In Favor Of “Flip-Floppers”

Today President Obama announced that he has changed his mind about gay marriage and now favors it.  Opponents of the move called him a “flip-flopper.”  Presumptive Republican nominee Mitt Romney has modified his position on certain issues over the years.  He’s been criticized as a “flip-flopper,” too.

I don’t get the “flip-flopper” criticism.  I think it’s common for people to reassess their views about issues.  I certainly don’t adhere to every belief I held when I was 20, or 30.  Life experiences have shaped my views, and circumstances have, too.  I don’t want a President who is so rigid in his thinking that he is unwilling to reexamine his position, even when events strongly suggest that his position is wrong or ill-advised.  Why wouldn’t we want a President who is flexible and open-minded enough to react to new information or new developments?

It’s worth remembering that perhaps the greatest “flip-flop” in American political history involved Abraham Lincoln.  Lincoln was morally opposed to slavery, but also was opposed to the notion that the government could, or should, simply order that slaves be freed.  He favored voluntary emancipation by slaveowners, who would be compensated as a result.  Military and civil conditions during the Civil War, however, caused Lincoln to revisit his position, and the Emancipation Proclamation was the result.  Although some people opposed the Proclamation, I don’t remember that people reacted by shrieking that Lincoln was a “flip-flopper” or an unprincipled hack.  Now, does anyone care that Lincoln’s views on the issue changed over time?  The important point was that Lincoln’s ultimate position clearly was the right position.

The lesson of Lincoln, I think, is that we should focus on whether we agree with the politicians’ stated positions, without worrying overmuch about how they finally got to those positions.  In the case of same-sex marriage, I agree with the President.  If a gay couple wants to make the commitment of marriage, and to assume the rights and legal obligations that accompany that status, I think they should be permitted to do so.  Why should a gay couple be treated any differently from another couple simply because of their sexual orientation?

I recognize that other people will disagree with this position because of their religious or cultural beliefs.  Such disagreements are the stuff of which political campaigns are made.  The important point, for purposes of this posting, is that the issue of same-sex marriage be considered and debated on its merits.  Whether a politician’s position on the issue has changed doesn’t advance the debate, and indeed just distracts from it.

6 thoughts on “In Favor Of “Flip-Floppers”

  1. You seem to be dismissing persons whose principles are based on mere “cultural or religious beliefs.” Would you please share with us what your principles are based on?


    • I certainly do not mean to be dismissing the views of people whose opposition to gay marriage is based on cultural or religious beliefs. I recognize that, for many people, this is a profoundly sensitive issue precisely because of the religious and cultural beliefs that are implicated. I just happen to not share those religious and cultural beliefs. In all candor, I’m not sure I can fairly say that my views on gay marriage are based on “principles,” either — unless my notion that it is a fair approach could be called a “principle.”


  2. Very interesting. I agree with your general point that if politicians did not reverse their views, we’d never make significant social progress. However, gay marriage isn’t exactly emancipation. Before Obama even started campaigning in 2006, marriage equality enjoyed broad support from social moderates. More than an official endorsement, the marriage equality movement has needed leadership from a prominent national politician. As a self-proclaimed progressive, I think Obama could have provided such leadership well before 2012. He could have at least have beaten Dick Cheney to the punch.

    Having lived in far-left academic circles and even farther left Christian circles for the past twenty years, it seems unlikely that Obama changed his views in reaction to ‘new information’.

    Persuasive stuff though. I too am grateful that we have two pragmatists, who are willing to change course on important issues, running for office.


    • I’d rather just evaluate a politician based on his current positions. How President Obama got to this point is not significant to me; what I think is important is that this is what he says his position now is. I dearly wish we had politicians who just told us what they think, and let us decide whether we agree with their positions or not — and then figure out whether our agreement or disagreement is sufficient to determine our vote.


  3. The electorate has always had problems with candidates or officials who have “nuanced” views, as though nuance were somehow a vice. People who are intelligent, intellectually honest, and self-critical do indeed sometimes change their minds about issues. I don’t understand why that should be considered a bad thing, and yet somehow the charge of being a “waffler” is one of the most damaging to a political candidate. Holding aside entirely the merits of any particular position on a specific issue, it worries me greatly that voters want their candidates to be rigid and simple-minded: no evolution of position, and God forbid, no “nuanced” thinking. Why someone who is incapable of changing his mind regardless of the evidence presented to him should be the ideal leader is an utter mystery to me. Put another way: I agree with you completely.


  4. It’s important to sift through information and analyze consequences before committing to a position. President Obama has done the fair thing.

    Informative, interesting post, WB.


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