Consider the flip-flopper critique, one of the more common tools of attack in contemporary politics. Ron Paul has used it against Newt Gingrich. Many have used it against Mitt Romney. Some call President Obama the “flip-flopper-in-chief”; others speak similarly of Governor Walker. The term is efficient—in just a few syllables, it suggests that the target is at once unprincipled, untrustworthy, and unpredictable. But “flip-flopper” is often better at obfuscating than revealing. In this post, I want to briefly highlight one problem with the term’s common usage.
And here’s the problem: while flip-flopper denotes a person who has changed positions without justification, political discourse frequently abuses this meaning by failing to engage sufficiently the question of whether any given change is in fact justifiable. The common implication seems to be that all position changes are tactical and Machiavellian, and that the best candidate is the one who will most steadfastly adhere to his initial policy positions. But of course not all flip-flops are created equal. By glossing over potential justifications, standard flip-flopper critiques both encourage criticism of some praiseworthy position changes, and encourage praise of some blameworthy refusals to change course.
To highlight how position changes can be positive, consider several broad categories of justification:
(1) Changed facts. Sometimes the objective factual premise for a position will change, and in turn justify a shift in position by the person whose initial stance relied on the prior fact. Outside of politics, we accept and even expect these changes as a matter of course. For example, while I might not oppose a person driving 75 miles-per-hour on a freeway, I might strongly oppose the very same person driving the very same car at the same speed through a school zone, and no one would view the change of position as a “flip-flop.” The change in factual premise—freeway to school zone—justifies the shift. To conclude otherwise would require either ignoring the new fact or rejecting its relevance.
(2) New discoveries of preexisting facts. Sometimes the objective facts stay constant, but the social perception of them changes, perhaps because of scientific discovery. For example, while I might eat tomatoes on a regular basis in view of certain anticipated health benefits, I might stop doing so if it became apparent that tomatoes are in fact bad for human health, and no one would call me a flip-flopper. Once again, criticizing the change in position as a flip-flop would require either ignoring the changed context or rejecting its relevance.
(3) New considerations. Sometimes facts and perceptions of them remain constant, and yet a person will change positions on a matter simply because further reflection has added complexity to his thinking. Another example: I might initially like a movie because of its apparent novelty, but soon after recall that it’s similar to several others, and thus not so novel after all. Or I might simply come to understand the movie in a different light upon further reflection. Either way, few would refer to such a change as a flip-flop or view it as a basis for criticism.
(4) Pandering. Sometimes neither facts, nor perceptions of them, nor opinions change, but a person will adopt a new position to indulge an audience. This is the type of change that “flip-flopper” suggests.
All of these possible explanations transfer to politics. Because of changed facts, a candidate might oppose the use of military force in one context but not another. Because of new discoveries of preexisting facts, or new considerations based upon careful reflection or advice from advisors, a candidate might support a policy regarding mining or space exploration that she previously opposed. And pandering might lead the same candidate to present different positions to different electoral audiences.
Changes based on most of these categories of explanation should, if anything, improve our perception of the candidate. A candidate who shifts her stance because of changed facts may be better at appreciating nuance. A candidate who changes positions because of new discoveries may be more intellectually honest. A candidate who changes positions because of further reflection may be better at seeing both sides to an argument, and thus less dogmatic and more capable of sympathizing with those who disagree.
Unfortunately, the standard critiques seem to overlook these complexities. They work by implicitly discounting all but the pandering explanation without seriously considering the others. The term suggests that any changed facts or new discoveries are trivial and irrelevant, and that claims of changes in sincerely held views are simply unbelievable. The result seems to be an exaggerated cynicism toward candidates for elected office, and an exaggerated sense of the value of consistency.