An Anatomy of Flip-Flopping

With accusations of flip-flopping coming from all sides this summer, we should make sure that we are using the word correctly.

"Flip-flop" is usually just a politician's way of saying that an opponent has changed sides on an issue. But in fact, such a change can be good or bad. The primary index of infamy is not the degree or frequency of change but rather the motive for doing so. I therefore propose that we to define flip-flopping as "changing sides in a political issue for a dishonest or deceptive motive".

In order to have an objective basis for comparing Obama's and McCain's records on flip-flopping, I was forced to start by analyzing and organizing all of the different types of  motivation for side-changing in political issues. This "anatomy", which is summarized below, is arranged in approximate order of infamy.

To spare you the complexities of the anatomy, I have condensed it into five levels of increasing flip-flop dishonesty:

(1)  Honest change of opinion because of rethinking of issue (1.1.1), new data  (2.1.1), change of circumstances (2.1.2), new personal experience (2.2.1), or overcoming prior indoctrination (2.5 and 2.6). These are honest motives and should not be called flip-flopping.

(2)  Repudiation of previous opinions because an innately changeable nature (1.3.1) or the correction of prior gaffes (2.1.3). These are the petty crimes of flip-flopping, arising from mere ignorance or intellectual sloppiness, and, unless obviously mendacious, have little significance in assessing a candidate's honesty.

(3)   Legislative compromise on an issue for the sake of another more important or urgent issue (3.1) can be honorable, or at least legitimate, and is in fact one of the most common activities in Congress.  However, it easily leads to party conformity (3.2), which is a murky moral area of legitimate compromise, semi-legitimate adherence to a party's platform, and more dubious personal loyalties and ambitions.

Yielding to coercion (3.3) can range from a legitimate compliance with the consensus of ones constituency (3.3.1) through various degrees of yielding to the demands of pressure groups or the media (3.3.2) and on to submission to private blackmail (3.3.3), entailing a violation of public trust. The latter can involve sudden and unexpected flip-flopping  but is usually done privately and is hard to prove.

Bribery (3.4) usually takes the form of contributions to a candidate's campaign fund (or to his 527 satellites) and seldom involves flip-flopping, since a candidate, once bought, usually maintains a constant position. Moreover, it is difficult to distinguish between actual bribery (change of position because of the lure of contributions) and the legitimate acceptance of contributions arising from prior positions that were honestly arrived at.

In summary, Level 3 is the watershed of flip-flopping. It is a sloped and slippery region of moral ambiguity and mixed motives wherein it is easy for a candidate to deceive himself as well as others.

(4)  True flip-flopping is a change of ones stated position during political campaigning for the purpose of attracting voters who would shun you if they knew your true position. A classic example is the shift of presidential candidates from extremism to centrism after nomination ( From a moral viewpoint, this is simply lying to the voting public. But hardened politicians are accustomed to dismiss such lies as mere political tactics, in the manner of unfaithful husbands justifying their lies to their wives. As Mark Green wrote  in defense of Obama's flip-flopping, "Tactical realignment in the pursuit of electoral and policy alignment is no sin. Opportunity knocks." (I regard this quote as a beautiful specimen of both liberal cynicism and political circumlocution.) 

Level 4 flip-floppers fall into three categories of increasing infamy: those with an unfortunate past that they are trying to cover up (4.1), those with no agenda except getting elected (4.2), and those with a secret agenda that they plan to implement after they get elected (4.3). Distinguishing between these levels is difficult but critical, since the third category may verge on fraud or treason.   

(5)  The bottom level is attained when the flip-flopper not only deceives the public but also employs chicanery and lies to cover his deceit, thereby discarding all pretense of honesty. This is done, in increasing degrees of infamy, by double-talk and evasion (5.1), false claims of legitimate reasons for change (5.2), private denial of a public position (5.3), destroying evidence of a prior position (5.4.1), and/or creating a false record of an earlier position (5.4.2).

Getting away with circumlocution, doubletalk, false reasons, or private denial requires great verbal skill and superb audacity. The alternative Orwellian tactic of changing the past, by concealing real documents and events or creating false ones, is often assisted by the media, if they are biased in the flip-flopper's direction. The Internet has had a more complex effect but so far has been more useful for enabling such cover-ups than for exposing them.

This analysis of the different levels of flip-flopping can be used to compare the records of McCain and Obama. Hopefully, someone more knowledgeable than I will undertake this task in detail, so I'll merely note here a few obvious points:

  • Googling "McCain + flip-flop" and "Obama + flip-flop" yields about 2.7 million hits for each, indicating that this is a much-discussed topic and may be a significant factor in forming voters' decisions.
  • These searches disclosed numerous websites that claim to be compilations of the flip-flops committed by McCain (e.g. here, here, and here) and Obama (e.g. here, here, and here). The number of such websites, and the number of infractions cited in each, is so large that, even assuming only partial validity for these claims, we are forced to conclude that both candidates have at least seemed to commit their share of flip-flopping.
  • Despite many years in Congress, McCain's record reveals only a modest number of Level 3 changes of position. Obama's is somewhat worse, despite his relative inactivity in the Illinois legislature and the U.S. Senate.
  • With regard to Level 4, McCain's present campaign has involved rather modest flip-flopping, mostly in the line of firming up his position on issues such as abortion and immigration. In contrast, Obama started his campaign on an extremely leftist and anti-Iraq note, but having attained the nomination, has since shifted to a pro-Iraq center-right stance so drastically and blatantly different from his earlier positions that his left-wing base is alarmed and even the most cynical journalistic eyebrows have been raised in amazement.
  • McCain's Level 5 record is fairly clean-a few brusque denials of past changes. In cases such as immigration, he has frankly acknowledged his switch and admitted to yielding to popular demand. In contrast, Obama has shown both skill and versatility in his Level 5 deceits. His talent for obfuscating circumlocution rivals even Mark Green's. His setting up of a future change of his stand on Iraq, just before his trip there, is a marvel of arrogant evasion, as is his frequent trick of complaining about having been previously "misunderstood". He has wooed working class voters by publicly criticizing NAFTA and then privately assured Canadian officials that he didn't really mean it -- and then managed to get the article on that flip-flop removed from AP's archives. He has allowed viciously anti-Jewish articles on his website and then quietly removed then without explanation or apology. He has manufactured a "re-creation" of a speech supposedly given in 2002 and then used it in ads as "proof" of his earlier position. In short, Obama has tried virtually every known technique for concealing his flip flops.
A few months ago, I questioned whether Obama was a fool or a fraud. I think his Level 5 record gives us a definitive answer.



The following is a beta version of an anatomy of the various types of changes of opinion, both honest and dishonest, with emphasis on political examples. My aim was to be as objective and analytical as possible. I would be grateful for any recommendations for  changes in organization or addition of omitted factors.


            0.1. Internal, Personal

                        0.1.1. Rational; decided by logic

                        0.1.2. Experiential: decided by previous history of similar issues or sources

                        0.1.3. Intuitive: decided by gut feeling

                        0.1.4. Emotional: decided by sway of emotions

                        0.1.5. Social: decided by opinions of associates: "lemming effect"

                        0.1.6. Indoctrination (schools, media hype, etc.)

            0.2. External; same as Internal

                        0.2.1. to 0.2.6. Externalization of internal position

            0.3. External; different from Internal (including inhibition or repression)

                        0.3.1. Collaboration or compromise: based on prioritization

                        0.3.2. Conformity: fear of losing social or business amity

                        0.3.3. Coercion: arm twisting, blackmail, physical threat

                        0.3.4. Bribery: promise of money, prestige, or future support

                        0.3.5. Distraction, laziness, diffidence: inhibiting externalization


            1.1. Rational

                        1.1.1. Rethinking of issue

                        1.1.2. Change of internal values: e.g moral conversion

            1.2. Experiential

                        1.2.1. Change of criteria due to new experiences

            1.3. Intuitive

                        1.3.1. A naturally fickle or changeable nature

            1.4. Emotional

                        1.4.1. Fading of emotions: "morning after effect"

                        1.4.2. Deprioritization of emotions by rational analysis

                        1.4.3. New emotions or experiences conflicting with original ones

            1.5. Doublethink: "To know and not to know ..."


            2.1. Rational

                        2.1.1. New data about issue

                        2.1.2. Change of global circumstances, requiring reevaluation of issue

                        2.1.3. Overcoming prior ignorance

            2.2. Experiential

                        2.2.1. Change of viewpoint due to new personal experience (visiting war zone)

            2.3. Intuitive

                        2.3.1. Modification of intuition by contrary experience

            2.4 Emotional

                        2.4.1. New emotional experiences conflicting with original ones

            2.5 Social

                        2.5.1. Change of milieu: e.g. from college to workplace, or geographic move

                        2.5.2. Reaction to milieu; assertion of independence

            2.6 Indoctrination

                        2.6.1. Change of sources: new teachers or media exposure

                        2.6.2. Reaction to sources: assertion of independence


            3.1. Collaboration / compromise

                        3.1.1. Log rolling

            3.2. Conformity

                        3.2.1. Party loyalty

            3.3. Coercion:

                        3.3.1. Constituency

                        3.3.2. Media and pressure groups

                        3.3.3. Blackmail

            3.4. Bribery

                        3.4.1. Campaign contributions

                        3.4.2. Future favors

                        3.4.3. Overt bribes


            4.1. Defensive: protective camouflage

                        4.1.1. Social mixing

                        4.1.2. Avoidance of hostility

                        4.1.3. Political party conformity

            4.2. Opportunistic

                        4.2.1. Self-Aggrandizement

                        4.2.2. Salesmanship

                        4.2.3. Political campaigning

                           Wheeling and dealing

                           The regional shift: the "chameleon effect"

                           Post-nomination shift from edge to center

                           Response to changes in public opinion: the Arpege method

            4.3. Concealment (4.2.3 with a hidden agenda)


            5.1 Fogging and evasion

                        5.1.1. Confusion of mind

                        5.1.2. Doublethink [cf. (1.5)]

                        5.1.3. Hoodwinking and lying

            5.2 False claim of reason for change ("I did not then know...")

                        5.2.1. Retrospective

                        5.2.2. Prepared in advance

            5.3, Private denial of public position

            5.4. Orwell's "Mutability of the Past"

            5.4.1. "Memory hole": website erasures, media omissions, and re-Googling

                        5.4.2. Faked past events: Obama's anti-war speech