I think it’s safe to say that most Americans don’t look too kindly upon “flip-floppers,”—those politicians who seem to toss aside their principles in order to please the people. America has a two party system, and with such a political arrangement comes the consequence that districts are almost always going to be divided fairly close down the middle. Most American politicians, therefore, are faced with the challenge that nearly half of their constituents are going to hate them no matter how they vote.
It seems to me that there are three notions to consider here: pragmatism, representation, and ideological consistency. We generally want our politicians to be pragmatic; certainly we don’t want them passing legislation that simply doesn’t work, nor do we want them always acting out of personal honor.
And if we believe that our representatives are supposed to actually represent the constituencies in their districts, if we believe they are to be accountable to the will of the people, then surely we can’t begrudge them doing so. We’re always allowed to voice our opinions and persuade our elected representatives that our personal causes are just and right, but at the end of the day we can’t fault them for following public opinion, even if that opinion is contrary to what they once believed.
And that brings us to ideological consistency. How important is it? I’ve been watching The Tudors lately, and I was fascinated by the story of Thomas More. I already knew his fate, as I had read about him and seen the classic A Man for All Seasons, but I am perpetually fascinated by that man. He believed so fully in the importance of integrity, in following his conscience no matter the cost, that he gave his life for the ideal. If ever there was a character in history who could never be accused of flip-flopping, it would be him.
But Thomas More’s situation was different. He was not an elected official, so the opinions and beliefs of others didn’t really matter to him or his duties as the Chancellor. He was free to be as ideologically consistent as possible. But was he really free? We know he wasn’t, because he paid for his beliefs with his life. No one would have faulted him for taking the oath that Henry VIII required of him. In fact, those who loved him most would have been relieved.
Americans today enjoy the luxury of principles, because sticking to their guns ultimately means nothing. Does it really matter if any of us never waver on our beliefs? Absolutely not. It only matters if you’re in a real position to alter the conditions of the country. If Republicans absolutely refuse to allow any tax increases, then we will default on our obligations and make everything worse for everyone. Is that responsible?
I think not. We have to realize that flip-flopping is not always a bad thing, and it’s actually a good thing in most cases. We don’t want hardcore ideologues in office: we want men and women who understand that life and governing a nation are too complicated for persons to be inflexible.
Politicians every day are required to sacrifice some of their principles in order to serve the common good. I would love for abortion to only be legal in cases of rape, incest, and danger to the mother’s life, but I know that such a law would be a nightmare to implement, not to mention, it would create a gross intrusion of privacy upon women. So I have to sacrifice my principle on that subject in deference to practicality.
I’ve said this on many issues. When Osama bin Laden was whacked, I was able to stand by the principle that killing is never a good thing. On the issue of torture, I can stand by the principle that it is always immoral and never justified. If I were place in those actual situations, however, I’m not sure how I would act. Right now I have the luxury of principles, but I also recognize that not everyone is afforded such indulgences.