Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Column 2: Flip-flop flight stop

Here's a simple request for all of you armchair pundits who use the term "flip-flop" to describe a political candidate's stances on the issues:

Stop. Now.

Calling a candidate a "flip-flopper" based on a couple of votes or speeches here and there is a ridiculous oversimplification of the political process. It is almost always wrong, it is always dangerous, and it makes you look like a complete doofus. So don't do it.

See, political issues are deeply nuanced things. Change one thing, change a million other things along with it. What's good for some people is bad for others. What seems like a good idea one minute is a horrible mistake the next. The concept of a black and white world gets blown to miniscule morsels in the political arena. Every issue is defined by a million shades of grey; there are a myriad of reasons why one person would cast a vote a certain way, or sign a certain bill, or make a certain statement.

Take John Kerry's stance on the Iraq war, for example. The Massachusetts Senator voted for a resolution "authorizing" President Bush to use force to bring down Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. He is now speaking out against the way the war was conducted. Somehow, some idiot political pundit got it in his or her head that Kerry had obviously reversed himself. The President himself joined in on the attack. And it's all wrong.

Kerry has explained his vote and his opposition thousands upon thousands of times to anyone who will listen. The rationale is simple and reasonable: Kerry voted to authorize the President because he believed that Hussein was a danger to America. Kerry also believed that Bush would seek international help in the endeavor and only go to war as a last resort. It is the fact that Bush attacked unilaterally and the fact that Bush used war as anything but a last resort that have left Kerry feeling betrayed. These things are what Kerry speaks out against. This is hardly a flip-flop; it is, however, a nuanced position. George Bush has said before that he "doesn't do nuance," but I expected better out of the press. Silly me.

(Incidentally, almost no one mentions the fact that Kerry's vote was not even important – the President could have used force in Iraq with or without Congress' approval.)
Or we can examine the attacks the Democrats have leveled on the Patriot Act. Bush accused Kerry of being "for and against" the Patriot Act, implying that Kerry has no convictions on the issue. The reality of the situation is quite different, however. Kerry – and 99 other Senators – voted for the Patriot Act in the wake of September 11th, without much debate on the bill and with a feverish desire to take all necessary steps to defeat terrorism. Two and a half years later, Kerry still believes that "much of what is in Patriot Act are good ideas." He is, however, disillusioned with the way it came out.

Truth is, Kerry, by his own admission, voted for what he called an "imperfect bill." This is what Senators do when faced with a choice between action and inaction. A vote for the Patriot Act could mean a number of different things – to Kerry, his vote meant that he believed that it was more important to act now and fix problems later than to spend time wrangling over the specifics of the bill. He is dismayed strongly by John Ashcroft's use of the Patriot Act to dismantle civil liberties; thus the attacks. And the attacks are not against the ideas behind the Patriot Act but against the specifics of the law itself – he does not advocate removing it but replacing with a better law. In other words, it is wrong to simply state that he has flip-flopped from wholehearted support to vigorous dissent.

And indeed, even when politicians do switch positions, it's rarely a horrible event. The Democrats' stance on NAFTA, for example, has changed dramatically in the past ten years. So has the President's stance on nation-building (recall that he pooh-poohed the idea during the 2000 election). But both of these shifts in political beliefs have come as the result of each politician's ideological maturation. The world is constantly changing, and a good politician will incorporate new ideas into his or her political ideology, and occasionally change the ideology as well.

The trend of oversimplification is a grave threat to our political process. Understanding an issue requires coming to terms with numerous possible interpretations of the issue. By using the term "flip-flop," we oversimplify the issue, implying that there are only two possible mutually exclusive thought patterns to choose from. In doing so, we hurt our own understanding of the issues and the candidates' often complex stances. And, of course, understanding our candidates' viewpoints is the most important part of the voting process.

So next time you feel compelled to call someone a "flip-flopper," think twice. And then don't do it.

1 comment:

Gob said...

Would a "Mugwump" be a better word?
Just Wondering... ;-)