When Is Flip-Flopping OK?

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I very much enjoyed Saturday Night Live's spoof of Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY) being interviewed by MSNBC's Chris Matthews. Most of it was terribly unfair to her (and probably to several others too), but there's a grain of truth behind enough of it for it to be funny. I'm not posting this just because I liked it, though. I found one particular segment of it to be especially interesting, and I wanted to comment on it:

CM: What about those Democratic primary voters who are still upset about your initial vote for the war?
HC: Chris, I think most Democrats know me. They understand that my support for the war was always insincere. Of course, knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it.
CM: Uh-huh.
HC: I mean, for heaven's sake, look at my record. I don't even support necessary wars.
CM: Well, a lot of Democrats like the fact that Obama was always against the war.
HC: Chris, let me say something about Senator Obama, for whom I have the greatest respect. He seems to take positions based on studying an issue and then following his convictions, which is perfectly alright, bt suppose he were to go to Iraq and conclude that the war was necessary after all. He might decide to support it. Do you really trust someone like that?
CM: I never looked at it that way.
HC: Whereas, with me, the Democratic base knows that I am not going to reverse my stance on the war a second time, unless of course they want me to.

I have two thoughts from different parts of this, one brief one and one that requires a little more reflection.

1. Senator Clinton's reversal on Iraq does strike me as being politically motivated given that her support for the effort in Iraq has been consistent since the beginning. The burden of proof is on her to give reasons why she should change her position right at the beginning of her official announcement of her run for president. What she's said is not convincing to me. It's not even remotely plausible. She knew what it was like in Iraq before she went. Simply being there should have made no difference.

I've been defending people against flip-flop charges lately, but in her case she has a strong presumption of guilt to overcome given the timing and the length of time she held the opposite position against strong opposition from most of her party. I don't believe she's met that burden of proof at this point, but I'm willing to consider what besides politics might have led her to decide that she's now insisting with moral urgency that we do something that several months ago she might have described as abandoning Iraq to the insurgents and to Iran.

2. What I found utterly fascinating about the above-quoted discussion was the pejorative description of how Senator Barack Obama (D-IL) and why this Faux Hillary thinks the voters therefore couldn't rely on him. It's supposed to be funny, because she is supposed to be the flip-flopper who just says what the voters want. So of course she'll say that his problem is that he makes his decisions because he's convinced by arguments and reasoning and doesn't just do what the voters want.

But the SNL writers took this further than I would have expected and actually had her give a reason why the voters should be unhappy with someone like Obama who will stick with the courage of his convictions. Someone like that isn't going to do what the voters want but will follow an argument where it leads. If he's willing to do that, there's no telling what he might conclude. Maybe he'll discover that there are good reasons to remain in Iraq. You can never rely on someone who follows the arguments where they lead rather than simply doing what the voters want.

What's really funny to me about this argument is that it rehashes an old discussion I had with my high school history teacher during the 1992 election, the first one I could vote in. His position was remarkably similar to what the SNL version of Senator Clinton says. He thought people were elected to represent the people, and they should do what they think the voters want even if it disagrees with their personal views. I responded that this meant they ought to do what's wrong simply because those who elected them would want them to vote immorally. It would be better to go against what the people want and risk not getting re-elected.

I would add now that this is so only only matters of enough importance. On issues with less at stake, it might be better to do enough to remain in office so that you can continue to vote the right way on those issues that are serious enough that you think the other party will do awful things on. In other words, picking your battles to maximize your ability to vote against what the voters want will achieve much more good than simply voting your conscience on issues when the alternative isn't very much worse than what you prefer.

But I think I still disagree with his view that elected representatives should always vote the way the voters would want rather than the way their conscience dictates. If you're going to do that, you might as well have the voters vote directly on every issue themselves rather than electing people who will look more carefully at the issues, evaluate them with more information and an eye for things the average voter won't see, and then vote according to how they think the public trust given them deserves. I don't happen to trust some of the people officially representing me, but as Senator Clinton decides how to represent me and other New Yorkers I don't think she should simply do what she thinks New Yorkers want.

If her change on this issue is purely politically motivated, my history teacher might not find that all that problematic. I really do have a problem with it given my view of what elected representatives ought to do. At the same time, it's a lot easier for me to justify a politician's change in views if it really is from having considered the arguments more carefully. Similarly, the view my history teacher was defending doesn't allow for that anywhere near as easily.

This is not a conservative/liberal or Republican/Democrat issue, even though my teacher was very much a die-hard liberal Democrat (and I'd be very surprised if he isn't still, though I've been out of touch with him for years now). It's a basic issue in political theory about what the role of an elected representative should be. A lot of the arguments people have given about flip-flopping assume one view or the other on this issue, and I think that ought to be brought out more clearly in those discussions rather than just assuming one side or the other without acknowledging that people can disagree on this fundamental question.

3 Comments

Good point. At various times in our history, this question (representation versus democracy) has been a lot closer to the front of Americans' minds than it is now. It was one of the central points of contention during the debates over the ratification of the Constitution, for example.

The democrats lost then, but they've made a lot of gains since. The Senate, for example, is now a lot more like a second House of Representatives than a council of state-appointed elders. And the Electoral College now takes its orders from the popular vote in each state, not from state legislatures.

Even so, I don't think we can ever quite divorce the idea of separation of powers from the idea that democracy must be tempered by the wisdom of those in office. A completely democratic system would be a system with a single sovereign, albeit a very large and fickle one. So, like you, I think elected officials should generally follow their own conscience ... even though I also think the people should keep a close eye on them.

Nice post. I've also discussed this question of 'selection vs. control' of representatives. I'm with you on this one -- insofar as representatives are responsible for a decision, they should follow their own best judgment, not the latest poll. (I'd rather see more of their power devolved to citizen's juries and the like, however.)

Anyway, it's always good to see meta-political issues getting more attention. Have you thought about taking the quiz?

I've looked at the quiz several times, and I'm still not sure where I am on all of the axes, but here's some reflection on where I might be at the moment.

I'm more toward what you're calling procedural liberalism (which I called procedural conservatism in the comments), maybe a 2 out of 7.

I'm probably a 3/7 on rationalism/subjectivism. I think there's a right answer, but I don't think reasoned debate is going to convince someone of it if their views come from a basic moral intuition that someone else just doesn't have. Many political disagreements eventually come down to that, and I think the abortion one illustrates it well. Whether a fetus has moral status is not something either side is going to be able to prove to the other side.

I think I'm something like a 5 out of 7 on direct vs. representative democracy. Ideally, I'd be a 7 with the one perfect monarch making all the important decisions and delegating to wise and competetent people the less important decisions. But corruption and imperfection moderate that for me enough to want democratic means for putting people into those positions and taking them out, and checks and balances greatly help that also, provided that the means of coming into the positions in the branches that check and balance each other are different enough that they do check and balance each other. In the U.S., it's much closer to that than in most governments, but it's not as far as I'd like.

I do think deliberation helps a great deal on many issues, despite my belief that certain fundamental ones should not change with debate. It helps clarify what does follow from certain assumptions. It helps sort through the consequences of certain policies. Fact-finding is important. So I'm a 7 out of 7 on deliberation.

I'm probably a 5 or 6 out of 7 on localism/globalism. I'm not a federalist except on matters of great import to the union of smaller governments. If there's reason to unite smaller, local governments, then on those issues there should be a need for globalizing laws. Defense is the most obvious reason why smaller governments should unite. I do think an argument can be made for some basic recognition of individual rights in a written constitution like the Bill of Rights, and I think it's in the interest of those in the smaller governments to agree to that. So I'm not much of a federalist in the classical sense (which means I'm very much a federalist in the sense of the Federalist Society), but I do want to leave room for what the U.S. founders left room for.

I don't know where I am on the libertarian/authoritarian issue. On defense issues, I may have a lot more allowance of authoritarianism. On social issues I have a great deal of allowance for it on the local level. People should feel free to pass local laws against whatever they decide to pass laws against once they deliberate on it, provided that the constitution they've agreed to or consented to (without opposing its remaining that way) allows it. Given a certain check-and-balance system that doesn't allow manipulation of a minority group of people at the hands of the majority, I'm fairly willing to allow local authoritarianism, with less and less as you move to a more federal control. But on the issues I think a federal government has more reason to rule on, authoritarianism may be ok as long as there's an opportunity for the local governments to remove themselves or to remove the federal authority in particular if it's grievous enough. So where does that leave me? Maybe I'll say 5 or 6 out of 7.

On economic left/right issues, I'd say I'm a 5 or 6 out of 7. I'm definitely right of center, and I'm definitely not an extreme libertarian on the issue, which I take to be 7.

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