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Thursday, April 05, 2012

A Critique of the Flip-Flopper Critique

With the ongoing Republican primaries, it seems like we’ve been hearing a lot of the “flip-flopper” critique. Ron Paul used it against Newt Gingrich. Many have used it against Mitt Romney. Some have called President Obama the “flip-flopper-in-chief”; others speak similarly of the Governor here in Wisconsin. Its purpose is to suggest 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 highlight two problems with the term’s common usage, and then attempt to explain why the critique remains common notwithstanding its defects. 

Problem one: 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 not all flip-flops are created equal. By glossing over potential justifications, standard 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 within most of these categories 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.

Problem two: common usage is problematic because it tends to attack position changes without regard for the public office the candidate seeks, and thus fails to appreciate how the particular constitutional function of the office might make a candidate’s shifts more or less problematic. 

For this point, consider the breadth of the common usage. Flip-flopper critiques are obviously a common rhetorical tool in the current presidential race. But they seem to be comparably common—even if less visible—in races for the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, and in campaigns for state office, including state judgeships. The usage in each of these contexts seems roughly to track that which occurs in the U.S. presidential race—news media and opposing candidates attack apparent inconsistencies or position shifts by labeling them “flip-flops.” Although based on admittedly sporadic observation, my sense is that the attacks don’t vary much by office; those targeting candidates for the U.S. House, for example, don’t meaningfully differ in intensity or form from those targeting nominees for judicial office.

But perhaps they should. The differing functions of these offices are obvious. They have different terms of service. They carry different powers and obligations. And they serve different purposes; the Constitution shields some from popular pressure while directly subjecting others to the very same. As I explained above, position changes can be responses to new facts, responses to new discoveries of preexisting facts, sincere changes in candidate beliefs, or pandering. There is good reason to think that whether explanations within this typology can justify a position change should vary with the unique characteristics of the office at issue. 

Imagine, for example, position changes that are based upon shifts in public opinion. We can fit these into the typology by viewing them as changes founded on changed facts, with the facts being two different prevailing public opinions on an issue within a fixed period of time. Whether we should be concerned about this type of change seems to depend largely on the office the candidate seeks. At one end of the spectrum are candidates or nominees for federal judicial office. Here, it seems, a shift in public opinion generally should not qualify as a relevant form of changed fact so as to justify a change in position for at least two reasons. First, the Constitution intentionally insulates the federal judiciary from public opinion. Evidence that a nominee alters his positions to keep up with mercurial majority views could suggest a risk to the judiciary’s independent and insulated constitutional function once the nominee obtains the appointment. Second, the predictability of the common law depends upon respect for precedent. Evidence that a nominee changes positions in response to public opinion might suggest a tendency of disregard for stare decisis that will render the law less stable and predictable. 

At the other end of the spectrum are candidates for legislative bodies—such as the U.S. House of Representatives—that are constitutionally designed to be maximally responsive to public opinion. Here, the constitutionally mandated combination of elections and short office terms incentivizes legislators to pay close attention to the majority preferences of their constituents, and punishes those who refuse to shift along with the voters. By doing so, the Constitution makes public opinion the primary guide to the office-holder’s decision-making, and affirmatively encourages position changes that are responsive to changes within the electorate itself. Evidence that a candidate for such an office evolves with public opinion may suggest simply that the candidate will carry out her primary constitutional function. 

Explanations: Why, then, does the flip-flopper critique remain so common? I have a few guesses: First, perhaps voters and the media use it in an attempt to simplify the candidate selection process. Position changes complicate candidate identity, 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. These guesses explain the common usage, but fail to justify its indiscriminate nature.

Posted by Ryan Scoville on April 5, 2012 at 10:27 AM | Permalink


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Thanks for the comments. Alex, I tend to agree that it's problematic for a candidate to change positions based upon facts he or she should've known from the very beginning. I don't think it's a problem, however, to change positions for reason (2) or (3) if the candidate couldn't have known about the new fact earlier, and I think that's the scenario I was imagining.

Posted by: Ryan Scoville | Apr 5, 2012 2:29:36 PM

If the pre-existing fact is obvious, that may be true. But if it was controversial now, all that punishing people for "coming to the light" accomplishes is disincentivzing cooperation and open-mindedness. (And regardless, the criticism should be of the old position, not of the "flip-flop".)

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Apr 5, 2012 1:21:04 PM

As to the first problem, I would say (2), (3), and (4) are quite problematic, not just (4) pandering.

New discovery of pre-existing facts, and new consideration, both show a weakness, albeit a less morally blameworthy one than pandering. If the facts are preexisting, its common that other people knew of these facts, while the flip-flopper denied their existence. The flip-flopper, thus, is faulted for not knowing better from the get go. See, e.g., John Kerry in 2004 ("I actually did vote for the 87 billion, before I voted against it.")

Although I think an earnest politician who expresses the rationale for changed positions in a candid manner, acknowledging factor (2) or (3), may come off unscathed because they are frank about their shortcoming for not seeing the preexisting facts or taking into account the new consideration. But I think politicians don't want to admit even that, and hence the pandering inference becomes easy to make.

Posted by: Alex | Apr 5, 2012 12:54:43 PM

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