We are many selves. If you have the urge to fish around in the detritus of an individual’s rhetoric to catch them in ostensible inconsistencies, you are probably on a fool’s errand.
Comments about the questionable “authenticity” of the candidates are flying around the national press like Frisbees in a local park. Everyone from political junkies at Politico.com to the ubiquitous panels of experts cycled in and out of the cable news channels insist on judging the large flock of presidential aspirants by gauging the distance between their current positions and shakey media reconstructions of what they once believed. Somehow it gives us solace to find that a candidate has changed their tune. It reminds us that that they are political animals, supposedly a lesser form of the species.
In actual fact we would spend our time more productively critiquing their current positions. Changes in attitude, especially regarding public policy questions, are hardly surprising. It’s shortsighted to think an individual wouldn’t adapt to the norms of the community they want to influence. In addition, past votes or positions on legislation often include a range of complicating factors, as when a bad amendment is attached to a good bill.
Of course candidates lie and pander. But consistency is the most overworked trope of political analysis. The implication of intellectual dishonesty is overplayed, a surrogate for the more difficult but useful act of critiquing specific policy positions.
It’s also something of a folly to declare the actions of another “inauthentic,” for a whole host of reasons.
First, we are players of multiple roles, many of which cannot be known to those outside the politician’s close friends. Past statements on immigration policy from the Republican field follow them around like lost dogs. Most recapitulations of these statements miss reestablishing the settings in which the original statements were made, as well as the incremental alternatives that were politically viable at the time. For her part, candidate Hillary Clinton is frequently judged as not to be trusted because of prior statements that seem out of sync with the leftward shift of her views in the current campaign. Bernie Sanders is partly responsible for this change. But there have also been huge twists and turns of her career. Could it have been otherwise for a former Arkansas attorney, First Lady, Senator from the varied and vast state of New York, and former American Secretary of State? Opponents can feast on varied positions required by the many roles she has played and the constituents and stakeholders she has served.
The implication of intellectual dishonesty is overplayed, a surrogate for the more difficult but useful act of critiquing specific positions.
In addition to not acknowledging changing political views, a second problem is that we actually have very little understanding of even a well- known individual’s psychological biography. The forces that have shaped their judgments may be staked out in a dense landscape that biographers want to explore. But in searching for the first causes of specific beliefs and u-turns, we have launched ourselves into ambitious inference-making on a grand scale.
Stepping beyond the political for a moment, witness the early harsh judgments of mega-entertainer Bing Crosby after the publication of his estranged son’s book, Going My Own Way (1983). This was Bing as a cold and indifferent father. Years later these perceptions were partly undone by Gary Giddins’ well-researched celebration of Crosby’s solid talent and quiet generosity. (Bing Crosby: A Pocketful of Dreams, 2001). It lead to a full-blown renaissance of all things Bing and elevated him to the first tier of American jazz originals. The point is, the Bings of both books are still with us, and more or less valid within their distinctly different contexts.
We all acquire new facets of self that change what it means to be us. Broad features of character and personality tend to endure, but they are not static. Imagine the jerk who sat behind you in 7th grade homeroom. You can have some assurance that he has probably evolved and rejoined the human race.
Quick judgments of hypocrisy are mostly facile and dishonest in their misplaced certainty. By all means hold this current crop of presidential aspirants to their statements. But if you have the urge to fish around in the detritus of an individual’s rhetorical history to catch them in ostensible inconsistencies, you are probably on a fool’s errand.
Comments: woodward @tcnj.edu