Why There Is Nothing Wrong With Going “Wobbly.”

Who's winning, who's losing, and why.
July 6 2012 3:20 PM

In Defense of “Wobbly”

John Roberts’ critics say he went “wobbly” on health care. Good for him.

(Continued from Page 1)

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.

Advertisement

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.

TODAY IN SLATE

Technocracy

Forget Oculus Rift

This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.

The Congressional Republican Digging Through Scientists’ Grant Proposals

Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real

Sleater-Kinney Was Once America’s Best Rock Band

Can it be again?

Whole Foods Is Desperate for Customers to Feel Warm and Fuzzy Again

The XX Factor

I’m 25. I Have $250.03.

My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.

The XX Factor
Oct. 20 2014 6:17 PM I’m 25. I Have $250.03. My doctors want me to freeze my eggs.
Politics

Smash and Grab

Will competitive Senate contests in Kansas and South Dakota lead to more late-breaking races in future elections?

George Tiller’s Murderer Threatens Another Abortion Provider, Claims Free Speech

These Companies in Japan Are More Than 1,000 Years Old

  News & Politics
The World
Oct. 21 2014 3:13 PM Why Countries Make Human Rights Pledges They Have No Intention of Honoring
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 21 2014 4:33 PM Walmart Is Killing the Rest of Corporate America in Solar Power Adoption
  Life
The Vault
Oct. 21 2014 2:23 PM A Data-Packed Map of American Immigration in 1903
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 21 2014 3:03 PM Renée Zellweger’s New Face Is Too Real
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 21 2014 1:02 PM Where Are Slate Plus Members From? This Weird Cartogram Explains. A weird-looking cartogram of Slate Plus memberships by state.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 21 2014 1:47 PM The Best Way to Fry an Egg
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 21 2014 4:14 PM Planet Money Uncovers One Surprising Reason the Internet Is Sexist
  Health & Science
Climate Desk
Oct. 21 2014 11:53 AM Taking Research for Granted Texas Republican Lamar Smith continues his crusade against independence in science.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.