Sunday, June 12, 2011

Our Unhealthy Obsession With Flip Flopping

With the first real 2012 Presidential debate underway tomorrow, you will hear plenty of candidates accusing each other of flip flopping on various issues since many of the current 2012 candidates have flipped flopped in one way or another. 
For example, Tim Pawlenty has flip flopped on cap and trade, climate change, federally subsidized ethanol, Cuba, state’s rights, bailouts, endorsing universal health care coverage before he was against it, cap and trade, ObamaCare, and supporting the individual mandate before he opposed it. 
If Sarah Palin jumps in for 2012, you will hear people accusing her of flip flopping on climate change, cap and trade, unions, TARP, death panels, and gay rights.
Before we talk any further about flip flopping, lets get our definitions straight. A blogger wisely pointed out that "a flip is changing your position. A flip-flop is changing your position, and changing it back." As a result, when most people talk about flip flopping, they actually mean that a person was flipping on an position. 
But before you jump on me on whether or not these candidates actually flipped or flopped or how accurate these charges are, I want you to ponder and think about our unhealthy obsession with candidates who flip or flop on an issue. 
Stick with me for a minute as I explain why I think our country as an unnatural fixation on this subject.
"Flip flopping" is a label that people love to throw on politicians and it can do plenty of damage to a political campaign. Its been used so often that the term that flip flopping can mean anything. As a result, the label has has lost its meaning but none of its potency. Although the term is still potent, its only dangerous to politicians because people have inflated its value on a charge that is used so often and so cheaply.
There is danger is using a term too much. The problem goes beyond letting the word lose its precise meaning or its value. There is something much more deeply troubling. We're loosing our ability to think and only respond to words that so easily trigger our emotions rather than the neurons in our brain. We're letting the media, campaign mangers and political junkies do the thinking for us and allowing ourselves to conditioned by these very same people to respond negatively to a claim of flip flopping with out seriously considering the veracity or seriousness of the charge.
One of the dangerous side effects of our unhealthy obsession with nitpicking over the flips or flops of our elected officials is that makes our candidates rigid and unbending rather than being flexible and adapting to new facts and evidence. Kathleen Parker makes this point in her op-ed over at the Washington Post: 
Here we go all over again. Read my lips and bring ’em on. It’s the economy, stupid. Gotcha!
Which is to say, the stupid season is upon us. Same story, same characters, same plot twists. And yes, the same insanity. Plus ca change and all that.
To the familiar litany of cliches above, one hastens to add, “I was for it before I was against it,” the sine qua non of that quintessential political bugaboo — flip-floppery.
A politician may be able to survive cavorting with prostitutes, sexting with coeds and commingling with interns, but heaven forbid he should change his mind — the transgression that trumps all compassion.
Or thinking.
After all, thinking can lead to that most dangerous territory for a politician — doubt — and, inevitably, the implication that dare not be expressed: “I could be wrong.”
Eve Fairbanks, writing an article for Campaigns and Elections magazine, titled "In Defense of Flip Flopping" makes the same point in a different way: 
When political campaigns are so saturated with the flip-flopper attack, and when every flip-flop—big or small—is made out to be a Bad Thing, it makes candidates fear ever changing their minds.
Sure, candidates tack with the political winds, but there's no surprise in that. More important, politicians, like all people, sometimes change their minds when circumstances change or they gain more knowledge or just come into the wisdom of older age. Even the strongest backbones can bend.
Eve Fairbanks goes on to point out that there is a danger in clubbing every politician over the head for thier flip flops because it conditions society to think that all flips are equally bad and turns politicians into bad decisions makers:
Not all flip-flops are made equal, and not all flip-flops show the flip-flopper up as crooked. Some are panders; others are revelations. Some are big; some are small. We can usually tell the difference. But when the flip-flop attack becomes so common, we're led to think all flip-flops are the same. It oversimplifies the choices politicians have to make, and turns campaign season into a joke. 
Ms. Fairbanks goes also points out that there another harm of being so obsessed with every "flip flop" a politician makes is that its corrupting the political process by which we use to select our local, state and national leaders:
These accusations weren't all without merit. And there's reason to worry about flip-flopping candidates; after all, we want leaders with backbone who won't collapse under a little political pressure.
But when something works so well, we start wanting to try it all the time. And Kerry turned it into a dangerous example. Four years after seeing the way that attack destroyed the senator's presidential bid, we've begun to throw  the flip-flopper charge around so recklessly and arbitrarily that it's almost lost all meaning. 
Kathleen Parker addresses this same idea but points out another harm that comes with being upset with every "flip flop" a politician makes in that the voters themselves become unbending and inflexible in their views of politicians and the positions they take:
Those most averse to engaging in the sort of thought that could lead to self-doubt are, alas, those who constitute the political party base. These sometimes-wrong-never-in-doubt constituents are relentless in demanding ideological purity from their candidates and routinely banish those who don’t measure up. Thinking men and women need not apply.
These same folks also happen to constitute a minority of Americans, yet they control the debate. The rest of us are left to pick among the ideologically approved scraps. 
In short, combing every statement a politician makes for flip or flop doesn't help the vetting process of finding the best local and state leader because we have a knee jerk reaction to thinking that all flip flops are bad. It doesn't matter if a candidate has a genuine and change of honest change in opinion based on new facts or evidence or if its just a calculated move to win more votes, they're all the same to us now. 
We are becoming more rigid and unbending to ourselves and others who change their minds because we're holding everyone to an impossible and unrealistic standard in which no one can change their minds, especially politicians. Lets not forget that your boss recently flipped on which color the new product should be or that your son's teacher said that the homework assignment was due on Tuesday when she said it was due on Friday a week ago. 
Politicians get hammered for flip flopping on issues. They also get hammered on issues they actually take a firm and consistent position on. They'll get hounded if they even think about flipping. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
The biggest problem is that we're slowly losing our ability to think and evaluate what's actually being said. Politicians, reporters, campaign managers and bloggers all know how to push the voters buttons and get the reaction they want from you. They all know that the public relies on them for information. In many cases, they know that the public lets the politicians, reporters, campaign managers and bloggers do the thinking for them. 
But it doesn't have to be this way. You can defy these people by being a smart, intelligent, informed and open minded voter. 
You should be thinking these questions to yourself as you hear one candidate accusing the other candidate of flip flopping: Is this a real flip or a real honest and sincere change of opinion? If its a change of opinon, why did they change their opinion? 
If its a flip flop, is it a major one or a minor one? Is is a significant or insignificant flip? How serious is this flip or flop? How accurate is the flip? Is the accuser actually distorting or twisting the candidate's words so that it looks like he's flipping on an issue?
As you watch the Republican debates tomorrow and pay attention to the rest of the 2012 election, don't accept every accusation of flip flopping at face value because they never are. 
If you take your job as a voter seriously, then we as a nation, can end our unhealthy obsession with flip flopping.and reducing the corrosive effect our fixation has on each other, politicians and the political process. 

1 comment:

  1. Great job Jared, politics is a funny thing,you never know if any of us were criminal flip-floppers in our past...heaven help us.