I have never found a magic way to know when a changed position shows growth or when it merely reveals hypocrisy. I begin, however, by looking at the totality of the statements and their arc. Let’s assume that earlier in a career the person made apparently racist statements. If similar statements continued to appear up until the person sought a public office and the earlier statements now seem disqualifying for the desired position, I would doubt that any revised statement is sincere. Even if there were no intervening pronouncements between the earlier problematic one and today’s position, I would be dubious of the present statement. If I had realized I had been wrong on an important topic, I would have tried to correct or disown it at some point before I had to confront it when seeking office. If a view has truly evolved, we should expect statements along the way that move away from the original position and move towards today’s position. That was true for Lincoln and slavery. We can track his evolving thoughts. His final pronouncements were not a break from the past but a continuation of the arc of his thinking.
In judging whether the present position is sincere, the old bromide carries weight: actions speak louder than words. What, besides uttering some words, has the office seeker done that indicates a changed position? Lincoln again is instructive. The Emancipation Proclamation and the enrollment of black soldiers in the Union army can be seen as politically or militarily expedient, but they were actions taken in the face of strident opposition. More than expediency seemed to be motivating Lincoln. Hypocrisy is even harder to see in Lincoln’s action of making the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment a legislative priority. There was little to nothing to be gained politically or militarily from this action. And it becomes even harder to see expediency in his statements, shortly before his death, supporting some black suffrage. If we look at all the actions, we see an evolution away from Lincoln’s early-in-life stances on slavery and race.
However, in determining whether views have truly evolved, we can’t expect that our politicians will operate outside the bounds of public opinion. If we can plot society’s views on an issue with a bell curve resulting, the leader’s views will almost always be within a standard deviation of society’s median. A person is unlikely to lead or get the opportunity to lead if his opinions veer wildly from public opinion. He can only be slightly out in front or slightly behind the general populace. Just as an individual’s views can and should change, society’s views are not irrevocably fixed as individuals and society accumulate new knowledge. Foner writes, “Public opinion, however, is never static: the interactions of enlightened political leaders, engaged social movements, and day-to-day experiences (such as the flight of slaves to Union lines or the encounters Union soldiers had with slaves) can change the nature of public debate and, in so doing, the boundaries of what it is.” Society changes, and so, too should society’s leaders.
In our lifetime, we have seen a major shift of opinion in at least one area–LGBTQI matters. The acceptance of gays, lesbians, transgender people, and others who are not “straight” has changed dramatically in the last thirty or forty years. We could probably dredge up some statements, say, about gay marriage made in 1980 from a present officeholder. I would not expect those remarks to have supported those unions. Only a small fraction of the country did back then. But I do want that person to have different views now. In the last forty years, that person should have had a multitude of experiences, firsthand and from the media, friends, and family, of members of the LGBTQI community that affected that person’s views. I want a present office-seeker’s thinking to have evolved on this issue, as I confess mine has. Surely during that time, society’s views about LBGTQI issues have evolved. I would not want my leaders to cling to what are now seen as bigoted LBGTQI views simply because leaders are expected to hold on to their beliefs in spite of time and experience.
Barack Obama provides an example. Before becoming President, he made conflicting statements about gay marriage. In the 1990s he seemed to support gay marriage, and then, while supporting civil unions and civil rights for gays, he opposed gay marriage. Eventually, as President he supported gay marriage, and this was still when many in society vociferously opposed it. Many of us have twisted along a similar path, but the lack of a straight line should only be expected when a person, or society in general, grapples with change about important issues.
A politician, an office seeker, with a changed view can be a good thing. But it must be sincere and not merely expedient.