On Flip-Flopping, Consistency, and Democracy

“Flip-flop” is a term thrown around during political campaigns as an attack against a politician for switching sides on an issue. Doing so usually lands a politician (or hopeful) in pretty hot water, and their “confessions” of having flip-flopped can get a lot of attention and ridicule.

Some recent examples include Kerry’s explanation of having voted for Iraq war funding before he had voted against it, and Romney’s changes of position between the 1990s and 2012 on a number of issues.

As a voting group, we seem to value consistency.

But political hopefuls are also sometimes accused of being backwards, out of touch, or otherwise overly rigid on positions when they are unwilling to change their minds. For example, GOP candidates are accused of “swimming against the tide” on gay marriage by not changing their stances to meet the growing national popularity of gay marriage. And when politicians are too rigid in their beliefs, we are frustrated that they don’t listen to the opinions of their constituencies.

Is this a contradiction? How can we expect politicians to be both consistent and flexible?

The problem, of course, is with framing. In elections, partisans bent on winning the election can twist either position to suit their cause: deferring to public opinion is flip-flopping; remaining consistent despite it is un-democratic.

The key task for voters, as we think soberly about such situations, is to identify the context and determine whether changing one’s mind or not is the right move. Indeed, we probably do not want to elect representatives who change their positions with every poll, nor do we want politicians who have no intent to represent the evolving will of the people.

So an open question to the community: how do we determine when a politician is indeed guilty of flip-flopping or being deaf to their constituents, as opposed to when they are showing a more noble flexibility or consistency?

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Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.