Saturday, September 08, 2007

Skepticism, not Cynicism

While acknowledging that there is valid reason for skepticism toward politicians who suddenly have a change of heart on an important issue while running for office, William F. Buckley, Jr. also argues the incorrectness of automatically dismissing candidates who do so as being guilty of pandering:

This is the season in which, quite obviously, lascivious ears tune up for hypocrisy on the part of politicians. More often than not the scorn is justified. It can’t be a surprise that politicians seeking public office will adopt positions that, they calculate, will most appeal to the voters. And it is to be expected that, if a politician changes his stance on an issue, critics will judge the changed position as being opportunistic and insincere....

Isn’t it an obligation of some kind, in a society that yields to public discourse for judgments on the law, to permit a contender for high office to change his mind on basic issues without incurring the charge of hypocrite or opportunist?

Indeed, it can and does happen. I am currently reading Jeffrey Rosen's The Supreme Court, in which two remarkable examples of this (though by judges, not elected officials) are discussed. John Marshall Harlan, a former slave owner from Kentucky, was the sole dissenter in the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case that was later unanimously overturned by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas. One of the justices in that latter case was Hugo Black, a former KKK member from Alabama who consistently opposed segregation while on the bench.

Those pursuing elective office should not be automatically dismissed as being insincere when changing sides. However, they should be challenged to explain their thought process that resulted in their change of mind.


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