A consistent adherence to one’s values–a demonstrated pattern of acting in accordance with core beliefs–is a highly regarded indicator of character, as it should be. But what does genuine consistency look like? If Emerson was right, and "foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds," how do we tell the difference between someone who has no strong beliefs and someone who is "foolishly consistent?"someone who doesn’t understand why principles may apply differently under different sets of facts?
One sure way to lose an election is to get yourself labeled a “flip-flopper.” A local campaign several years ago used a very effective spot—an actor playing the opposing candidate jumped back and forth over a white picket fence while a voice-over suggested he had taken every side of every issue. I think I lost my own 1980 Congressional bid when I began the answer to a question with “That depends.”
Currently, the Bush Administration is examining every vote John Kerry ever cast, to find inconsistencies that will support their charge that Kerry doesn’t “stay the course.”
A consistent adherence to one’s values—a demonstrated pattern of acting in accordance with core beliefs—is a highly regarded indicator of character, as it should be. But what does genuine consistency look like? If Emerson was right, and “foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds,” how do we tell the difference between someone who has no strong beliefs and someone who is “foolishly consistent”—someone who doesn’t understand why principles may apply differently under different sets of facts?
This isn’t just an issue in political campaigns. Congress and the courts have struggled with just this conflict in the debate over sentencing guidelines. The rule of law demands consistency—it is manifestly unfair to impose different sentences for the same crime. If drug possession carries a ten-year sentence in Indiana, it ought to carry ten years in Iowa. The guidelines were intended to minimize unfairness that occurs when a “soft” judge gives two years for a crime and a “tough” one gives eight.
The problem arises because a case can be very different even when the crime is the same. Imagine you are the judge hearing two “trafficking” cases. In one, the defendant has a lengthy rap sheet and a bad attitude; in the other, a struggling single mom with no prior record delivered a package for a co-worker who promised to pay her several hundred dollars. She claims she didn’t know its contents, although the payment amount had raised her suspicions. Our principles demand equal treatment, but what does equality look like here?
Or imagine that you are a legislator. You have been a faithful supporter of programs to help the poor. You must vote on a bill authorizing substantial sums for anti-poverty programs, which it funds by imposing a tax that is likely to destroy thousands of low-income jobs. Which vote—yes or no—is consistent with your concern for the poor? What about the bill you supported earlier in the session that has since been crammed full of unrelated pork you oppose? Do you hold your nose and vote for it anyway, or do the negatives now outweigh the positives?
A real “flip-flopper” doesn’t deserve our votes, but a stubborn refusal to adapt to new facts is evidence of pride or stupidity or both, not principle. I want to elect someone who can tell the difference between “foolish consistency” and principle—and a 30-second negative ad won’t tell me that.