September 13, 2004

On flip-flopping

I'm getting sick of hearing the word "flip-flop" over and over again. It is used to mean a lot of different things, and not all of them are bad (though all are painted with the same brush when that word is used).

It just happens, from time to time, that someone with an honestly-held, well-considered opinion is presented with fresh information---or at least a fresh perspective---and after some further consideration, changes their mind. It's the mark of a thoughtful person leading an examined life. To act otherwise is to live in unreasoning stubbornness. Calling this sort of thing a "flip-flop" is a disservice; we want people to be always thinking critically and to never be so attached to a certain view that they will hold it to the point of absurdity.

It also happens, for most of us, that there are some issues that we just don't care about that much. Or maybe we care, but we're still undecided. It seems to me that for a politician in this position, an entirely reasonable course of action would be to poll carefully and take the stance supported by a broad majority of the electorate---at least until some further evidence comes up that might support a different view (see previous paragraph). We clearly don't want a politician whose entire worldview is blown by the prevailing winds, but I'm not sure that simply following constituents is necessarily bad, in moderation. I remain somewhat partial to the politicians who actually deep-down agree with me, but the poll-followers can at least make a claim to being representative.

The kind of flip-flopping that's really problematic is when a politician holds one belief but flat-out lies about it, saying one thing in public speeches but doing another when constructing budgets, ruling committees, or otherwise exerting authority. For the all-too-large segment of the voting public that will believe what is said in the speeches (which they agree with) and never hear what is actually done (which they would disagree with), this sort of thing undermines the basic fabric of the democratic process. Now, some blame might lie in the person who neglects to fact-check, or the media that neglect to report, but dwelling on that is counterproductive; the lion's share of the blame lies on the shoulders of the lying politician.

It can be hard to tell, absent context, which sort of "flip-flop" is occurring in any given case, if all you have is a simple "before" and "after" snapshot. The first and second sorts of "flip-flop" are hard to tell apart in any case, but if you look at the bigger picture they are both characterised by a basically consistent profession of one belief, leading up to some point in time from which all subsequent declarations are of the new belief. The third tends to be accompanied by a lot of back-and-forth, playing both sides, saying one thing and doing another over and over again. As the first two are basically honest behaviours and the last is a basically lying sort of behaviour, they're sort of incompatible; people who change their mind or blow in the breeze are likely to do so on more than one issue, and people who try to blatantly snow the public are not going to restrict their deceit to just one issue. So it is instructive, not just to look at long-term patterns within an issue, but also to seek patterns across a politician's entire platform.

There are three kinds of flip-flops: the considered change of mind, the populist poll-follow, and the out-and-out lie. Kerry might do either the first or the second, but Bush is a coarse flip-flopper of the third kind.

"It used to be sad that the Republican Party couldn't find more black candidates. Now it's tragic." --Brent Spillner

Posted by blahedo at 11:51pm on 13 Sep 2004
Concerning which candidate flip-flops in that bad, lying way, see this article in Bush's hometown (Crawford, TX) newspaper. Posted by Greg at 11:26am on 8 Oct 2004
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