As the term “flip-flopper” enters the American political lexicon as a legitimate term of discourse and accusation, it has become helpful to examine the role of ideological consistency, and inconsistency, particularly in regards to the current field of Republican candidates for President. Mitt Romney is a serial flip-flopper, Newt Gingrich is a mere flip-flopper and Ron Paul doesn’t know how to flip-flop any more than a newborn child knows how to walk. Or at least that’s what we’re led to believe.
My goal isn’t so much to detail alleged flip-flopping or a lack of it, but rather to investigate what expectations we should have of our public officials: when is it legitimate to accuse them of being unprincipled, and when is it legitimate for them to change their position on a particular issue?
Let us start by understanding the concept of epistemic humility, which has become a cornerstone of my own political and philosophical development. “Epistemic” is a derivative of the term epistemology, which is essentially the study of how we know what we know (apologies to my fellow eternal students of philosophy for such radical simplification). Humility, of course, is having a modest opinion of one’s self, beliefs, etc. And so epistemic humility is to be modest in what one espouses. It is to say, “Even though I strongly believe A, I am willing to admit I am wrong if I am proven incorrect.”
Humans are fallible creatures, meaning we are apt to be wrong, and the history of humanity has proven the dangers of epistemic pride. See: American slavery. History has also proven that humans are too often anxious to act on that pride. See: Hitler. But not every person guilty of epistemic pride (“I’m right and I know I’m right”) is also guilty of crimes against humanity. The guilty number your office manager, who absolutely knows that nothing good can come of social networking, even if you prove how it will help the company’s bottom line; or the six year old who believes 2+2=5, even if their fingers tell them otherwise.
Now what if we were to apply epistemic humility to our own lives, especially over the course of several decades? What would be the result? If we are truly epistemologically humble, we will have developed a number of different positions that often contradict each other. The epistemologically humble parent rightly believes that severe punishment works for their first child. When the child misbehaves and then receives a spanking, bad behavior turns good. And so they apply the same theory to their second child, but spanking makes bad behavior worse in this case. Realizing this, the parent changes course, and rather than using spanking as a means to change their second child’s behavior, they sit them down and have a frank conversation about what good behavior is and why the child should act in a different manner. “Hypocrite! Flip-flopper!” cries out their Republican mother-in-law. “You used to support spanking and now you’re against it!”
But who would be the fool in this case? The parent isn’t a hypocrite. They aren’t a flip-flopper. In fact they are incredibly principled, but the principle has nothing to do with spanking or not spanking. The overriding issue in this example is rearing children who behave well, and spanking (or not) is really quite beside the point. If the parent had continued to spank their second child for misbehaving, or spanked more often, they would be guilty of a foolish consistency, or consistency for consistency’s sake, which is the product of epistemic pride. The result is a child who continues to misbehave and a parent who is increasingly frustrated because they’re absolutely convinced that their belief in spanking in infallible.
The point being in all of this that over the course of our lifetimes, no matter what lot we hold or what we do, that if we adhere to a principle of epistemic humility, that we very well may- in fact, we must- contradict ourselves on certain issues in life. And if this holds true for parenting, or business, or our studies, it must also hold true for our public officials.
But already you’re likely objecting that there is something different about politicians who change their views. Somehow they’re guilty of hypocrisy in their lives but if we private citizens change our views on something we have simply gained in wisdom. This is not completely untrue, but the future of our republic demands a more nuanced approach.
Let me say this now, before I continue, that Mitt Romney is guilty of serial hypocrisy, Newt Gingrich is guilty of being a public intellectual constantly scrutinized by the media and others, and Ron Paul never ceases to remind me about one of my favorite quotes from Ralph Waldo Emerson’s Essays: “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen and philosophers and divines.”
To flip flop is to be a hypocrite. In the political realm, it is to say one thing at one point to win an election and another thing at a different point to win a different election. It is devoid of epistemic humility because it is devoid of intelligence. The hypocrite says or does this thing or another for self preservation, not because they have awoken to some new truth as they see it. So when Mitt Romney said he was in favor of abortion when he was running for the US Senate against Ted Kennedy and is now against abortion because he is running for President- and this second position is more popular with Republican primary voters- we can without reservation label him a flip-flopper, or a hypocrite, because his change in political positions is not the result of epistemic humility (receiving new, better information) but a reaction to the changing circumstances of political opportunity.
But can the same be said about Newt Gingrich? The former Speaker has been accused of flip flopping, but never to the degree or with the zeal that the public has accused Mitt Romney of the same. This is for a very important reason: the public intuitively understands that Gingrich is a restless student of history, politics and world affairs, and is constantly learning through reading, conversation and study. He is the eternal student, who writes and speaks on a vast array of issues at a dizzying pace. Newt is the model of epistemic humility we should seek in our leaders. If you studied and expounded upon politics as much as Gingrich has, wouldn’t you have contradicted yourself on a few issues as well?
And we should hope you would have changed your opinion on at least a couple of things! Nobody can be right all the time, although of course, you could believe you are right all of the time. Enter Ron Paul. His supporters and even the liberal media have made much out of his consistency over his several decades in politics (isn’t “several decades” sort of the definition of a Washington insider? But I digress). I have never once seen it pointed out where this man has changed his opinion on anything, or even hinted at potential compromise. He just knows he’s that right on everything that he needn’t budge even an inch and sure as hell won’t change a position, no matter what new information becomes available.
Ron Paul is perhaps the guiltiest politician in American history of having a foolish consistency. Maybe he was right about adopting a non-interventionist approach to Iraq several years ago, but he becomes an irresponsible leader when he applies the same approach to Iran, which is by every objective standard far more dangerous than Iraq ever was. Ron Paul is so obsessed with ideological purity and political consistency that he has two things to show for it: 1. vast amounts of young and extremely loyal supporters who are eerily reminiscent of those who supported Barack Obama four years ago and 2. zero accomplishments. Zero. Accomplishments. For thirty years Ron Paul has been talking about auditing and ending the Fed. Has it been audited? Has it been ended? Of course not. In fact, the Fed is bigger and more powerful than it has ever been. That’s not exactly a great record when it appears your sole mission in life has been to accomplish those two things and you’ve been given a national and even international platform to get it done. In fact, in politics, it’s the definition of failure.
So we see three models of intellectual engagement by public officials in the same number of candidates: genuine flip-flopping (hypocrisy), epistemic humility and foolish consistency. The middle way, the moderate way, is obviously epistemic humility, which permits our leaders to change their positions as reality necessitates. Let us not settle for a mediocre candidate who will take any position or only one position. A little contradiction over the course of one’s career is helpful, and evidence of contemplation and wisdom. I will leave you with this from the philosopher Soren Kierkegaard: “One must not think ill of the paradox, for the paradox is the passion of thought, and the thinker without paradox is like the lover without passion: a mediocre fellow.”