We tend to assume that every time a public official changes his mind, it’s because he never really believed his original talking points. Either that or his earlier views hold firm, but he has opted to play-act for political advantage. (Romney has criticized Roberts’ decision. One would think that, if anyone had sympathy for a public official who changed his mind, it would be the erstwhile architect of Massachusetts’ health care mandate.) Take the reaction to President Obama’s endorsement of gay marriage. Many pundits found it almost impossible to imagine that POTUS’ stance had truly, organically evolved over the years—even if those years were notable for bringing homosexuality more into the mainstream.
This distrust of ideological adaptiveness wasn’t always the norm. In fact, a healthy appreciation for mental flexibility dates back to the fifth century B.C., when the historian Thucydides, setting down a funeral oration by Athenian statesman Pericles, wrote that the city-state profited from its citizens’ ability to adjust their ideas to the times. “I say that Athens is the school of Hellas, and that the individual Athenian in his own person seems to have the power of adapting himself to the most varied forms of action with the utmost versatility and grace,” Thucydides reports that Pericles claimed. Rather than iron-clad convictions, Athenians cultivated open minds.
And successful politicians have often switched paths mid-career. The young Ronald Reagan identified as a liberal Democrat, not to mention a Hollywood heartthrob. Tony Blair went through a Tory phase before landing solidly in the Labour camp. Sens. Arlen Specter and Joe Lieberman strayed from the Republican and Democratic parties, respectively, to pursue more individualized platforms.
Meanwhile, in 2012, “wobbly” is the new meme that’s emerged to indict Roberts for thinking one thing and then, a little later and upon more reflection, thinking another. The chief justice has wandered into the territory of the American political bogeyman—that spineless (often effete or out-of-touch) flibbertigibbet who doesn’t stand for anything. (It’s no coincidence that, faced with the prospect of flip-flopper Kerry in 2004, the country re-elected a man known for “staying the course.”)
One problem is that wobbly, which suggests “small uncontrollable bodily movements,” banishes the possibility that changing one’s mind can be moral, tactical—even noble. It implies some sort of built-in deficiency that prevents one from standing up straight. But I prefer to think of the wobbling of a compass needle just before it locks into the right position. It would be a shame if the flip-flopping bugbear loomed so large over American politics that our public officials didn’t feel safe revising their old opinions into even better ones.
Because, if Roberts did change his mind, so what? Why shouldn’t he be open to persuasion? Why shouldn’t a Supreme Court justice consider an issue from all 360 degrees, confident in his life tenure and his unaccountability to the world outside the courtroom? As foolish as it is to encourage judges to hide from potentially convincing arguments in the papers, on the news, in the mouths of friends or foes, it’s even more insulting to imply that they can’t withstand the gales of public opinion. “Give [Roberts] some credit for knowing his own mind,” chided McGough in May. And, as may be the case, for changing it.