Are politicians allowed to change their minds?

More political madness that prevents good government:  We don’t allow our politicians to change their minds, even though they often need to.   A politician who is open to persuasion is condemned as a flip-flopper.   So observes Kathleen Parker:

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.”

via A defense of flip-floppery – The Washington Post.

Of course there are true flip-flops, the changing of a position simply because of shifts in the political wind, a sign of cynical relativism and lack of conviction.  And yet it’s the sign of a rational mind to be open to better reasoning and honest persuasion.   How can we voters tell the difference?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Pete

    This is a good point. And it is often difficult for the voters to tell the difference between a true conversion and a politician just giving us what they think we want to hear. I would submit the “sniff” test which is very hard to define. John Edwards was an obvious flunky of the sniff test (even before any scandalous news came out.) Ronald Reagan and (yes, despite his flaws) Bill Clinton were passers. Newt Gingrich flirts with flunking. So does Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum passes. As does Herman Cain. Tough to define, though. Moms tend to be good with this one.

  • Pete

    This is a good point. And it is often difficult for the voters to tell the difference between a true conversion and a politician just giving us what they think we want to hear. I would submit the “sniff” test which is very hard to define. John Edwards was an obvious flunky of the sniff test (even before any scandalous news came out.) Ronald Reagan and (yes, despite his flaws) Bill Clinton were passers. Newt Gingrich flirts with flunking. So does Mitt Romney. Rick Santorum passes. As does Herman Cain. Tough to define, though. Moms tend to be good with this one.

  • SKPeterson

    Integrity is often hard to measure with the political class. Oft times those who say a particular politician has integrity are other politicians. So, the best we hope for is consistency – do the actions and votes of a politician match up well with their statements, their speeches and their writings? I would think that in many cases there is no Damascus Road experience, but the subtle shifting of viewpoints after a considered weighing of the issues at hand.

  • SKPeterson

    Integrity is often hard to measure with the political class. Oft times those who say a particular politician has integrity are other politicians. So, the best we hope for is consistency – do the actions and votes of a politician match up well with their statements, their speeches and their writings? I would think that in many cases there is no Damascus Road experience, but the subtle shifting of viewpoints after a considered weighing of the issues at hand.

  • Dennis Peskey

    The heart of the problem our nation experiences can be traced not to whether our politicians are permitted to submit to reason and honest persuasion, but whether our representatives are permitted to possess a “mind” after election. Democracy at it’s core is self-serving and individualistic which is strongly inclined toward demogoguery at the exclusion of reasoned argumentation. As a people, we want what we perceive is best for us at the moment and all too often vote for candidates who embrace our views.

    When our representatives alter their perceptions of particular issues and vote in opposition to previously stated positions, we can interpret this action as an abandonment of principle and a betrayal of platform. What is lacking is a communication of information to the constituents of the full extent of deliberation behind such decisions. The last politician I perceived best exemplified a clearly articulated position was Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin. I do not recall anyone accusing him of “flip-flopping” but I do believe he weighed all issues before him with both reason and foresight for the good of nation, both in the immediate now and in the future to come.

    Much of the “blame” can be laid at the failure of our fourth estate to preform it’s function properly (to wit, they have suffered in both readership and influence). I would be most interested in polling a constituency for their opinions of positions held by their representatives. How sure are you of what your senators and representatives hold to be basic tenets of good government and what issues are subject to investigation and deliberation? How well are these beliefs articulated to the voters of their districts and by what means. The irony is I often find more reasoned opinions expressed on this blog than what information I glean from various “news” sources regarding the opinions expressed (and voted upon) in congress.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Dennis Peskey

    The heart of the problem our nation experiences can be traced not to whether our politicians are permitted to submit to reason and honest persuasion, but whether our representatives are permitted to possess a “mind” after election. Democracy at it’s core is self-serving and individualistic which is strongly inclined toward demogoguery at the exclusion of reasoned argumentation. As a people, we want what we perceive is best for us at the moment and all too often vote for candidates who embrace our views.

    When our representatives alter their perceptions of particular issues and vote in opposition to previously stated positions, we can interpret this action as an abandonment of principle and a betrayal of platform. What is lacking is a communication of information to the constituents of the full extent of deliberation behind such decisions. The last politician I perceived best exemplified a clearly articulated position was Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin. I do not recall anyone accusing him of “flip-flopping” but I do believe he weighed all issues before him with both reason and foresight for the good of nation, both in the immediate now and in the future to come.

    Much of the “blame” can be laid at the failure of our fourth estate to preform it’s function properly (to wit, they have suffered in both readership and influence). I would be most interested in polling a constituency for their opinions of positions held by their representatives. How sure are you of what your senators and representatives hold to be basic tenets of good government and what issues are subject to investigation and deliberation? How well are these beliefs articulated to the voters of their districts and by what means. The irony is I often find more reasoned opinions expressed on this blog than what information I glean from various “news” sources regarding the opinions expressed (and voted upon) in congress.
    Pax,
    Dennis

  • Michael Z.

    It is interesting. Ronald Reagan our conservative hero was a democrat for years before switching to Republican during Goldwater. Yet no one got onto him for flip-flopping or talked about his “liberal” past.

  • Michael Z.

    It is interesting. Ronald Reagan our conservative hero was a democrat for years before switching to Republican during Goldwater. Yet no one got onto him for flip-flopping or talked about his “liberal” past.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I think part of the problem is that the voters vote for a guy with certain convictions, who says he will do X. This perhaps is often naive on behalf of the Voters and the politician. But nevertheless.
    So when the politician changes his mind, and the voters haven’t they feel betrayed. There is a sense in which the people think, and maybe even rightly, you should have done your thinking before I voted for you. So before you change your mind you better get your voters to go along.
    I think that is what the campaign is for actually, that you convince the voters of your thinking.
    This is why no one got onto Reagan. The people knew that he had changed his mind, but he did so before he ran for office. No one blames a college kid for experimenting with liberalism and the democratic party. But when you get a real job, and reality mugs you it is considered irresponsible to continue with those delusions.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    I think part of the problem is that the voters vote for a guy with certain convictions, who says he will do X. This perhaps is often naive on behalf of the Voters and the politician. But nevertheless.
    So when the politician changes his mind, and the voters haven’t they feel betrayed. There is a sense in which the people think, and maybe even rightly, you should have done your thinking before I voted for you. So before you change your mind you better get your voters to go along.
    I think that is what the campaign is for actually, that you convince the voters of your thinking.
    This is why no one got onto Reagan. The people knew that he had changed his mind, but he did so before he ran for office. No one blames a college kid for experimenting with liberalism and the democratic party. But when you get a real job, and reality mugs you it is considered irresponsible to continue with those delusions.

  • Cincinnatus

    There’s a difference between changing one’s mind and flip-flopping. I seldom see the former in American politics.

  • Cincinnatus

    There’s a difference between changing one’s mind and flip-flopping. I seldom see the former in American politics.

  • Joe

    Michael Z. – Reagan was asked about it all the time when it was still new. By the the time he was the candidate for Pres. the conversion was old news. And, his typical response was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” I think that is a half-truth. It is true the the democratic party moved further leftward in the 60′s but I think it is also true that Reagan moved to the right.

  • Joe

    Michael Z. – Reagan was asked about it all the time when it was still new. By the the time he was the candidate for Pres. the conversion was old news. And, his typical response was, “I didn’t leave the Democratic party, the party left me.” I think that is a half-truth. It is true the the democratic party moved further leftward in the 60′s but I think it is also true that Reagan moved to the right.

  • DonS

    Undergoing a philosophical life change, which changes your point of view on a number of issues, is not “flip-flopping”. Ronald Reagan underwent such a conversion back in the ’50′s. Similarly, Arianna Huffington went though such a conversion, in the reverse direction, in the ’90′s. Sometimes, these conversions come through observation of external events over a period of time, causing one to determine that their previous viewpoint was untenable for them, and sometimes it is because of another conversion experience, such as is the case with a person who has a religious conversion. Other examples: Mitt Romney used to be pro-abortion, but now is pro-life. I believe there was political expediency involved in initiating that conversion, but I also believe it is a genuine and committed one. Similarly, Al Gore used to be pro-life, but now is pro-abortion. Again, there was definitely political expediency involved, but his conversion on this issue is committed and genuine. This is not “flip-flopping”.

    On the other hand, someone who claims to be a committed conservative, but suddenly changes his view and supports an increase in taxes without some kind of trade-off in terms of a genuine and legitimate spending reduction is a flip-flopper. We usually have a few of these in California every year, just enough to pass another ridiculously bloated and unbalanced state budget. The Republican legislators who cave claim to be conservative, but end up being bought off with some kind of trinket — usually a pork project for their district, the promise of some kind of toothless future vote on some pet issue of their’s, or the promise of a patronage job when they lose their next election as a result of their treachery. All they prove by these kinds of flip-flops is their utter lack of ethics and commitment to the causes and positions they ran on.

    There is no defense for flip-flopping. It is a failure to represent the people who elected you based on the governing philosophy you ran on.

  • DonS

    Undergoing a philosophical life change, which changes your point of view on a number of issues, is not “flip-flopping”. Ronald Reagan underwent such a conversion back in the ’50′s. Similarly, Arianna Huffington went though such a conversion, in the reverse direction, in the ’90′s. Sometimes, these conversions come through observation of external events over a period of time, causing one to determine that their previous viewpoint was untenable for them, and sometimes it is because of another conversion experience, such as is the case with a person who has a religious conversion. Other examples: Mitt Romney used to be pro-abortion, but now is pro-life. I believe there was political expediency involved in initiating that conversion, but I also believe it is a genuine and committed one. Similarly, Al Gore used to be pro-life, but now is pro-abortion. Again, there was definitely political expediency involved, but his conversion on this issue is committed and genuine. This is not “flip-flopping”.

    On the other hand, someone who claims to be a committed conservative, but suddenly changes his view and supports an increase in taxes without some kind of trade-off in terms of a genuine and legitimate spending reduction is a flip-flopper. We usually have a few of these in California every year, just enough to pass another ridiculously bloated and unbalanced state budget. The Republican legislators who cave claim to be conservative, but end up being bought off with some kind of trinket — usually a pork project for their district, the promise of some kind of toothless future vote on some pet issue of their’s, or the promise of a patronage job when they lose their next election as a result of their treachery. All they prove by these kinds of flip-flops is their utter lack of ethics and commitment to the causes and positions they ran on.

    There is no defense for flip-flopping. It is a failure to represent the people who elected you based on the governing philosophy you ran on.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This doesn’t seem all that hard to discern to me. Someone who has truly changed his mind can explain why. He can point to the process by which he changed his mind.

    Did new facts come to light (for instance, ethanol once seemed environmentally friendly, but studies show it’s worse in most ways)? Then they should tell us those facts. Did you come to a deeper understanding of the issue in light of one of your long-held beliefs (for instance, you were opposed to the death penalty, but research into your Christian faith has shown you it’s not of itself immoral)? Then tell us what those deeper beliefs were, and how they have remained the same, even as your applications of them have changed.

    And, most tellingly, a person who has changed his mind can admit that he was wrong, and criticize his former opinion. He can also explain what was right about his now-abandoned position, and why he used to hold it but no longer does.

    A flip-flopper, on the other hand, can’t explain much of anything, because he hasn’t given it much thought — he’s just going with the popular flow, to get elected. He certainly can’t criticize his former position, because that involves thinking, and his main goal isn’t to think but to make himself look as good and electable as possible. So there is no admission of having been wrong.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    This doesn’t seem all that hard to discern to me. Someone who has truly changed his mind can explain why. He can point to the process by which he changed his mind.

    Did new facts come to light (for instance, ethanol once seemed environmentally friendly, but studies show it’s worse in most ways)? Then they should tell us those facts. Did you come to a deeper understanding of the issue in light of one of your long-held beliefs (for instance, you were opposed to the death penalty, but research into your Christian faith has shown you it’s not of itself immoral)? Then tell us what those deeper beliefs were, and how they have remained the same, even as your applications of them have changed.

    And, most tellingly, a person who has changed his mind can admit that he was wrong, and criticize his former opinion. He can also explain what was right about his now-abandoned position, and why he used to hold it but no longer does.

    A flip-flopper, on the other hand, can’t explain much of anything, because he hasn’t given it much thought — he’s just going with the popular flow, to get elected. He certainly can’t criticize his former position, because that involves thinking, and his main goal isn’t to think but to make himself look as good and electable as possible. So there is no admission of having been wrong.

  • The Jones

    tODD hits close to what I was thinking

    There is a difference between changing your principles and changing your mind. Normally, when people change their principles, it is usually a sign that they really didn’t have very strong ones to begin with (road to Damascus experiences excepted, of course). When somebody changes their mind, it is usually a sign that the facts on the ground have changed. Therefore, the pursuit of the same principle will find different means.

    For example, here’s one principle: People should be taxed as little as possible so that their freedom is preserved and government is responsible. If the facts on the federal budget and debt are something like they were during the 90s with great outlook, then this probably means the same or even lower taxes. If the debt and budget look like they do now… well, you’re going to hit sticky situations. If the government defaults, then that’s not preserving ANYBODY’S freedom, and it’s certainly not responsible. A principled fiscally conservative politician might change his position (no new taxes! …except this one!) because the facts on the ground changed (we’ve bought a lot of stuff. Now we have to pay for it. Sorry, I’m just the messenger!).

  • The Jones

    tODD hits close to what I was thinking

    There is a difference between changing your principles and changing your mind. Normally, when people change their principles, it is usually a sign that they really didn’t have very strong ones to begin with (road to Damascus experiences excepted, of course). When somebody changes their mind, it is usually a sign that the facts on the ground have changed. Therefore, the pursuit of the same principle will find different means.

    For example, here’s one principle: People should be taxed as little as possible so that their freedom is preserved and government is responsible. If the facts on the federal budget and debt are something like they were during the 90s with great outlook, then this probably means the same or even lower taxes. If the debt and budget look like they do now… well, you’re going to hit sticky situations. If the government defaults, then that’s not preserving ANYBODY’S freedom, and it’s certainly not responsible. A principled fiscally conservative politician might change his position (no new taxes! …except this one!) because the facts on the ground changed (we’ve bought a lot of stuff. Now we have to pay for it. Sorry, I’m just the messenger!).

  • Matt

    I think it is a real shame that the American primary process forces politicians into an ideological rabbit hole. For Republicans the only way to become electable in a primary is to become un-electable in the general election. I think the primary system forces politicians to flip-flop, or become passionate about issues they really don’t care about.

    There is a rising presence of fiscal conservatives/social liberal in this country that feels alienated by the Republican Presidential primary that focuses so much time an energy on who is the most pro-life or anti-gay, or who is the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. I think most independent minded Republicans want a president with a fiscal conservative background with intelligent and creative solutions to fixing the American economy.

    The only way smart people can get through the primary process is to flip-flop, and if getting a smart candidate requires a little change of heart of certain social issues I have no problem with it.

  • Matt

    I think it is a real shame that the American primary process forces politicians into an ideological rabbit hole. For Republicans the only way to become electable in a primary is to become un-electable in the general election. I think the primary system forces politicians to flip-flop, or become passionate about issues they really don’t care about.

    There is a rising presence of fiscal conservatives/social liberal in this country that feels alienated by the Republican Presidential primary that focuses so much time an energy on who is the most pro-life or anti-gay, or who is the reincarnation of Ronald Reagan. I think most independent minded Republicans want a president with a fiscal conservative background with intelligent and creative solutions to fixing the American economy.

    The only way smart people can get through the primary process is to flip-flop, and if getting a smart candidate requires a little change of heart of certain social issues I have no problem with it.


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