Flip-Flopping: Not Always What It Seems

Zachary Gappa

6/13/2011 2:30:00 PM - Zachary Gappa

Americans hate "flip-floppers." Accusations of "flip-flopping" (switching positions on political issues) have tanked many political careers. One of the more recent examples was John Kerry, who famously said, "I actually did vote for the $87 billion [Iraq war funding bill] before I voted against it."

Most Americans react viscerally against such position changing. Vacillation points to a weak representative, and the people want to get the man or woman they voted for.

Kathleen Parker provides an alternative perspective in her latest column. She believes flip-flopping, at times, is a sign of a mature politician whose political perspective has changed and evolved over time. While not justifying all flip-flopping, she does argue, "In a saner world, we would not distrust those who change their minds but rather those who never do."

While partially right, Parker misses the crux of the issue: Our understanding of representation. What does it mean to be an elected representative? There are two general positions:

First, a representative can be just that - a representative of the peoples' voice. In this capacity, he is viewed as the mouthpiece of the citizens of his district or state. He fights for their will, and any significant deviation from the will of the majority of his constituents is viewed as a violation of their trust.

Alternatively, a representative can be an accountable independent actor. In this role, the representative is elected by the people as (presumably) one of the wise, responsible men or women of their community. He is responsible to fulfill the promises he made when running for office, but he is free to make his own judgments. He is responsible for his constituency, but he is free to differ from the majority view occasionally. He must represent the interests of his voters, but he is not their mere mouthpiece.

Those who most vehemently decry flip-flopping hold to the former view. They vote for a politician who says he believes X. If he then departs at all from X, he is rejecting the will of the people who elected him.

Our Founders, on the other hand, largely held to the latter understanding of representation. That is why they established the United States as a republic - rather than a democracy. They were suspicious of the pure democratic will of the masses. They instead placed their trust in the combined judgment of wise representatives. If a representative abused this trust, he could be kicked out of office by the voters, but his independent position allowed him to temper the passions of the people.

James Madison, in Federalist No. 10, famously said, "Hence it is that democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and in general have been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths... A republic, by which I mean a government in which a scheme of representation takes place, opens a different prospect and promises the cure for which we are seeking."

And Chief Justice John Marshall explained, "Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos."

The Founders sought to mitigate the passions and imbalances of absolute democracy by placing the reigns of the U.S. government in the hands of a small number of representatives. These elected officials would meet and reason together, taking time to make and listen to arguments.

It is important to keep these early American political concerns in mind as we look to our coming elections. Are we presented with responsible candidates who will shoulder the duty of making wise choices in the interest of the voters they represent? Or are we faced with simplistic candidates who will rule according to the whims of the voters regardless of the consequences?

Parker is right that political flip-flopping is not always a bad thing. A representative who never changes his or her mind is a representative who does not take seriously his or her role as trusted leader.

That said, we should rightly be suspicious of someone who changes their positions frequently or flippantly (particularly during election season). In this sense, flip-flopping can be a warning sign of a self-serving, petty candidate.

The question is ultimately not whether our representatives change their positions. The question is whether they make wise decisions and assume responsibility for their actions.