Our Two Parties Shift Their Positions A Lot

From an interview of Political scientist Steven Teles by Megan McArdle:

In political science we often model political actors as having fixed interests and positions, and then we try to figure out how they do or don't get their way. But there's actually more play in the joints of politics than that. Some people -- like Ronald Reagan! -- just switch teams entirely. More broadly, as we address in the book, entire parties switch their positions. If we want to understand politics, we need some way of understanding that process.

As I grow older, and have had more time to observe, I find the shifts in party positions fascinating and oddly opaque to most folks who are in the middle of them - perhaps this is one advantage to being part of neither major party.   Some of the shifts are generational -- for example both parties have moved left on things like homosexuality and narcotics legalization.   Some of the shifts have to do with who controls the White House -- the party in power tends to support executive power and military interventionism, while the opposition tends to oppose these things.   Some of the shifts have to do with who controls intellectual institutions like college in the media -- the group in control of these institutions tends to be more open to first amendment restrictions, while the out-of-power group become desperate defenders of free speech (look how the campus free speech movement has shifted from the Left to the Right).

I would love to see a book on this covering the last 50 years.


  1. Rondo:

    Hillary changes her position for money, power and votes.

    Anyone who pays attention knows Clinton is the most corrupt person ever running for President

  2. morganovich:

    i think the best way to model this is to start from the correct premise: political parties do not exist to push platforms. they exist to win elections. how they do it is basically immaterial to them.

    as menken so aptly put it, a politician who found cannibals in his constituency would promise missionary for dinner.

    they change views as they circle one another like fighters looking for an opening. the party of segregation and jim crow becomes the party of affirmative action. the party of free trade becomes one of punitive tariffs and border walls.

    it's just a constant adaptive process where you try to grab any position that your opponent might be weak on.

    this is why there is so little consistency in politics and among positions in a platform. the same party will, situationally, argue from the primacy of rights and in the next breath for the primacy of the will of the majority. they are not even trying to be consistent of principled, they are just seeking to stitch together a quilt of positions that will appeal to 51% of voters.

    parties are completely unprincipled and amoral. they just seek votes. this is why our founding fathers were, in so many cases, so opposed to and afraid of political parties.

  3. TruthisaPeskyThing:

    One of the greatest dangers to our country is the attitude that "everybody does it" or that "there is no difference between the two."

  4. obloodyhell:

    The Right has largely supported Free Speech for quite a while. They've just gotten louder and more significant with the growth of the Left and its unrelenting and boundless support of Political Correctness...

  5. obloodyhell:

    Asimov's phrase "wronger than wrong" comes to mind.

    Wiki it.

  6. obloodyhell:

    "Border Walls" has zero to do with Free Trade.

    And, while the founders all disliked political parties, they only managed to elect one president without them.

  7. mlhouse:

    Actually, it is very simple. Political parties are not formed based on policies. They are based on INTERESTS. Like minded people with similar interest band together to form political parties to win elections. The policies they choose are the policies that best meet their interest, at the time.

    Because in the United States the "interests" have always broken down into two distict groups: Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians. The Jeffersonians formed what has always been the Democratic Party. It mainly consist of individuals whose economic interest were outside of the market. The Hamiltonians formed the anti-Democratic parties, Federalists, Whigs, Republicans, and mainly consists of individuals whose economic interest were derived from the market.

    The advocated policies of these two groups have shifted 180 over time (and maybe back). Hamiltonians originally favored more government intervention and higher tarriffs to expand and protect the domestic market. Jeffersonians favored more limited government and free trade. But these positions flip flopped in the 20th century and , in some aspects,may be on the verge of flip flopping again in the 21st.

    Third parties in the United States have never been able to reach any level of critical mass because most of the 3rd parties are centered on specific policies and not political interest coalition building. Another, but lesser, factor is the structure of American government which does not readily create the construction of parlimentary majorities to hold office which sometimes allows even a small party to hold significant influence.

  8. morganovich:


    free movement of goods and of people is not related? how do you figure?

    and the fact that parties emerged so rapidly is precisely because they are such a nasty form of parasite.

    it's a prisoner's dilemma. if you think the other guy is going to form a party, you need to do it too. it winds up lbeing like prison gangs. you have to join one or you'll get killed.

  9. marque2:

    With the college "free speech" movement. When the left was protesting, they always had free speech. They want more, in the right to protest in private places, and mess up parks and campuses, and destroy property - all as part of free speech. Now the right is protesting, it is because there are truly people actively silencing them, and frequently using government controls to do it.

    I don't see the equivalence. I must be a sop to one party.

  10. marque2:

    6 wrongs make a right - or was that 6 lefts that make a right. I get confused.

  11. marque2:

    There is nothing about freedom that should force us to let in criminals, and terrorists into our country. Your a terrorist, oh well, we can't stop you, because Morgonovich says libertarians insist, just insist on letting all terrorists, criminals and thugs into the country - cuz it will all somehow work its way out, though, I don't know, private courts and boycotts. I think you are confusing libertarian with oligarchy open borders views. Unless the libertarian view is also that a country is not allowed to defend itself.

    I think the viewpoint you have is not called libertarian, but anarchistic. Which is OK, but I wish you would admit it, instead of pretending.

  12. scp:

    I always thought it would be interesting to draw a map of the positions staked out in the party platforms every 4 years.

  13. steven teles:

    The book exists! It's David Karol, Party Position Change

  14. markm:

    Whose interests, the politicians or their constituents? With rare exceptions, politicians pretend to respond to their constituents while actually following their own interests, right up to the point where they can't blame the other party any more and are in imminent danger of losing an election - and sometimes far beyond that. The Tea Party and Trump's candidacies are both responses to the Republican establishment's campaigning for smaller government and legislating larger government for decades. McCain and Romney both lost because Republican voters no longer believed them. Trump is probably an even worse liar and backstabber, but at least he's from outside that group.