The Danger of Inflexibility in a Flexible World

10/07/2011 05:18 pm ET | Updated Dec 07, 2011
  • Terry Newell Founder, Leadership for a Responsible Society

Americans are getting hardening of the political arteries. Whether on the left or the right of the political spectrum, they are increasingly setting litmus tests for candidates that do neither the candidates nor the nation much good. Members of Congress, Senators, and Presidents now come into office with a very narrow window for action, too easily running afoul of charges that they broke their promise if they adopt policies that betray partisan ideologies.

Imagine if Abraham Lincoln in 1860 had been forced to campaign on the promise that, under no circumstances would he ever emancipate enslaved African Americans. He could never have recruited freed blacks into the Union army, swelling its ranks by 200,000 men, a crucial difference in the war of attrition against the South. Or imagine if, in 1864, he had to promise that he would never offer "charity for all" to the South at the end of the war. Lincoln's flexibility, in service to the over-arching goal of union, was central to his success and to saving the republican experiment that is the United States.

More recently, imagine if Ronald Reagan had to promise that he would never raise taxes or if Bill Clinton had to promise he would never touch welfare. Social Security might now be in more trouble and states might well have a greater welfare burden. What Lincoln, Reagan and Clinton knew, and what we choose these days to ignore, is that the world is terribly complex, that the best of plans are hopes not certainties, and that the only way to reach a goal is to have the flexibility to shift course as you head towards it. The path from promise to achievement is never straight, and if we insist our politicians never waver then we are putting them on a winding road and asking them to keep their hands off the steering wheel.

The result of inflexibility in a world that demands the opposite should be -- and has been -- failure. Political orthodoxy removes from elected officials' hands the valuable tools of logic, common sense, compromise, and creativity. When you have signed the Taxpayer Protection Pledge that you will never raise taxes, how do you solve the nation's financial problems? When you take Social Security or Medicare off the negotiating table, how do you cut the long-term deficit?

The judicial branch is in danger of becoming equally constrained by political orthodoxy. We no longer seem willing to confirm people of sound intelligence, practical wisdom, and high moral character for the bench until we think we have figured out exactly what position they will take on the issues that will come before them. We thus try to prevent the application of judgment to situations that demand it. When we can reliably predict before oral arguments how the justices of the Supreme Court will decide a case, we considerably diminish the value of one third of the federal government. Something about that is terribly wrong.

To be sure, Americans have lost a lot of faith in their politicians. When that happens, the natural inclination is to seek to rein them in with ironclad promises. But encasing political leaders in iron straightjackets just ensures that we face the future with the same lack of imagination we have faced the past. It may be counter-intuitive to elect people without asking them to pledge fidelity to a wide range of policy positions, but counter-intuitive thinking and acting may be just what we need.