by Brien Jackson

One thing about our political discourse that I think makes “good” politics impossible is the ease with which we rely on memes that are mutually exclusive, to a large degree, to understand politicians. One of the more egregious examples, to me, is the question of “principles” in elected officials. We ostensibly want our politicians to “stand for something,” or have “core principles,” or whatever buzz word it is that you like to use for the concept. But when they do, we often complain that they’re insular, and too unresponsive to public opinion. Dick Cheney was, for better or worse, principled. They might have been bad principles, but principles they were. And, of course, he was widely derided (rightfully), for his astounding indifference to the desire of the citizenry. On the other hand, when a politician proves especially responsive to the public, we deride them as being un-principled flip-floppers who don’t believe in anything but getting votes. Which would be fine, except that often it’s the same people who were just complaining that politicians aren’t concerned enough about what the public wants.

Personally, I don’t see how you can really argue that a politician being receptive to the preferences of their constituents, or the larger public, can be a bad thing, assuming of course that they’re not courting public opinion by supporting a popular policy that they know is a bad idea (war with Iraq, for example). As it relates to Arlen Specter, yes, his party switching is nakedly opportunistic, but so what? Pennsylvania has gone from a state that gave George H.W. Bush a comfortable margin of victory in the state in 1988, to a state that narrowly went for Al Gore and John Kerry in 2000 and 2004, to a state that Barack Obama carried by 10% in 2008. What’s more, a whopping 200,000 former Republicans in the state registered as Democrats in 2008. Are we deriding all of them as unprincipled flip-floppers? And given all of that, why shouldn’t someone who is supposed to be representing the interests/preferences of these voters shift with the state? It certainly makes more sense than arguing that he should have stuck with the Republicans, which would have required him to represent the interests of a rump minority in the state that’s clearly out of line with the preferences of the majority of the people in Pennsylvania.

All of which isn’t to say that I prefer “unprincipled” politicians over “principled” ones, because I really don’t have a preference one way or another. I think there’s plenty of merit on both sides to argue that one is better than the other. But I don’t think it makes much sense to flip-flop, as it were, between which one you prefer based on which leaves you the most room to criticize/praise an individual politician.