Blackadder’s Lair

The home of many a cunning plan

In Praise of Flip-Flopping

I used to be against flip-flopping, but now I’ve changed my mind. Allow me to explain.

While the art of flip-flopping dates back to Shakespeare’s Hamlet, it was during the 2004 election that the concept became firmly impressed upon the American mind. The Republican campaign against Senator Kerry consisted largely (though not entirely) of the charge that he was a flip-flopper, and a habitual one at that. At the time, flip-flopping conveyed some combination of indecisiveness and pandering, the inability to make up one’s mind and stick with it combined with a habit of telling people whatever they want to hear. And, frankly, applied to Kerry the term seemed quite just. As someone who is himself a fan of nuance (which was, for a while at least, Kerry’s term for his “flip-flopping”), I was not at all pleased with the bad name he was giving to an otherwise fine word.

The problem with the charge of flip-flopping is that it succeeded. And it politics as in art, nothing succeeds that is not copied, often quite badly. Soon the charge of flip-flopping began to be thrown around with wild abandon. Instead of denoting pandering or indecisiveness, it came to be used to describe any change of position whatsoever. And so, during the current campaign, we have seen the spectacle of candidates being attacked for positions they do not hold, and have not held for many years.This is a problem. For anyone who has never changed his position on a political issue is either very very smart, or very very stupid. Given lukewarm intelligence of most politicians, it is not surprising that the current cast of presidential hopefuls (with the exception, perhaps, of Ron Paul) have taken different positions on an issue, sometimes in the course of the same debate. If the charge of flip-flopping does not fall on them all equally, it is largely because some candidates are better at squaring a circle and convincing the public that they haven’t changed their position when in fact they have (there is also some evidence that a candidate’s susceptibility to to the charge of flip-flopping may be due in part to other factors). Thus those who are most honest and upfront about their change of views suffer most, while those best able to dissemble come across as being “authentic” and “unwavering.” No doubt in some cases, the fear of flip-flopping has even kept a candidate from changing his views even when his doing so would be to the good. There again, the prejudice against flip-flopping has made being consistently wrong preferable to being inconsistently right.

If this is what being against flip-flopping has wrought, then I can no longer not support it. One may say that I have flip-flopped on flip-flopping, but it is not it would be truer to say that flip-flopping has flip-flopped. I did not the anti-flip-flopping party. The anti-flip-flopping party left me. So, in the mortal words of Gilda Radner: nevermind.


January 24, 2008 - Posted by | Election, Humor

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