Gapers Block has ceased publication.

Gapers Block published from April 22, 2003 to Jan. 1, 2016. The site will remain up in archive form. Please visit Third Coast Review, a new site by several GB alumni.
 Thank you for your readership and contributions. 


Wednesday, June 29

Gapers Block

Gapers Block on Facebook Gapers Block on Flickr Gapers Block on Twitter The Gapers Block Tumblr

The Mechanics
« Environmental Lawsuit Targets City Power Plants Dart's Probably Out But There's Still Alexi... »

IL-GOV Sat Sep 05 2009

The Worn-Out "Flip-Flop" Charge

In the 1972 election between Richard Nixon and George McGovern, the Committee to Re-Elect the President - or "CREEP" as some of us fondly remember it - ran an extremely effective attack ad against McGovern. The ad, internally titled "McGovern Turnaround," paraphrased McGovern's, stands on issues with his face facing one way, then would flip the visual around to show him facing the other way, while accusing him of taking a position more recently that seemingly stated the opposite. This was repeated for a number of issues.

At the time, "flip flop" was not in the political lexicon, but since then, variants on the "flip-flop" line of attack -- mostly inspired by that ad -- have become a political commonplace. John Kerry's "I was against the war before I was for it" confusion was used to devastating effect in the 2004 campaign. More recently, we've seen Obama attacked for seemingly shifting stances on health care. Meanwhile, here in Illinois, almost since his first day in office certain politicians and media have pilloried Gov. Quinn as "flip-flopping." Quinn in kind has leveled the same charge at his competitor for the governor's post this next primary, Dan Hynes.

For some reason these charges seem to be leveled more at Democrats.

Sometimes such attacks are simply misleading. To take someone's words out of context to give them a meaning opposite or very different than intended is just plain wrong.

But my objection is not so much to the abuse of the method as to its use at all. The reason being: who wants a politician who is never open to change?

The fact is, on many issues, especially those with complexities and nuances, the ultimate resolution can be the result of multiple inputs from multiple directions. Every week, nearly of us receive e-mails and phone calls and letters from organizations we belong to and politicians we already support, urging us to call or e-mail or write elected officials so that we can try to change their mind. The entire point of representative government is that officials, at least once in a while, respond to voter sentiment or to new information.

If a politician doesn't have their mind up, it's probably politically wiser to keep shut until ready to stake out a firm stance. At least that'll keep you out of the flipflop channel on YouTube. But, on the other hand, don't we want our representatives to be engaged, to be part of the conversation? And doesn't that mean responding to input, as well as test-driving ideas, floating concepts, "running it up the flagpole"?

There needs to be room -- especially in a world where more and more words are recorded -- for that testing, floating, for an understanding that give-and-take not only permits, but in reality demands some movement from a rigid initial approach to an issue.

There is a tension between our two desires: we want our representatives to be constant and consistent, yet we want them always to take the position we want. Similarly, we increasingly demand that our officials be engaged with us, especially online, yet we demand that they never say anything different than what they've said before. The only way that all those conflicting things can always happen is if our politicians have all the positions we want from the moment they're elected, on every issue. That ain't gonna happen.

We need to reinsert in the political conversation the idea that position change can be evolution, that thinking can be out loud. Automatically triggering the gotcha variant, the call of "flipflop!" is a dismissive way of clamping down a discussion without real thought. No one wants our leaders to be dishrags, but it's inevitable that politicians will change positions. And that's not always a bad thing. Sometimes it's exactly what we want.

GB store

WCWo / September 6, 2009 3:38 AM

I would like to agree, but in Quinn's case the flip-flops have produced horrible results, especially regarding the budget. he literally stood in a chamber of the GA and changed his mind several times over the course of what seemed like a few seconds. it was a horrifying display for someone of his rank. frankly he makes me nervous whenever the time comes for him to make a decision. i could understand him "changing" his mind over the course of time or even and after substantive debate, but that's not what has happened while he has been governor. he flips in a matter of seconds, seemingly after he has has conversations only with himself. illinois is in too much trouble for that type of chaotic and erratic behavior at the top. too much is at stake and the lives, and well-being, of 13 million illinoisans are on the line.

GB store


Parents Still Steaming, but About More Than Just Boilers

By Phil Huckelberry / 2 Comments

It's now been 11 days since the carbon monoxide leak which sent over 80 Prussing Elementary School students and staff to the hospital. While officials from Chicago Public Schools have partially answered some questions, and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool has informed that he will be visiting the school to field more questions on Nov. 16, many parents remain irate at the CPS response to date. More...


Substance, Not Style, the Source of Rahm's Woes

By Ramsin Canon / 2 Comments

It's not surprising that some of Mayor Emanuel's sympathizers and supporters are confusing people's substantive disputes with the mayor as the effect of poor marketing on his part. It's exactly this insular worldview that has gotten the mayor in hot... More...

Special Series

Classroom Mechanics Oral History Project
GB store

About Mechanics

Mechanics is the politics section of Gapers Block, reflecting the diversity of viewpoints and beliefs of Chicagoans and Illinoisans. More...
Please see our submission guidelines.

Editor: Mike Ewing,
Mechanics staff inbox:



 Subscribe in a reader.

GB store

GB Store

GB Buttons $1.50

GB T-Shirt $12

I ✶ Chi T-Shirts $15