either, but that’s another topic.  By “liberal media” I mean a bunch of political liberals—in the American sense of that word—who sit around and try to turn Americans into political liberals. Instead, television is driven by ratings, and ratings are driven by that which is sexy, shocking, emotional, visual and easy to present in quick snippets.  The research evidence on this is clear: whatever the political leanings of particular journalists, what best explains what gets shown on TV, whether on the news or otherwise, is what those who put shows together think will bring them ratings.  (Besides, in a world where FOX is the highest-rated cable network, and Rush Limbaugh is the most popular program on radio, it’s a much more competitive environment than it perhaps—perhaps—once was.)

Alleged flip flops make great TV.  (Blogs love them, too.) They’re easy to show—the Daily Show lives on such apparent hypocrisies.   They’re easy to explain.  They’re appealing in that they show that the high and mighty have feet of clay, too.  In other words, they are far more likely to garner ratings than, say, a discussion of the complexities of international trade policy-making at the WTO.

Opposing politicians then exploit the two dimensions of media-friendliness of flip-flops and their alleged moral meaning to construct appealing and effective election campaigns.  How can you trust (X), the universal question is, when (X) once said/did/thought/implied/averred/hinted at/can be imagined to have believed something that they then changed their mind about?  If you couldn’t trust them in the past, why trust them now?  I will keep the faith, and never change.  You can trust ME.

So voters use the flip flop as an indicator of moral trustworthiness, media use reports of flip flops for ratings, and opposition politicians use them as campaign tools.  It is, to use a much-abused phrase, a perfect storm.

But here’s the thing: most of us know in our private lives that flip flopping is often a good thing.  Changing one’s mind as one’s experience and insight grows is one of the definitions of maturing.  If, as is often said, insanity is to keep doing the same thing over and over and expect different results, the only way to make things better is to change as one’s knowledge and circumstances change.  When it comes to the political realm, however, we insist on what is a fundamentally adolescent view that what is now should be for all time.  Amen.

At this point I expect someone to go, what about murder?  Or rape?  Or some other deep moral verity?  Am I saying that laws and standards against such evils—and others—are subject to change and reinterpretation and, perhaps, elimination?  Am I, in other words, denying moral truth?

Well, the answer is sort of yes, sort of no, and really, the question is ridiculous.

As for sort of yes, sort of no, let me just offer this: Rape and murder and assault are morally wrong and should be.  It is perfectly right to assert moral truths and insist on action on them.  But one needs to remember that it used to be perfectly legal for a man in the U.S. to rape his wife, even if they were legally separated and living apart.  It used to be perfectly legal for a man to beat his wife.  Such things aren’t legal any more. Notably, rape and assault were illegal when such acts were legal.  What has changed is the way rape and assault are defined, not the truths that rape and assault are immoral.  Like it or not, lots of moral certitudes are imperfectly applied in social and political settings.  Policies change over time.

But really the question is ridiculous.  The notion that a debate about relative tax rates, or health care, or social security, or schools, or parks, or darn near anything else in the political arena is a matter of fundamental moral certitude is pompous, self-serving, and ultimately harmful.  In raising debates about taxes or other policies to tests of moral character we have hamstrung our ability to respond to changing circumstances.  We have the satisfaction of emotional certainty—and very little else.

All great politicians have been flip floppers.  So, of course, have some bad ones, but Lincoln changed course several times during the Civil War, and FDR threw a hundred contradictory proposals on the wall to try to get the US out of the Depression. Churchill changed parties—twice, and Reagan opposed taxes—until signing off on two separate tax increases (1983 and 1986). And thanks for it!  For example, without flipping Lincoln would have remained opposed to emancipation … which I assume you agree was a good thing, but was something he had repeatedly opposed, up to and including during his 1860 presidential campaign.

I’ll put it another way, if flip flopping gets you Lincoln, and FDR, and Churchill and Reagan (and lesser successors like Clinton), and certainty gets you Mao, and Stalin, and Pol Pot, I’d say go for flipping.  After all, you can always change your mind later!