In Praise of Flip-Floppers (Part III)

In my last two posts (here and here) I scrutinized the tendency for voters, the media, and politicians to use flip-flopper critiques indiscriminately. Common usage is indiscriminate in part because it seems to accept without question that position changes by candidates are always a result of pandering, when in fact other, justifiable reasons may be the cause in any given case. Common usage is also indiscriminate because it denounces position changes by candidates for office without paying attention to how the constitutional features of the office influence the validity of the changes.

Given these defects, why does the flip-flopper critique remain so common? I have a few guesses:

First, perhaps voters and the media use the critique in an attempt to simplify the candidate selection process. Position changes complicate candidate identities, and complexity makes it harder to brand and distinguish candidates. By discouraging position changes, the critique facilitates voter choice.

Second, perhaps voters use the critique because they know that electoral mandates are difficult to enforce intra-term. If a candidate elected on one platform changes her position on a matter once in office, it is always possible for the electorate to vote her out upon the expiration of the term. But there is little that can be done until then. And in the meantime the official may work to create laws that reflect her new, unpopular position. Maybe voters scrutinize candidates for position changes to reduce the risk of this scenario. The flip-flopper critique, in other words, fulfills a vetting function, weeding out those candidates who are most likely to change positions in an unforeseeable manner.

Finally, I think candidates contribute to the ubiquity of the critique for their own reasons. They know that it influences voters. And it provides a way to criticize an opponent for holding a particular position even when the position itself is popular.

What is noteworthy about these guesses is that they may explain but cannot resolve the critique’s indiscrimination problems: Even if the guesses are accurate, they do not negate the fact that some position changes should actually improve our perception of a candidate, or that the Constitution makes such changes less problematic for certain types of office-holders. All of which is to say that flip-flopper critiques seem to say more about voters than candidates. The critiques reflect a public preference for clarity and certainty, even if at the expense of nuance, intellectual honesty, and—most ironically—candidate sincerity.

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