One of Marketplace’s political pundits recently attacked Donald Trump for being a phony. His proof? Some of Trump’s views today aren’t what he espoused fifteen, twenty years ago. On another front I see people taking positions on issues based on who is in favor (or opposed). Both approaches are easy to fall into, but both ultimately are dangerous because in a democracy it is important that people form and defend views shaped by careful consideration rather than toeing a party line or basing their views on someone else’s.
Let’s examine the notion that a candidate is not being honest if he has changed his views on a topic such as abortion or immigration. Why do we assume that he changed his view for an illegitimate reason? This criticism suggests people who change their views are not to be trusted, when in fact the opposite should be true––to wit, anyone whose views have not changed based on experience and/or changes in external conditions is likely out of touch with reality.
Consider population control––today a not-very-controversial issue, but in 1968, many readers of Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb were won over to the notion that governments needed to impose stringent measures immediately to curtail a population growth rate that would doom the planet. It became clear fairly soon that Ehrlich was wrong, but his predictions inflicted damage, convincing many people not to have children or to limit family size. Would someone who was once convinced by Ehrlich but later recognized his predictions were wrong be unworthy of trust? Of course not.
What about a candidate’s changing his view on a topic because poll numbers show the public is against him? In some cases, it works out to express to deeply held positions despite public opposition. When Mario Cuomo ran for governor of New York State, he refused to support the death penalty even though the public was in favor by a large margin. The public respected his position and very few voted against him for that reason. What about someone who supported Bush’s invasion of Iraq, but later became a critic? Who can quarrel with that person if the reason for the change was that he obtained information he didn’t have before?
That Donald Trump’s views may have changed should not by itself be an indication of his worthiness for voter support. It should depend on what his views are today and why he changed positions, if in fact he did.
A more difficult problem people have to deal with is considering issues apart from who supports or opposes them. If Rush Limbaugh or Barack Obama are for something, some people are automatically against. Doesn’t that kind of thinking tell the world, “Please don’t let anything get in the way of my biases?”
It’s not easy to come to positions apart from those of people you hate or admire. It can result in others questioning your sanity, but a true democracy requires citizens who are willing to consider and debate issues based on their own reading of the facts, not how other people think.
Some people don’t think they have time to study the issues and therefore have to go along with someone else’s opinion. True, it can be difficult to study an issue such as the Iran deal given the daily barrage from experts in the media, and one can’t assume news outlets are unbiased. Yet there is no lack of information on the major issues of the day if you are willing to search on a topic and read news stories and opinion pieces that reflect opposing sides.
Politically illiteracy jeopardizes our democracy. Too many people’s views are based on choices made at an early age––choices they never subject to serious questioning from one election cycle to another. As Christopher Lasch wrote in his insightful The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1994), “In the absence of democratic exchange, most people have no incentive to master the knowledge that would make the capable citizens.” (P. 12) Democracy is dependent Lasch states on “a vigorous exchange of ideas and opinions.” Holding regular elections is not enough.
Each citizen should feel capable of finding sufficient information on any issue he cares about in order to form his own position; each citizen should feel a duty to express his opinion in a respectful manner, listening to the other side and challenging his opponents with facts, not name-calling. Each citizen should be inclined to want to vote in elections because the alternative is allowing someone else to make the choice for you.
It’s okay to change one’s views; it’s okay to disagree with someone whom you are inclined to support most of the time; and it’s not just okay, but is a positive social good to challenge other people’s views as long as you can marshal facts and arguments to support your own.
Final thought: When Barack Obama disparages his opponents on the Iran issue, he is undermining a core principle of our democracy. He wants us to support the deal because he tells us to, but that’s wrong. We are not only entitled to form our own views, but the future of our society demands that we do so.