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Consistency is overhyped

By William Hill - posted Monday, 18 April 2016

Lately and unendingly we hear politicians being praised for their lifetime of consistency in politics, the idea being that consistency is the chief virtue for those in political public life. When ‘impartial’ commentators overemphasize this virtue on their subjects it is tedious enough but some politicians, forgetting the more important virtue of humility, start praising themselves for being steadfast in their opinions.

Consistency is almost always couched in positive terms whereas someone who has changed their position over the course of their life is often relegated to the category of the ‘flip flopper’. But what is so intrinsically good about always being of the same mind? Consistency is not always a sign of something positive. People after all can be consistently awful, consistently wrong, consistently doctrinaire, consistently misinformed, consistently unelectable, consistently deceptive.

Figures on the political fringe find it easy to praise themselves for not having changed their minds in order to please the crowd like the regular scallywags come election time. Well they may be right but by being on the fringe no one bothered to check whether their beliefs where unhinged let alone worthwhile. Consistency of awfulness is more important than an awful lot of consistency.


Jeremy Corbyn, the recently elected leader of the Labour Party in the UK is a perfect example of this phenomena. Corbyn is praised as a consistent politician and almost every news story about him, as a rule, begins with a line extolling his lifelong upholding of his political beliefs. However that seems to be the least important thing about the man who leads the second biggest party in Britain. Attention should go to his unreconstructed socialist stance, his associations with anti-Semitic groups in the Middle East and his endeavour to wind back much of the economic policy of the past 40 years.

Corbyn has said he wants to return the Falklands, in some form, to Argentina, abolish Britain’s nuclear arsenal and renationalise public utilities. He has consistently (that word again) held those views throughout his public life but that says nothing about the veracity of those policies or their likelihood of ever being implemented.    

On the right, the libertarian and former Congressman Ron Paul has been similarly been exalted as the model of a politician who stands his ground no matter what. In fact during a debate for the Republican nomination in 2012 Ron Paul choose ‘consistent’ as the one word that best describes himself. He has also consistently held a titanic load of bizarre positions such as a return to the gold standard, the correctness of Southern secession and the terrible consequences of the Civil Rights Act.

Of course none of these positions stop a great deal of young liberals from carrying out a cross country hike across the political spectrum in order to support Ron Paul. No doubt they are enamoured by his criticism of foreign intervention and support for drug legalisation rather than his racial or historical positions. Ron Paul’s consistency must have skipped a beat when he declared that Martin Luther King Jr. was one of his heroes and claimed MLK as a non-violent libertarian. A publication in his name declared the establishment of Martin Luther King Day as a national holiday was an outrage and tantamount to an ‘annual hate whitey day’. He also condemned MLK as a ‘Marxist’ and a ‘lying socialist satyr’. Clearly MLK’s libertarianism was about as consistent as Ron Paul’s respect for said Marxist.   

Abraham Lincoln had always expressed a fairly strong personal and moral disapproval of slavery. However his public positions on the issue were anything but consistent owing to the political circumstances within which he had to operate. When the Republican Party nominated him as their presidential candidate in 1860 he was the most conservative of the candidates vying for the nomination when it came to the question of slavery. That is after all why Lincoln chose Hannibal Hamlin as his vice-presidential running mate because he was more of an abolitionist in his rhetoric. And as Lincoln steadily moved towards abolishing slavery completely during the Civil War he dropped Hamlin and chose the conservative Southern Democrat Andrew Johnson in order to placate the opponents of the 13th Amendment.

Freddy Gray of The Spectator began his piece titled ‘In defence of Jeremy Corbyn’ with the line ‘Naïve he may be, but he’s consistent – and at least he’s thinking about the future’. As a thought experiment wouldn’t it be better, say, to have political leaders who weren’t naïve, didn’t hold the same beliefs in spite of reality and were sufficiently dislikeable that one was not so easily deceived by them?


Just a thought.

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About the Author

William Hill is a graduate from the Australian National University with a Bachelor of International Security Studies. He has a strong interest in political science and issues of foriegn policy.

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