20 April 2016

Flip-flops

Sadly. This is not a post about the virtues of not having to wear socks for months at a time.

During a digression on sexism and politics, one of the constant refrains that emerged as a "factual issue" of concern and note was the concept that a politician's word on some issue cannot be held to trust and account because they have changed their position on some given issue. Sometimes in the last week. Sometimes from a position they held 20 years ago.

Leaving aside for a moment whether this is indeed a salient feature of how to evaluate specific political figures (I do not think it is very useful at all), the nature and presentation of it itself proceeded along the same sexist lines. One political figure who has so famously flip-flopped so often that Colbert does a late-night segment where he debates himself (as a formidable opponent no doubt), is described as "honest" and receives a pass (Trump). Trump "changed his mind" on abortion only a few weeks ago about 5 times in one weekend. Some things he's changed his mind on in the same press appearance. Clinton meanwhile, received no such pass for views that have "evolved" over several decades. If one is going to apply this as some form of rigorous standard, that politicians should mean what they say and explain their evolutions to us when they occur that they have to change their minds, one should do so "fairly", without a prism of sexism to blind people to one form of doing so as excused or ignored, and painting a huge target on someone else for doing the same thing.

The question then becomes whether this is a useful metric for measuring the probable performance of someone in public office. This is I think much more mixed. There are a number of problems with holding it up as a high end value assessment. Pretty much everyone changes their minds at least some of the time. Especially in politics. This is, in most walks of life, a virtuous element of their character, that people apportion their beliefs to evidence and values that have changed and adapt accordingly. "New shit has come to light, man", and one should naturally follow along to see where it goes. Politician's difficulty is typically in explaining why, not the what, in a way that satisfies their partisan fellow travelers and opponents alike (this is not often possible). But we should expect political figures to have changed their positions on a number of topics over a career in public service, even within the last few days or weeks. What exactly we are holding them to account for is not that they have changed their minds, but something else.

People who don't change their minds in politics based upon changing conditions, values, and evidence, are typically called ideologues. And they are usually dangerous people when given public office and public powers. Or at least, they tend not to perform an executive office very well. This is because such people are too confident in their own mental faculties and too unwilling to rely upon the advice of others on the probability that they might be wrong. Someone like Sanders comes up obviously to this view, that he seems very unwilling to respect points of view indicating he might be wrong in either his diagnosis of a problem or his probable solutions. Someone like Trump comes to this problem from a different perspective, but the same effect: poor quality advice is likely to occur because the only advice he will want is what he already wants to hear. These are the risks of people who don't appear to change their minds, or people who rely too closely on their own minds to make their assessments of what they should or should not do in public office. It is not simply the case that we should want "honest" and steady figures, because such figures do not historically have a track record of providing quality governance and provide glaring flaws as to why this might be the case.

This does not mean that public officials changing their minds is of no consequence. What we are actually assessing is something about their method of making judgments. Someone who appears too quick to jump ship may be of concern to people with particular ideological and policy issue commitments they wish to see fulfilled. This would require people to be pretty activist and informed about some particular policy issue. Which is not the case for most people that they are deeply committed to a platform of ideological goals and aware of the policy levers that are being pulled or ignored that could help further those. Most people therefore aren't making this complaint when they complain about flip-flopping. Someone who appears unwilling to stick to a decision might be a concern in a crisis (this is a common argument made against FDR's first two terms and his handling of the Depression, with a lot of meddling going in different, sometimes contradictory and counterproductive directions. I honestly don't think he would be regarded as a great President without the third term and "The War" to rescue his reputation). This might be closer to the truth of the matter that we would want to know there is a level head trying to make decisions in terrible situations, someone who won't panic or make poor decisions. I still think it grants too much to the motives of voters however for why this occurs as an issue in politics.

We are trying to assess how and why someone has changed their minds. This will not always be clear, as any change would be internal. We can assume it will be for craven political calculus, for example to follow the national mood on some issue or another, being for or against something because it is politically expedient. This appears to be what many do. Cynically I am inclined to agree this is often a feature for why political figures decide one day to stand up, when they usually remain seated, but this does not explain our behavior that well as voters standing in judgment. It does not explain why we fix on some candidates over others for this flaw. We can assume it will be because they have become personally moved on this issue. In many cases I am willing to grant this may be the case, simply because politicians are often as ignorant of the many subjects on which they are often called upon to legislate as we are in the general public. But many others are not so forgiving. This would all be acceptable behavior. If it went on that often. What most people seem to do instead of these options however is cognitive dissonance of a partisan or tribalistic nature. They ignore or minimize changes to positions for their favored candidates. And they highlight those of candidates they are not disposed to like (people from the other party, or the other candidate in a primary cycle). This then is actually why we are doing it: "Our team is noble and pure. And the other people are all hypocrites."

As someone who has observed from the outsider status the nature of politics and political arguments, who doesn't much like any of the tribes involved (even the one I am nominally leaned toward on some policy grounds), I am here to say "you are all full of shit". That's an amusing game I'm sure, but it isn't very satisfying or convincing that any of you are right about what you want, what policies we should or should not pursue, even about what political figures can best advance or deter such policies. Calling people out for lying is something you can do as a political counting game, perhaps to encourage an honest and fair accounting of the achievements and goals of political figures when we try to decide which ones to elect or not. I do some of it myself where there is little clear goal or purpose behind a particular agenda (re: the recent wave of attempts to pass anti-transgender laws and the often creepy and ignorant statements by political figures in support of them). But it does little good when people aren't willing to look in the mirror, ever, to call this an imposition of honesty. Honesty is not part of this game. It never has been. It never will be. The essential point of politics as government should be something on the order of: "what are our goals and how can we best serve them". Deception is a part of that. People don't sit down at a poker table and only play the hands they get and expect to have won money when they get up. Same thing in politics. I expect the political figures involved to learn how to bluff better, to avoid sounding like they are prevaricating or if they are uncertain, to simply say they are uncertain and that they are seeking more information. And while that's a flaw that some political figures (Clinton for example) have had difficulty escaping (she is not a natural politician, her husband was a very gifted figure in this regard), it's not one that tells me they are bad at every other facet of the game we are asking of them. It isn't very informative. It offers little advice on policy what we should expect. If someone has a bad poker face, but always has drawn good cards, why should we care? We should focus our attention there instead. Do they even have good cards? Do they offer good and effective policies? Have they a decent understanding of the scale and scope of our problems as a nation (or a planet in the case of foreign policy, or climate change)?

If we aren't asking those questions, we can't really evaluate whether or not they are being honest in the first place because we don't have any idea why we should care if they are or not. Maybe because you have some goal you really care about, bully for you if so. Maybe because you don't like someone and are searching for a better sounding answer than "I don't like her attitude". And so on.
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