Should Politicians Be Allowed to Flip-Flop?

Flip-Flopping and Why its important that our politicians have that ability.

To many Americans what a politician stands for is the reason to vote for that politician. That’s true enough. Obviously, if the man or woman has Nazi sympathies, you don’t want that politician representing you in the legislature, or in some executive or judicial position. Most of the time though, the politician’s positions are not extreme like that at all. They may be liberal or conservative, pro-life or pro-choice, with capitalistic leanings or socialistic leanings. And given their understanding of the current cultural settings are going to be supporting positions within that framework.

Flip-Flopping or Changing your Mind

Many teenagers have seen their parents stubbornly act in a way that infuriates them. The teenager may want to go to a party, a dance, stay overnight at a friends house, date a special person, all of which the parent may say no. And no amount of talking, pleading, or appealing to their reason will change the parent’s mind. In this case isn’t it obvious that the teenager wishes that the parent would “flip-flop” i.e., change their mind and take a different position?

But Adults Flip-Flop

To answer that, consider that as adults we do that often. We may like a certain car then change our minds; like a certain restaurant, then change our minds; like a certain company product, then change our minds; even like a friend or spouse and then change our minds. In fact, it is normal as adults to change their minds about many things. That is part of being an adult; not being fixated for the rest of your life in one view of things.

Now granted, you may find it hard to like rap-music if you like classical, or like classical if you like rap. But these are attitudes that come from internal consciousness about what you find artistically valuable, not about a position on certain aspects of life. What we flip-flop about can be personal or political.

So why can’t we allow politicians to have that same luxury?

Should Politician’s be allowed to Flip-Flop?

Understanding political positions to change about is certainly different than personal positions. Many would agree that at the personal level, we do allow and expect people to change their mind. But at the political level, that is a matter of principle, and we do not expect politicians to change their minds.

But is this true? How so?

I can think of two politicians that never change their minds. Kim Jung-Ill of North Korea, and Fidel Castro of Cuba. Do we really want that type of politician in our political system? They never flip-flop and look what type of government they have.

The problems confronted by politicians are themselves hard to work with, and frequently do cause different positions to be taken.

Consistency vs Representation

Consider that in flip-flopping we are talking about consistency. However, we also have a democracy where we expect our politicians to represent our views.

Consider a politician who has just been elected to the legislature for the first time. He/she won because they represented the views of their constituency. Indeed, let’s say that for most of those views held by the district the politician felt a similar tendency. Suppose that the views of the majority were pro-choice. Now go forward ten years, the politician is still representing the district, but in ten years the constituency has changed. People have died, moved away, others have moved in and the 10 year old’s from before are now 20 and can vote. Now the constituency is pro-life. So does the politician abandon his previous view pro-choice position and support the new pro-life one of his district?

Here is the dilemma, in a political view, we may expect consistency, but our democratic system expects representation. If the politician now supports a pro-life position is he flip-flopping or is he a good representative of his district?

Some would say that positions of principle cannot be compromised, so he should be consistent. But others would say that adults, even politicians can change their minds, because they may have new information or have different experiences that allow that opinion change to take place.

Cynically, some would say that the politician is just putting his finger in the air to feel how the political weather has changed. Ok, so what? What is wrong with that? Again, if the politician is just looking out for his constituency he is doing his job.

Moreover, if it does turn out that the politician changes his mind on everything, and has no principles to stand on, then the electorate can vote him out of office. That too is viable.

The problem, however, does not reach that extreme because there are only very few doctrines on which consistency or representation really matter. Most of the other times, people themselves flip-flop on political matters.

Does Ideology Matter?

One of the concepts that is holding back politicians today is the overwhelming impact of ideology. You are conservative or liberal, pro-choice or pro-life, pro-death penalty or against the death penalty, for a stimulus package or against it, for government spending or cutting spending, tax the rich or cut taxes, and the list goes on.

Whatever rational solutions are proposed, unfortunately, they are put into an either-or situation, with little middle-ground available. In this sense, politicians can’t be consistent or representative, they have to follow the ideology that they view themselves a member of.

Understanding this makes the problem of democracy even more difficult because it undercuts what politician can do. And right now, it isn’t much.

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