If you’ve followed Republican primary politics the last few weeks, chances are you’ve heard the analogy between Mitt Romney’s political stances and an Etch-A-Sketch. In an interview, when asked if Romney was worried that his “severely conservative” political position would hurt him in the general election, Romney’s campaign staff said that the general election is a totally new game—the campaign can start over, just as you can start over your drawing in an Etch-A-Sketch. Romney’s competitors have criticized him for flip-flopping simply in order to win votes, and his campaign staffer’s comment made it even more official that the governor is a political opportunist. Although it is likely that Romney will win the Republican Party nomination, his Etch-A-Sketch stance has been widely criticized by both conservatives and liberals.
However, why do we dislike Romney’s Etch-a-Sketch politics? Yes, the critics have pointed out that Romney has lied about his political stances, and the deceptions of politicians should be criticized for obvious reasons; the political will of constituents cannot be translated into concrete results when they are represented by lying elected officials. However, how about flip-flopping on policy alone? As the governor of Massachusetts, Romney helped implement the state’s healthcare program, which very much resembles the President’s recently passed national program. Yet, Romney now criticizes “Obamacare.” His political position, in other words, has shifted from one that mandated healthcare coverage for all to one that prioritizes individual freedom. And this shift has to do with the conservative basis of the Republican Party. Romney needs to win the nomination from the Republican Party first in order to run in the general election, and, in order to do so, he needs to appeal to the conservative core of the Party’s support. Santorum and Gingrich—more conservative primary competitors—have pointed out this shift in Romney’s political stance as an example of his untrustworthiness. Romney, they say, would not protect conservative values under political pressure.
But do we want politicians who maintain their political stance dogmatically, regardless of constituents’ demands? We elect officials to their respective positions because we believe that they will best represent our demands via policy and politicking. We exercise our political will (dare I say, general will) via these elected officials, not because they are superior to us, but because they will best translate our abstract will into concrete result. Finally, we expect elected officials to change their political stance when we change our own political stance, depending on the social, economic, historical and other contexts. We do not expect elected officials to hold on to their views just for the sake of ideological purity; we want them to switch their stance when we deem it necessary. The democratic institution of election makes sure that officials either listen to their constituents or risk losing their jobs.
So, I would prefer an elected official to change his view when he is pressured from his constituents to do so, rather than hold onto one dogmatic view regardless of public opinion. After all, the effectiveness of politicians depends on their ability to translate their constituents’ political will into policy, not on their capacity to form their own political stances. If we elect officials based on the latter quality, then we are electing individuals who may have the same views as us in some cases, but who will not act in line with our demands.
This, of course, requires me to acknowledge that the political positions of elected officials that I once liked may evolve into political positions that I dislike. Politicians, after all, will listen to the “whim of the masses” or the “irrational mob,” rather than my “rational expectations.” In other words, I have to acknowledge that things won’t work the way I want. And I’m ok with that. As much as I would like to believe that I make rational decisions, I can really only vote based on my narrow interests and limited knowledge of policy content. As much as I believe in my moral integrity, I know that I am also exposed to political, social and economic interests that shape my voting behavior. And, no matter how much I think I know, I acknowledge that I may be wrong a lot of times, maybe more often than I am right.
So, I welcome you, Etch-A-Sketch Mitt Romney. I hope you flip-flop, not to lie about your past political records, but to factor constituents’ changing demands into your decision-making process. Then, we will be one step closer to having a democracy that works.
Minjae Kim is a fourth-year in the College majoring in political science.