Political Flip-Flops: From Lies to Legitimate Change

Presidential candidates Sen. John Mccain and Sen. Barack Obama have both been accused of political flip-flopping. (Image credit: AP Photo)

When politicians "flip-flop," or alter their stance on issues, charges of hypocrisy often follow.  But changing one’s mind is part of being human and is not always a hallmark of dishonesty, social scientists say.

Often, it makes sense and is critical to a smoothly operating United States that leaders choose a side of an issue and stick to that opinion, said James Fowler, a political scientist at the University of California, San Diego. But, like the rest of us, leaders can and do occasionally change their opinions and ideas about the world as they gather new, and sometimes conflicting, information.

Sen. John McCain's political acrobatics reportedly have included his change of stance on domestic offshore drilling, President Bush's tax cuts and immigration reform.

And Sen. Barack Obama's campaign has been just as limber, according to the media and McCain supporters, with flips in stance on issues such as abortion and offshore drilling.

Flip-flopping, at its most fundamental level, means changing one's mind or position on an issue, said Peter Dreier, a sociologist and political scientist at Occidental College in Los Angeles. But often, Dreier said, the public outcry following flip-flop accusations toward a presidential candidate is more about authenticity than how a politician makes a decision. So you'd have to add "motivation" to the basic flip-flop definition, which suggests a calculated position change made only in the name of winning an election.

No wavering

The next president of the United States should be able to choose a stance and keep it, for some issues at least, Fowler said.

"In some cases, the most important thing a leader can do is to pick a side and stick to it," he said. For example, "imagine what would happen in the U.S. if none of us knew which side of the road to drive on," he said, adding, "You don't want the President saying one day 'everyone drive on the right' and the next day 'everyone drive on the left.'"

The same idea can be applied to say the Iraq War, with the option of either staying the course or bringing the troops back. "If we stay, we risk building resentment against the U.S. If we go we risk Iraqi security."

The worst position to take, however, Fowler told LiveScience, is to be unclear about one's position. This in-the-middle, back-and-forth, could be considered a flip-flop.

"This might incur both risks, since it makes Iraqis think we are an arbitrary occupier and it makes terrorists think we could be persuaded to leave under pressure," Fowler said. "In other words, either coordinated outcome (stay or go) is better than the uncoordinated one (maybe we'll stay, maybe we'll go)."

In addition to coordination, Fowler explained, coming up with an optimal answer, for instance by weighing the pros and cons of each stance, is important in decision-making.

Benefits of a flip-flop

But there are times when wavering or or even flipping is beneficial.

Or as economist John Maynard Keynes said, "When the facts change, I change my mind."

Often, the data behind tough issues — Is the surge working in Iraq? Will drilling for domestic oil reduce the price of gas at the pump? Will welfare reform be successful? — are constantly changing, Dreier said.

"If the facts change, or if situations change, then a legitimate public official or a policy analyst or a citizen voting for a candidate would want to know [that]," Dreier said. "If a situation has changed, maybe it's a good thing that the opinions have changed,” he added.

Some analysts and others have accused Obama and McCain individually of pandering to one group or another by suddenly changing their stances on issues.

"Voters would like to think that their elected officials are being honest," Dreier said. "But I think most voters understand that elected officials have a legitimate reason to want to change their views on issues in a world that's constantly changing and in a political system where in order to get things done you have to sometimes compromise."

He added, "That's different from being a hypocrite or being a liar or having a different public view from your private view."

Jeanna Bryner
Live Science Editor-in-Chief

Jeanna served as editor-in-chief of Live Science. Previously, she was an assistant editor at Scholastic's Science World magazine. Jeanna has an English degree from Salisbury University, a master's degree in biogeochemistry and environmental sciences from the University of Maryland, and a graduate science journalism degree from New York University. She has worked as a biologist in Florida, where she monitored wetlands and did field surveys for endangered species. She also received an ocean sciences journalism fellowship from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.