Flipping Out

A modest proposal: enough with the “flip-flop”

The shift came quickly. Barack Obama remarked last Thursday that, given recent developments on the ground in Iraq, he might want to “refine” the policies he’d previously cited when it comes to the plans he’d make for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. A few hours later, realizing that the comment could be misconstrued, the candidate held a follow-up news conference aimed at clarifying his positions and insisting the obvious: that policy-refinement isn’t the same as policy-reversal. But Obama was too late: a new narrative was already set (flip…); a new brand was already in place (flip…); a new label was already bestowed (FLOP!).

Start your engines, Pundits…sharpen your wits, Columnists…ready your pens, Reporters…we’ve caught ourselves a flip-flopper! And look alive, boys, it’s a big one!

Indeed. The Politician Who Claimed to Be Different From Other Politicians But in the End Was Just Like All the Others proved, for members of all corners of the media, to be a narrative too juicy to resist. None of which, in retrospect, is terribly surprising. But what was surprising about the coverage of RefineMyPosition-Gate was how often and how eagerly the press used the term “flip-flop” to describe Obama’s alleged rhetorical shift. That shift wasn’t a “change” or a “refinement” or a “reconsideration”; it was a “flip-flop,” and, thus, all that that term implies. (Hypocrite! Panderer! Politician!)

As Lester Feder notes today, this Flip-Flop Focus—not just when it comes to Obama’s Iraq comments, but also to his shift in public financing, and, for that matter, to McCain’s shifts in budget policy and Social Security rhetoric—has prevented the press from seeing the larger picture, the policy implications of the pivots. It’s a microcosm of the problem with horserace coverage: so obsessed have we become with the process of each candidate’s thought—and implicitly interested in the notion that evolution in that regard is actually, somehow, devolution—that we often overlook the content of that thought. And we do so, of course, to the detriment of all involved.

“In a campaign consumed by tactics, it doesn’t matter where you stand on any issue so much as whether you’ve stood there all along,” Bloomberg’s Margaret Carlson put it. “Together with taking umbrage over slights real and imagined, the commission of flip-flops, even over changed circumstances, is bad and dominates the debate.”

“Flip-flop” has been in our political vernacular for over a century, as both a shorthand for All Manner of Hypocritical Betrayal of the Public Trust, and, thus, as an accusation to be hurled at one’s political opponents. (Giving a campaign speech in New York City in 1890, John W. Goff, a candidate for district attorney, declared to The New York Times of an opponent: “I would like to hear Mr. Nicoll explain his great flip-flop, for three years ago, you know, as the Republican candidate for District Attorney, he bitterly denounced Tammany as a party run by bosses and in the interest of bossism.”) But the phrase’s more insidious implications are recent, dating, most notably, to the last presidential campaign, when John Kerry’s opponents, via the meme-mongers of the media, branded him as the Flip-Flopper.

The label stuck—“it reinforced the existing impression of him as someone who wanted to have everything both ways,” Newsweek’s Andrew Romano wrote last month—and not merely, apparently, to Candidate Kerry, but also to the minds of those same media members, who are now dropping their F-F-bombs with nearly whimsical abandon upon the landscape of our political discourse—to the extent that, in the rhetorical battle waged on the campaign trail, we in the media are venturing into war-crimes territory with all our flip-flop flack.

Given all that, a modest proposal: perhaps, rather than relying so implicitly on all those destructive little bombs, we should remove them from our semantic arsenal. Let’s find other terms through which to hold politicians accountable for the claims they make on the campaign trail. Let’s quit using the term “flip-flop” altogether.

But wait, you may say, charges of flip-flopping are fair accusations to make against politicians. They’re valuable checks against pols’ tendency to pander to voters. And, hey, at least flip-flop talk is issue-oriented…and aren’t you CJR sticklers always asking reporters to focus more on the issues?

Yes and yes. And, certainly, yes. But the flurry over “flip-flopping,” we’d reply, has surpassed its utility as a mechanism for ensuring accountability. The term itself, rather than proving a potent weapon in the political press’s battle to speak truth to power, has instead flipped and flopped itself into friendly fire that harms our own efforts. (Gotta love the irony: the term that suggests boomeranging—the “U-turn,” as the Brits call it—is now turning against us.) “Flip-flop” is much more than a term; it has become a political framework that guides not only the text of our stories, spoken and written, but also—and more so—their subtext. And subtext has no place in political reporting. We’re journalists, not poets.

That’s not reason enough, we realize, to abandon a term that has such a storied place in our political discourse. But these, when taken together, are.

1. It’s misleading

In a town hall on Tuesday, Barack Obama explicitly addressed “this whole notion that I am shifting to the center, or that I am flip-flopping.” Nice to address the accusations head-on, and all. But: flip-flopping and middle-moving (or center-shifting, as it were) are actually antithetical concepts. The former implies an either/or dichotomy, polarity, mutual exclusivity; the latter implies the nuance of the continuum. Sure, the terms may get to the same general meaning—that the politician hasn’t stuck to his proverbial guns, that he is fundamentally untrustworthy, that he’ll say anything just to get elected. But why use a term that could be interpreted multiple ways when another, clearer term would do just as well? (Again: not poets. Journalists.) There are shades of Orwell in “flip-flop.” Unclear language doesn’t just result from unclear thought; it causes it.

And “flip-flop,” in all its rhetorical fuzziness, enables intellectual laziness. Relying on clich├ęd tropes frees reporters from the pesky necessity of nuance—Candidate X flipped! Candidate Y flopped! A lede and a kicker in one!—and of the duty of parsing policy stances. The simple “he said X and now says Y” framework gives reporters implicit permission to ignore context and circumstance, distilling our political world into the convenience of dichotomy and the drama of “gotcha” certitude. Indeed, the “did he flip-flop or not” construction has become a kind of catch-all term to signify everything from “reverse one’s original policy position” to “tweak said policy position” (see, again, RefineMyPosition-Gate). The disservice this does to our discourse—and, of course, to our audience—is clear. Particularly when it comes to the language-parsing niceties of the campaign trail, let’s just say what we mean.

2. It’s inherently partisan

“In footwear, flip-flops are what you slip on when you want something comfortable and easy,” The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus writes. “In politics, flip-flops are the sloppy intellectual equivalent: what you talk about when you’re looking for a comfortable and easy way to attack the opposition.” Flipping-flopping is part of a partisan agenda that reporters who attempt balance in their work have no place advancing. As Matt Bai noted in a 2005 New York Times Magazine piece about the linguist George Lakoff, flip-flopping fits into a powerful metaphor, a narrative framework that trumps, in voters’ minds, the specificity of logical arguments, which “only resonate if they reinforce some grander metaphor”:

From Day 1, Republicans tagged Kerry with a larger metaphor: he was a flip-flopper, a Ted Kennedy-style liberal who tried to seem centrist, forever bouncing erratically from one position to the other. They made sure that virtually every comment they uttered about Kerry during the campaign reminded voters, subtly or not, of this one central theme. (The smartest ad of the campaign may have been the one that showed Kerry windsurfing, expertly gliding back and forth, back and forth.)

Once the “flip-flop” framework is in place—or, in Lakoffian terms, once it’s embedded in the mind—it doesn’t matter what else you say about it. Even negating the frame serves only to reinforce it. To use Lakoff’s own favorite example: Don’t think of an elephant. What image pops into your mind? Probably, yep, an elephant—the precise one you were asked to disregard. When the media describe a candidate—from either party—as “flip-flopping,” in other words, they’re subtly reinforcing the loser-says-what school of political rhetoric:

Person A: A loser says what?
Person B: What?
Person A: Exactly.

Once a narrative trope infiltrates our political discourse, the argument goes, context makes very little difference; in this sense, simply the use of the term “flip-flop”—even if it’s used in the “Obama didn’t flip-flop” context—is partisan.

“Mr. McCain will be helped if he uses Mr. Obama’s actions to paint his opponent as someone driven by an all-powerful instinct to look out only for himself,” Karl Rove recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal. In other words, McCain is helped when Obama is painted as a “flip-flopper.” While it works both ways—being called out as a flip-flopper isn’t great for McCain, either, just as it proved disastrous for Mitt Romney—so powerful was the flip-flopping label slapped to John Kerry that the term is, in most voters’ minds, associated with the party of “populist pandering.” Or, the Democrats.

In light of that, take The Washington Post’s apparently straightforward summary of this week’s Senate vote on FISA, emphasis ours:

Among the 69 senators who voted “yes” on final passage was Barack Obama (Ill.), who had opposed the immunity provision in earlier versions of the wiretapping bill, a rewrite of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. The presumptive Democratic presidential nominee said revisions had alleviated his concerns, but Sen. John McCain’s campaign—and many on the left—seized on the reversal as a flip-flop of the first order.

The ostensibly straightforward news piece points a condemnatory finger at Obama’s “flip-flop of the first order.” Sure, the piece attributes the F-F-bomb to others…but that doesn’t matter. Once “flip-flop” has been leaked into language, the whole mix is ruined. Obama, whatever else you may say about the context or the nuances of his policy shift, is a flip-flopper, “someone driven by an all-powerful instinct to look out only for himself.” And he’s been labeled as such by the press.

3. It suggests false equality between policy shifts

Obama’s shift in stance toward public funding for his campaign—a true reversal of a stated stance—and his announcement about position-refining in Iraq (based, it should be noted, on changes on the situation on the ground there) are clearly on entirely different places on the “flip-flop” scale. As Ruth Marcus wrote:

[T]he trouble with flip-flop frenzy is that it tends to treat every shift—every, pardon the term, nuance—as a one-size-fits-all transgression. We in the media risk becoming the enablers of inanity by acting as if all flip-flops are created equal, and equally bad.

Indeed, “flip-flopping” has a diffusive effect on the public perception of a candidate, glossing over details and context and creating the rhetorical equivalent of Lakoff’s cognitive metaphor. As The New Republic’s Jonathan Chait put it:

I think a “flip-flopper” image is extremely damaging no matter what the general circumstances. A politician’s perceived trustworthiness is the basic platform for his entire message. If the voters don’t trust him, then they tend to discount everything he says about any topic at all.

In other words, “flip-flop” endorses, on a broader scale, the very all-or-nothing, this-or-that approach to politics that it implies as a term. A candidate is either a flip-flopper or he is not. Either/or. Black or white, no gray. By using “flip-flop,” we in the media endorse such a polarized view of our politics, shunning the nuance that should be the meat of our political conversation. Let’s not let ourselves be, as Marcus had it, “enablers of inanity.”

4. It prioritizes consistency over sagacity in politicians

E.J. Dionne, in a Monday WaPo column, noted that independent voters “might vote for a hawk or a dove, but not a chameleon.”

Which begs the question: Why are we so obsessed with ensuring that politicians stick to their guns? We’ve seen the effects of a president’s adherence to a mostly black-and-white view of the world. It ain’t pretty. So why do we in the media still insist on trumpeting a politician’s stick-to-it-iveness?

We want to believe—and our political system is, in fact, built upon the notion—that our politicians are wiser than we are. And that desire often infiltrates our media coverage. Consistency when it comes to policy is, we assume, the mark of foresight. Except, of course, that assumption is wrong. But it’s one that “flip-flopping,” of course, endorses—not just tacitly, but brazenly.

It’s not just a matter of rhetoric, either; the flip-flop fallacy has the even more detrimental effect of discouraging politicians from expressing their ideas in full for fear of flip-flop retribution later on. As Robert Samuelson wrote in Wednesday’s Washington Post:

Our leading politicians engage in a consensual censorship to skip issues that involve distasteful choices or that require deferred gratification. They prefer to assign blame and promise benefits. So elections come and go, there are winners and losers—and our problems fester.

Samuelson wasn’t talking about “flip-flopping,” per se, but he might as well have been. The term has a deadening effect on our discourse—not just in the text of our news stories, but in their context: the political thinking that occurs before and after those stories are published. The meme, in this case, is miasmic: it diffuses not just into our discourse, but also into the actions of our politicians.

The problems to which Samuelson refers—the foundering economy, the wars we’re engaged in, the sorry state of our environment, the inefficiencies of our health care and education systems—will require frank discussion and creative solutions politicians who feel—indeed, who are—at liberty to carry on that discussion and parse through those solutions without bearing the leaden burden of the flip-flop.

There’s a line, after all, between accountability and gotcha-ism in reporting…just as there’s a line between clarity and simplicity in language. We have crossed both of them. And that, in part, can be attributed to the fact that “flip-flop,” as a term, has been our vehicle. Eliminating the term from our discourse won’t, on its own, get us back where we should be. But it’s a start.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.