Why Flip-Flopping Is A Good Thing

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

If I exit my room in Wharton AB and walk down two doors to my left, I position myself right in front of the greatest debate arena I have come across during my time at Swat thus far: the freshmen boys quad. Over the course of the first semester, we have had several vigorous political debates on a great variety of topics. The week before Thanksgiving break, I aimlessly wandered in, and it wasn’t long before we began to spar.

The topic at hand was the next presidential election, and the electability of Bernie Sanders as compared to Hillary Clinton. This discussion quickly morphed into a larger conversation about the reliability of candidates, specifically those who seem to change their minds and “flip-flop” on issues of national importance. Perhaps the most relevant culprits of this perceived flip-flopping is Hillary Clinton.

The hall debate could be boiled down to one fundamental question: can we trust, and should we vote for, candidates who seem to change their mind in order to accommodate public opinion?

As I argued that night, and continue to maintain, I believe a politician is doing their duty by being swayed by public opinion. The candidates that are likely to carry out the true will of the American people are those that take the time to understand and craft legislative platforms and policies around what the people actually want.

Clinton’s track record on gay marriage is often cited as the quintessential example of her fickle views. As Politifact reports, “as public opinion shifted toward support for same-sex marriage, so did Clinton.” As my freshmen debate foes argued, how can one trust a candidate who will sell out their political values just to appeal to voters? I argue in a rather Machiavellian framework that in any representative democracy, we elect politicians not to necessarily stay true to their own principles and fundamentals, but to best represent the populations that have elected them. As long as the will of the American people is being carried out through the policies that elected officials implement, the ends justify the means; whether or not the candidate is sticking to their expressed beliefs from a decade ago or from yesterday is entirely besides the point.

In high school government class, we were taught that in representative democracies, there are two models of representation: trustee and delegate. In the trustee model, representatives are given a significant amount of political autonomy to decide what they believe to be best for their constituents, and they are kept in check by the prospect of  reelection.The delegate model posits that representatives ought to simply act on behalf of those that have elected them; their actions are dictated solely by the will of their constituents.

Clinton, in addition to the plethora of other politicians who have historically flip-flopped on issues, is arguably acting in accordance with the delegate model; as a prospective elected representative, she molds her policy to be that which will align most closely with the people’s will. In fact, this is the most effective way of carrying out her duty to her constituents, in a form of government where all power is derived from the voters themselves. By keeping the priorities and wishes of her constituents in constant consideration, albeit by changing her own views alongside the voters, Clinton would be delivering the results that the American people want, which is the purpose of an elected representative in a democratic government.

We must remember that while we are electing individuals, we are first and foremost electing representatives; their primary responsibility is to satisfy the voters that placed them in their respective offices. If during one’s time in office, their constituents drastically alter their stance on a controversial issue, is it not democratic for the elected official to reconsider their stance on the issue? That re-evaluation is precisely what allows representatives to remain accountable to their voters, and in doing so, fulfill their duty of representing their constituents accurately.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders often lament how much of a politician Hillary Clinton is, and her frequent issue flopping is a large contributor to this perception. If being a politician is  defined as someone who understands Washington politics and understands the American people, to a point where they are able to fight for what the majority of voters want regardless of their own initial stance, then maybe electing a tried and tested politician like Hillary isn’t such a bad thing after all.

Featured image courtesy of www.nytimes.com

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