Flip-flopping

The reality is that the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially capt

No sooner than Hillary conceded to Obama then the US presidential campaign got underway in earnest and with it came the usual rampant speculation.

Who might get top jobs in the next administration, dark whispers alluding to salacious details in each candidate’s alleged past; and, most entertainingly of all, the art of calling the “flip flop” on your opponent.

The “flip flop” is what people in Britain might call a change of heart or U-turn on a previously held position. In the current race, this translates recently into Barack Obama’s decision to forgo public financing in his campaign (in recognition of the immense amount of money he has managed to raise from small individual donors), or John McCain’s turn-around from being a Senator vigorously against off-shore drilling and tax cuts – to deciding that both are in fact probably good solutions to current issues (conveniently both are issues that appeal to a Republican base that remains tepid towards him).

There have been even more egregious shifts from both campaigns as we have gone along: John McCain went from calling the Christian right “agents of intolerance” to recognising that if he wants to win, he is also going to have to bring this crucial conservative constituency on-side.

A problem when one considers that in January 2007, James Dobson, head of the Focus on the Family - a leading Christian group - stated that “I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances, I pray that we won't get stuck with him” (while he has since reached out to McCain, he has yet to give him the endorsement).

Barack Obama on the other hand was embarrassed when his heartfelt protectionist campaign rhetoric clashed with what his key economic adviser was running around telling concerned Canadians that “much of the rhetoric that may be perceived to be protectionist is more reflective of political manoeuvring than policy.”

Politics as normal one might cynically say. Well, yes, but last time the “flip flop” got thrown around properly in an American campaign was with John Kerry, when his “I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it” (referring to a vote to allow a supplemental bill to get funding for troops in the field in Iraq and Afghanistan), became the “gift that kept giving” as Karl Rove put it.

Endless pro-Bush ads played on constant repeat highlighting what by Kerry’s own admission was “one of those inarticulate moments,” and Republican rallies became slipper waving affairs with speakers leading the crowds in “flip flop” themed chants. And when people went to the polls, the charge stuck, with Kerry losing and polls showing that 65 per cent saw him as a “flip flopper,” while Bush led the faithful with merely 36 per cent doubting him.

This may not have been the only reason for John Kerry’s defeat, but it was one of the defining features of the campaign – and neither the Macattack nor Obaminator want to be tarred with this losing brush (though they are perfectly happy for surrogates to throw it around liberally against the other).

This concern may actually be misplaced, as it is not totally clear that the public either care or trust one more than the other. A recent CNN/Opinion Research Corp. poll reported that “61 per cent of voters polled said McCain has changed his mind for political reasons” and “59 per cent of those polled said Obama also shifts positions with the political winds”. The American public apparently holds both men with equal disdain when it comes to believing their promises.

The reality is that the fixation on the “flip flop” is really little more than a catchy phrase that essentially captures what politician’s have been doing for years. This is not to justify the sometimes openly mendacious things that they say, but merely another sort of reflection of the endless media coverage politicians are subjected to.

Any wavering away from message, contradiction with a previous statement, or an “inarticulate moment” will be likely captured on video, broadcast around the world, and over-analysed ad nauseam. This is true not only of “flip flops” but also open bigotry (witness Republican Senator George Allen’s “macaca” comment that managed to lose him one of the US’s most Republican states) and other errata (like former President Bill Clinton on the stump for his wife).

“Events, dear boy, events,” was how Harold Macmillan described things that steer governments off course – and this is equally applicable to any political campaign and any policy stand. Given we live in a world where time moves on, and things happen, why are we surprised when a politician’s stand might slightly alter or correct itself when some new information comes to light or something happens? On the basis of the weight given to the “flip flop” it would appear we need either politicians with an oracular degree of prescience – or we need ones who are so bull-headed that even in the face of overwhelming facts, they stick to their guns and let history be their judges.

That or we need to find a way of getting the world to stop turning until the election ride is over.

Getty
Show Hide image

The New Times: Brexit, globalisation, the crisis in Labour and the future of the left

With essays by David Miliband, Paul Mason, John Harris, Lisa Nandy, Vince Cable and more.

Once again the “new times” are associated with the ascendancy of the right. The financial crash of 2007-2008 – and the Great Recession and sovereign debt crises that were a consequence of it – were meant to have marked the end of an era of runaway “turbocapitalism”. It never came close to happening. The crash was a crisis of capitalism but not the crisis of capitalism. As Lenin observed, there is “no such thing as an absolutely hopeless situation” for capitalism, and so we discovered again. Instead, the greatest burden of the period of fiscal retrenchment that followed the crash was carried by the poorest in society, those most directly affected by austerity, and this in turn has contributed to a deepening distrust of elites and a wider crisis of governance.

Where are we now and in which direction are we heading?

Some of the contributors to this special issue believe that we have reached the end of the “neoliberal” era. I am more sceptical. In any event, the end of neoliberalism, however you define it, will not lead to a social-democratic revival: it looks as if, in many Western countries, we are entering an age in which centre-left parties cannot form ruling majorities, having leaked support to nationalists, populists and more radical alternatives.

Certainly the British Labour Party, riven by a war between its parliamentary representatives and much of its membership, is in a critical condition. At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership has inspired a remarkable re-engagement with left-wing politics, even as his party slumps in the polls. His own views may seem frozen in time, but hundreds of thousands of people, many of them young graduates, have responded to his anti-austerity rhetoric, his candour and his shambolic, unspun style.

The EU referendum, in which as much as one-third of Labour supporters voted for Brexit, exposed another chasm in Labour – this time between educated metropolitan liberals and the more socially conservative white working class on whose loyalty the party has long depended. This no longer looks like a viable election-winning coalition, especially after the collapse of Labour in Scotland and the concomitant rise of nationalism in England.

In Marxism Today’s “New Times” issue of October 1988, Stuart Hall wrote: “The left seems not just displaced by Thatcherism, but disabled, flattened, becalmed by the very prospect of change; afraid of rooting itself in ‘the new’ and unable to make the leap of imagination required to engage the future.” Something similar could be said of the left today as it confronts Brexit, the disunities within the United Kingdom, and, in Theresa May, a prime minister who has indicated that she might be prepared to break with the orthodoxies of the past three decades.

The Labour leadership contest between Corbyn and Owen Smith was largely an exercise in nostalgia, both candidates seeking to revive policies that defined an era of mass production and working-class solidarity when Labour was strong. On matters such as immigration, digital disruption, the new gig economy or the power of networks, they had little to say. They proposed a politics of opposition – against austerity, against grammar schools. But what were they for? Neither man seemed capable of embracing the “leading edge of change” or of making the imaginative leap necessary to engage the future.

So is there a politics of the left that will allow us to ride with the currents of these turbulent “new times” and thus shape rather than be flattened by them? Over the next 34 pages 18 writers, offering many perspectives, attempt to answer this and related questions as they analyse the forces shaping a world in which power is shifting to the East, wars rage unchecked in the Middle East, refugees drown en masse in the Mediterranean, technology is outstripping our capacity to understand it, and globalisation begins to fragment.

— Jason Cowley, Editor 

Tom Kibasi on what the left fails to see

Philip Collins on why it's time for Labour to end its crisis

John Harris on why Labour is losing its heartland

Lisa Nandy on how Labour has been halted and hollowed out

David Runciman on networks and the digital revolution

John Gray on why the right, not the left, has grasped the new times

Mariana Mazzucato on why it's time for progressives to rethink capitalism

Robert Ford on why the left must reckon with the anger of those left behind

Ros Wynne-Jones on the people who need a Labour government most

Gary Gerstle on Corbyn, Sanders and the populist surge

Nick Pearce on why the left is haunted by the ghosts of the 1930s

Paul Mason on why the left must be ready to cause a commotion

Neal Lawson on what the new, 21st-century left needs now

Charles Leadbeater explains why we are all existentialists now

John Bew mourns the lost left

Marc Stears on why democracy is a long, hard, slow business

Vince Cable on how a financial crisis empowered the right

David Miliband on why the left needs to move forward, not back

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times