"Evolving" is the New Flip-Flopping


Former Senator John Kerry's fateful pronouncement that he voted for supplemental funds for Iraq and Afghan military operations before he voted against them gave him the damming and unshakeable label of flip-flopper. To frame him that way against President Bush, a candidate who openly called himself the Decider, proved to dim Mr. Kerry's chances for victory. Despite the effectiveness of that attack, it appears less fashionable to call a politician a flip-flopper today.

This is not to say we lack deserving persons. While Governor Mitt Romney proved himself to be worthy of Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle of Politicians (you cannot determine both his position and his direction at a given moment), the monicker of flip-flopper didn't stick as a salient attack against his candidacy. So too is it the case that former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich changed a number of his views, going so far as to make a website during campaign season to justify each shift.

Until recently, you might have said that a number of high-profile politicians have flip-flopped on the issue of gay marriage. The most famous of this group, of course, is President Obama. Well ahead of the election and more recent Supreme Court challenge, the President appealed in metaphor to interactions with his daughter to detail how his views "evolved" on gay marriage. After the GOP took a battering in November, some Republicans have followed suit. Senators Mark Kirk and Rob Portman both found their positions on gay marriage to evolve. Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski is now describing her own views on the topic as "evolving."

If we can take evolving views at face value as a mechanism to change one's position, it seems evolving is the new flip-flopping. Whether or not that's a regrettable turn is less important than the meaning of this shift in language. Why is it the case that it's easier to accept a politician whose views are "evolving" than a politician who flip-flops?

To understand this, it is perhaps best to start with why flip-flopping elicits the tarring and feathering that it does. The criticism piled on flip-floppers speaks to the very public loss of an ethereal, but sought-after quality in elected officials — authenticity. In other words, it is difficult to be sure that a politician is ever actually authentic (whatever this means). But through missteps like flip-flopping, it can be readily determined that a politician is not authentic. This reflected our expectation that a public servant ought hold some consistency in her views. The switch to our preference for evolving positions may reflect a shift in our expectation of authenticity (whatever this means) itself. As the public view on gay marriage is evolving, so too do we decide it is appropriate to afford our elected officials the ability to evolve their views.

But that doesn't explain the drive behind the word-choice of evolving. After all, the above reasoning could be tailored to fit changing views or shifting views or reconsidering views or what have you. It is significant that both we and politicians employ evolution.

To say a politician has flip-flopped ties the politician to his changing position. Flip-flopping is an intentional action, an opportunistic one. Evolving evokes a metaphor external to the agency of a politician. When your views are evolving, you are not evolving them — that would be silly. We don't evolve things, things evolve. Under the frame of evolving views, our imagination wanders to a space where many ideas are vying for survival in the natural selection of paradigms. Whichever position is ultimately taken has survived as the fittest. The evolved view is not chosen, but adapted to as a matter of what is best.

Watch for the growing use of evolving views — its popularity reflects an intentional and strategic method of tapping into a deeply understood metaphor for change. Whether the place of "evolving views" in our political discourse is here to stay is yet undetermined. You could say it's a matter of natural selection.