On Political “Evolution”

I’ve been conscious this week of an odd disconnect in my life:

As a scholar, I’m wary of pushing a “hermeneutic of suspicion” too far. (Or of talking too much about it — I’m no philosopher, as the following ham-handed analysis will amply demonstrate.) When using primary sources for research or teaching, I certainly understand the importance of context and audience, and have no doubt that there is subtext that might even stand in contradiction to the text. But I also tend to trust that when people communicate, they are actually revealing something about themselves that is to a significant extent truthful. When, for example, I read a speech or report by Carl Lundquist about his understanding of higher education and how Pietism might shape it, I have some faith that his words truly convey his beliefs and feelings. I do this in no small part because the alternative seems to guaranteed to tempt the scholar to substitute her own beliefs or feelings. (“Lundquist might be saying x, but what he really means is y — which not only contradicts x, but happens to be what I want him to have said.”)

But as an American citizen, I tend to regard political rhetoric with near-total suspicion. For reasons I’m not sure of, the hermeneutical charity that I extend to the dead I withhold from the living if they’re running for political office.

Barack Obama at the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast
Pres. Obama at the 2011 National Prayer Breakfast – Creative Commons (Charles McCain)

For example… Pres. Obama yesterday told ABC News’ Robin Roberts that his position on same-sex marriage had gone through an “evolution,” and that it had become “important to [him] to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married,” whereas during the 2008 campaign he had supported civil unions while expressing the personal conviction that “marriage is between a man and a woman.”

The New York Times report this morning might have called the president’s evolution a “wrenching personal transformation on the issue,” but in all honesty, my first reaction was that this was not much of an evolution, that this has probably long been the president’s personal opinion but was withheld from public view during his presidency, and perhaps during the 2008 campaign itself. That seems to be the conventional wisdom from most reporters and commentators as well. Michael Scherer, White House correspondent for Time, began his assessment of the political fall-out of Pres. Obama’s comments by observing that

Barack Obama never did much to hide the fact that he was wobbly on his opposition to gay marriage. As far back as 2006, he wrote in the book that would be a blueprint for his presidential campaign that “as a christian” he would have to “remain open to the possibility that my unwillingness to support gay marriage is misguided.” More recently he had settled on an odd construction for a politician: He said he was “evolving” on the issue, suggesting an inevitable change in the works that was inexplicably not arriving.

Fox NewsChris Stirewalt was even less sold on the “evolving” idea, alleging that yesterday’s comments were a “reversion” to a pre-2008 position that was only abandoned out of political expediency. And it’s not just conservatives: liberal advocates of marriage equality from Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post to Jon Stewart of The Daily Show had derided the notion of “evolution” and encouraged the president to “come out” and simply say what they had no doubt he already believed.

Let me be clear: I am not questioning the rightness of the president’s opinion, past or present. This isn’t meant to be a gay marriage post. (On that, I’ll just punt and link to Roger Olson, whose opinion mostly mirrors my own.)

I wonder similar things about those on the other side of the spectrum — e.g., when moderate Republicans suddenly abandon their support for abortion rights or immigration reform when they run for president and insist that they’ve gone through their own evolutions in thought.

Romney Rally in Arizona, 2011
Romney Rally in Arizona, 2011 – Creative Commons (Gage Skidmore)

Earlier this year I had a conversation with a liberal colleague who professed himself quite disappointed with Mitt Romney. While he said that at one point he could have lived with Massachusetts governor Romney as a moderate Republican or compassionate conservative, all that he’d read and heard from presidential candidate Romney convinced him that a hypothetical president Romney would govern as a stridently right-wing figure.

My response was that all mainstream candidates, Republican or Democrat, move to the extreme of their political position during primary season in order to appeal to the activists who dominate such elections, then tend to drift back to the center in general election season. Moreover, once they’re in office, their ability to make policy is constrained by the people with whom they’re forced to work: what sounds great as an applause line in a stump speech in Iowa or South Carolina rarely becomes the law of the land. For all these reasons, I didn’t put much credence in anything said by any candidate until after the nominations were settled — all else was posturing.

So… I wonder if I — a historian who is less suspicious than some about public statements when I encounter them in the form of historical evidence — am being too suspicious about such talk when it appears as part of day-to-day politicking. Should I be more inclined to take the president, or any other politician, at his word when he speaks of wrestling with an issue, rather than simply ascribing political motives to silence? On what basis do I trust that politicians are revealing their true selves?

(And saying “All politicians lie” seems like an intellectually lazy cop-out, a way to project false superiority — “unlike me, politicians have no integrity” — and avoid having to make discerning choices as a voter.)

Maybe I shouldn’t care. But as a voter, not only do I want to believe that I’m entrusting my governance to someone whose policies I can, to some extent, predict, but I can’t abandon the notion that leadership requires virtue: including both flexibility and openness to new ideas and forthrightness and resolution.

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