Cambridge, Mass.: 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 went electric, abandoning folk music for rock ’n’ roll.
Disloyalty is not a virtue, and traitors rank among history’s worst villains. But societies need turncoats. In authoritarian nations, turncoats may be freedom fighters. In democracies suffering from a high degree of polarization, turncoats are indispensable.
We need more Nixons going to China. We need more Dylans going electric.
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 opposing party 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. That is a public service because on hard questions it is tempting to ask not about the merits, but about the views of your fellow believers — your party, your church, your group, your team. And some disturbing evidence shows that Republicans and Democrats are willing to suspend their own thinking, and to put aside their own independent views, after they learn about the opinions of their party. By eliminating internal unanimity, turncoats encourage people to get off automatic pilot and to think for themselves.
It is true that when Chief Justice 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 need to specify the coat and the turn. 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 U.S. needed to engage with that nation. Although people continue to disagree about Clinton’s welfare-reform initiative, it was at least partly successful, helping 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, thus provoking a famous cry of betrayal from an audience member in 1966: Judas! In the 1960s, Like a Rolling Stone was bitter, angry and contemptuous — what Dylan himself called “a long piece of vomit.” 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.
Sunstein, the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University, is a Bloomberg View columnist. He is the former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, the co-author of Nudge and, most recently, the author of On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread. He can be emailed at email@example.com.