Flip-Flopping is Good for Democracy

When we hold leaders accountable for their political evolutions, our democracy is stronger

Pranay Somayajula
© Gage Skidmore via Wikimedia Commons

During the 2016 primary, one of the biggest accusations consistently hurled against Hillary Clinton by Bernie-supporting progressives (including myself, in all my tenth-grade wisdom) was that she was a “flip-flopper” — from free trade to gay marriage, Secretary Clinton’s evolution to a more progressive stance on several key issues was seen by many as an indication that she was not genuinely committed to social and economic progress.

“Flip-flopping” is often one of the worst sins a candidate for political office can be accused of, and that’s not just the case with Democrats — Republicans do it too, as evidenced by one Jeb Bush-supporting PAC’s Nancy Sinatra-parodying attack ad against Marco Rubio during the GOP primary. The political stigma against changing stances is symptomatic of a broader national focus on purity politics, and of a quickness on just about everyone’s part to dismiss political evolution as the craven desire of politicians to win votes by any means necessary rather than seeing it as a genuine change of heart. The stigma against flip-flopping, however, is unfounded — when rhetoric is backed up by action and adequate pressure is put on public officials to hold them accountable, flip-flopping can actually strengthen democracy.

Top 2020 Democratic contenders like Kamala Harris, Kirsten Gillibrand, and Cory Booker have made headlines for their sharp leftward shifts by signing onto progressive legislation such as Medicare for All and a $15 minimum wage. These senators, especially Booker and Gillibrand, have historically had reputations as “corporate Democrats”, and thus many on the Bernie Left have cynically dismissed these potential candidates’ evolutions as mere posturing for a presidential run that will be abandoned as soon as any of them enter the Oval Office.

This, however, is an incredibly short-sighted dismissal which is based on unreasonable expectations — implicit in such a dismissal is the desire for politicians only to take a certain stance if they personally feel that way, and always have felt that way. But that’s just not how politics works. Not only is it unrealistic to hold politicians to the standard of always having taken a certain stance (the past is, after all, by definition unchangeable), a politician’s motivation for taking a certain position doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s out of ambition or a genuine change of heart is irrelevant; what matters is the fact that the individual in question took the major step of actually throwing their support behind an issue that they previously did not have the courage to support. Focusing on purity politics is counterproductive, and it runs the risk of alienating critical newfound allies simply because their support came later than the support of others. Especially for the fledgling American Left, this is a sacrifice we cannot afford to make.

The futility of purity politics is especially true given that all three Democratic senators accused of flip-flopping have backed up their words with action beyond just cosponsoring legislation (although that is a strong message in and of itself) — Gillibrand, Harris, and Booker have all pledged to stop taking corporate PAC money, which not only is a measure that they wouldn’t take if they weren’t serious about moving to the left but also significantly undermines the argument that they are all “corporate Democrats”.

It’s easy to expect purity from politicians, and the sentiment behind such an expectation is understandable. But if we want things to get better in this country, at some point we’re going to have to realize that expecting perfect purity from our elected leaders is simply setting ourselves up for disappointment. Politics by its own nature attracts the ambitious, and the ambitious will always be inclined to evolve in a way that suits their own goals.

Moreover, purity politics allows citizens to unfairly abdicate their responsibility in a democratic society. Democracy is a two-way street, and we have just as much of a responsibility to hold our leaders accountable as they do to be accountable to us. If we are concerned that a politician’s political evolution isn’t genuine, it’s up to us to hold their feet to the fire and ensure that they put their money where their mouth is. In this way, flip-flopping is actually good for democracy — when a politician who is bound to represent a constituency changes their stance on a given issue, it ensures that their constituent are fulfilling their civic duty to hold their leaders accountable.

Flip-flopping is often fueled by individual ambition, and it’s usually messy. Then again, so is almost every other aspect of politics in a representative democracy. We can, and should, aspire to a brighter future where we elect leaders who are accountable to us from day one, but no matter what that future is still some ways off. In the meantime, playing purity politics will get us nowhere. Just about everyone in America is guilty of this, and as the political naïveté of tenth-grade Pranay shows, I’m no exception. Sorry, Hillary.

Pranay Somayajula

Written by

Student, activist, and organizer fighting for a radically different tomorrow.

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