Sunstein: U.S. needs more turncoats

President Bill Clinton prepares to sign legislation in

President Bill Clinton prepares to sign legislation in the Rose Garden of the White House, which radically changed America's welfare system. Cass R. Sunstein writes that society needs more people willing to step up and make compromises. (Credit: AP, 1996)

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Question: What do Whittaker Chambers, Richard Nixon, John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Bill Clinton and Bob Dylan have in common? Easier question: What do Judas, Benedict Arnold, Chambers, Nixon, Roberts, Kagan, Clinton and Dylan have in common?

Answer: All of them have been denounced as turncoats.

A former communist, Chambers repudiated communism. Nixon went to China. Roberts, nominated by President George W. Bush, voted to uphold an important provision of Obamacare. Nominated by President Barack Obama, Kagan voted to strike down an important provision of Obamacare. Clinton signed the law that ended welfare as we knew it. Dylan abandoned folk music for rock 'n' roll.

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Traitors rank among history's worst villains. But societies need turncoats. In authoritarian nations, turncoats may be freedom fighters. In highly polarized democracies, turncoats are indispensable.

In politics, turncoats make sensible compromises possible. If Democrats and Republicans are sharply divided on a question of economic policy and no one is willing to break ranks, an agreement might be unachievable. The parties might be at loggerheads even if, as is often the case, some members of both parties privately believe that the views of the opposition have merit. A single turncoat, abandoning the party line, can embolden members of both sides to say what they really think -- and ultimately spur reasonable outcomes.

Turncoats also break down echo chambers. If conservatives or liberals are listening only to those on their side, they tend to become more confident, more unified and more extreme. The most serious problem with self-sorting is that it produces both error and dogmatism. It can severely impede learning -- especially because those on the other side are so easy to dismiss.

Because of their own allegiances and history, turncoats are much harder to disregard. If Nixon goes to China, and if Clinton supports welfare reform, they can make people question beliefs that have been able to persist only for one reason: Inside the echo chamber, everyone shares them.

Turncoats are often independent thinkers, and they promote independent thinking in other people. When Roberts voted to uphold the health-care law, many conservatives dismissed him as a turncoat and as a coward. But it is likely that at least some of those who admire him, and usually agree with him, have been considering the possibility that he was correct.

It goes without saying that leaders shouldn't betray their constituents or their colleagues. But in some cases, it is no betrayal, and it is neither cowardly nor a capitulation, for leaders to conclude that their constituencies and colleagues are wrong. Turncoating can be an act of exceptional bravery.

None of this denies that turncoats can be wrongdoers. We shouldn't celebrate those who abandon good causes for bad ones. To separate heroism from villainy, we have to identify the view that is being repudiated and the particular reasons for its repudiation.

Nixon was right to go to China; the United States needed to engage with that nation. Clinton's welfare-reform initiative helped to move numerous people from welfare to work.

Supreme Court justices need to decide individual questions on their merits, not to follow any party line. If they are doing their jobs, they will be characterized as turncoats at least some of the time.

A few years ago, I attended a Bob Dylan concert in Illinois. He closed with "Like a Rolling Stone," the song that branded him as an apostate in folk music. In the 1960s, "Like a Rolling Stone" was bitter, angry and contemptuous. But on this evening, the once contemptuous words were transformed into something joyful and exuberant, an unambiguous celebration. "How does it feeeel? To be on your own? With no direction home? Like a complete unknown? Like a rolling stone?" It was a song of freedom. It was a song for turncoats.

Cass R. Sunstein, a professor of law at Harvard University, is the author of "On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread." This is from Bloomberg View.

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