The180·The 180

Why can't politicians change their minds?

With each election issue, journalists push politicians to make a statement and take a side and if any of those politicians have the nerve to switch positions, they're called flip-floppers. But UBC political scientist Barbara Arneil says we should encourage our leaders to consider and re-consider their beliefs.

From refugees to balanced budgets to the economy in recession, there are plenty of election issues to choose from -- and on all of those issues, journalists push politicians to make a statement and take a side. But if any of those politicians have the nerve to switch positions, they suffer a special kind of scorn: they're called flip-floppers.

UBC political scientist Barbara Arneil is tired of it. She says we should encourage our leaders to consider and re-consider their beliefs.

(The full interview is available in the audio player above. The following portions have been edited for clarity and length.)

Why do you think politicians get such a rough ride when they change their minds?

Well, I think there's a little bit of a media or opposition shorthand where immediately, when someone changes their mind on something, they're accused of 'flip-flopping'. And I think that term, 'flip-flop', which is almost everywhere now, prevents politicians from changing their opinion to something else at a later point.

We know how much politicians love to attack each other for the so-called flip-flop, but how much do you think the average voter cares?

You've hit the nail on the head... I think, by and large, the public are a lot more savvy on this than either politicians or the media give them credit for; that they would actually appreciate that someone might say, 'You know, I've actually changed my mind on that'. Say they were opposed to same-sex marriage, now they're in favour of it and they're thoughtful and reflective of why that is -- or in the case of where a context changes, especially around economics . How can we predict, a year from now, what the economics are going to look like? 

What's the value; what do we gain if we give our politicians the freedom to change their minds?

It gives them a little bit more freedom to make the right decision, as opposed to trying to stay to the script. I think even right now, you see Stephen Harper with this refugee crisis: people are upset about this and they're wanting him to change. I think he feels that, 'Nope, security is my issue and that's what I'm going to stick with'. And, in fact, I think if he were to say, 'You know, there is security but also we have a real humanitarian response to this and therefore I'm going to change and respond to that, both on behalf of the Canadian people but also as a government'. So that's an example where I think that he would actually benefit if he were able to respond to the context around him.

What needs to happen to overhaul this perception that politicians must be absolutely steadfast in their views?

I guess it comes back to that question, 'Are the people actually concerned about this?' and I don't think they are as much as it's framed by the media and politicians themselves, so they need to just back off of reaching for that broken promise or flip-flop label. And I think also that politicians -- and they're already doing this -- but they should really think about taking seriously the electorate and being able to explain, in a way the public could understand, why they changed their mind. And I think there is a lot more room for that than is currently believed.

Click the blue button above to listen to the full interview.


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