September 5, 2011

A Commitment to Political Flexibility

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We hate flip-flopping. It’s un-American, against our country’s ethos. And flip-floppers, of course, are weak and without principles.

So naturally, America’s leaders must steadfastly march down whatever path they have chosen — regardless of whether it’s right or wrong, as if there were some unwritten law prohibiting them from going back. After all, backtracking on decisions would imply a mistake has been made. And politicians, above all else, don’t make mistakes — right?

This philosophy of commitment was written into our early history when the bold and sweeping solutions that fixed our country’s problems were fit for the time. When we decided to sever ties with Great Britain to escape colonialism, the Founding Fathers wrote the Declaration of Independence in strong and unambiguous words and unanimously signed it with lofty signatures.

And when our early settlers needed access to ports for shipping and trade, we audaciously decided to expand our country’s territory by negotiating the Louisiana Purchase. And in its aftermath, Thomas Jefferson felt no buyer’s remorse.

The all-or-nothing strategy worked splendidly. Back then, our young nation was largely homogenous and its problems were simple and isolated. Because the American demographic was largely European and still shared common values, any disagreements could be quickly settled and compromise was easily achieved. And if any major banks were to fail back then, they wouldn’t bring down the entire economy and the financial sinkhole would not spillover to other continents.

But then the twentieth century arrived, carrying along with it immigrants and a more complex and interdependent world. And since then, it has only gotten more complicated. Now, we have esoteric financial derivatives created by banks intricately entangled in a financial web. We have American multinational corporations employing Chinese workers producing products sold in Europe. Our enemies are no longer neatly defined by political borders, but have transformed into nebulous extremist groups that cross national and cultural boundaries. And our domestic population is as diverse as ever — more than half of our children under the age of two are minorities — and thus, so are its viewpoints.

Consequently, whether we like it or not, solutions to our nation’s problems are harder to come by, mistakes in policy creation are commonplace and consensus may have become a relic of the past. The dynamics of our country’s problems have long outgrown our sweeping and broad approach to finding answers.

Alas, plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

Our country’s politicians still attempt to solve our nation’s woes with the same certitude as they would have a century ago, believing they not only have the correct answer but the only one possible.

In 2008, President Obama, idealistic and largely insulated from the political warfare on Capitol Hill, naively promised to unite both sides of the aisle. For him, political compromise would be our panacea. And now in the early 2011 political campaign season, the Republicans primary candidates have all made promises to bring our country back to its former glory by offering silver bullets of tax reduction and decreased government interference.

And voters goad them on. We are delighted when our politicians portray themselves as our nation’s knights in shining armor, spoon-feeding us what we want to hear.

Because if they don’t, we punish them. John Kerry was labeled as a flip-flopper, which may have cost him the presidency in 2004. Hillary Clinton was scolded on her changing views on the Iraq War in 2008. And current Republican nominee Mitt Romney is accused of being disingenuous because of his liberal policies as governor of Massachusetts.

But our most lauded leaders in the modern era are indeed those who flip-flop. After all, wasn’t the great conservative Ronald Reagan, who was known for busting unions, also once the president of the Screen Actors Guild labor union? And hasn’t President Obama, who was supposedly against same-sex marriage in 2008, “evolved” to now openly support it? Because, in this globalized era, flip-flopping is no longer synonymous with weakness or indecisiveness. It’s a rare trait signaling adaptability, a humble recognition of our underdog status against awesome political and economic forces.

This inability, or unwillingness, for voters to recognize the necessity of flip-flopping in this political climate, and politicians’ own blindness to it, has led to a government that possesses the capabilities of solving our current economic woes but not the political will to do so, even on an issue as simple as the debt ceiling. And voters have done nothing to change it.

There was once a time when we could solve our problems by placing faith in key Republicans and Democrats while they tackled our problems using a sledgehammer. But those days are long gone. Now, our problems need multiple hands across the political spectrum, each one delicately wielding a surgical scalpel.

Our country’s problems won’t be solved by a riveting speech or religious zeal or an elusive grand bargain carved along party lines. They’ll be solved after politicians make a string of wrong decisions and voters realize these mistakes are inevitable in an ever-complex 21st century. And then it will be up to all of us, voters and politicians alike, to painfully learn from our mistakes.

Steven Zhang is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang2@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang