American political parties might often seem stuck in their ways, but they can and in fact do change positions often. Joining us on this week’s episode of “The Downballot” is political scientist David Karol, who tells us how and why both the Democratic and Republican parties have adjusted their views on a wide range of issues over the years. Karol offers three different models for how these transformations happen—and explains why voters often stick with their parties even after these shifts. He concludes by offering tips to activists seeking to push their parties when they’re not changing fast enough.
Co-hosts David Nir and David Beard also dive deep into an unexpected downballot angle to the latest Trump indictment, telling the story of state Sen. Shawn Still, who was charged as part of the plot to overturn the 2020 presidential election in Georgia. Still’s fellow Republicans drew on the same anti-democratic playbook to help elect him by gerrymandering a district in the Atlanta suburbs, but the GOP can only hold the region’s dramatic move to the left at bay for so long. The Davids also recap an unusual development in a major redistricting case in Florida that could result in a Black Democratic congressman having his district restored after Ron DeSantis dismantled it last year.
Subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts to make sure you never miss a show—new episodes every Thursday! A complete transcript of this week’s episode is below.
This transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.
David Beard: Hello and welcome. I’m David Beard, contributing editor for Daily Kos Elections.
David Nir: And I’m David Nir, political director of Daily Kos. “The Downballot” is a weekly podcast dedicated to the many elections that take place below the presidency, from Senate to city council. Please subscribe to “The Downballot” on Apple Podcasts and leave us a five-star rating and review.
Beard: We’ve got a couple of big legal events we’re going to talk about this week.
Nir: Amazingly enough, the Trump indictment in Georgia has reverberated downballot, and we are going to be talking about a Georgia politician who was also charged as part of Trump’s wide-ranging conspiracy to steal the election in the Peach State.
And then there was a big shift in a long-pending redistricting challenge to Florida’s GOP-gerrymandered congressional maps that could result in a former Democratic congressman returning to the house in 2025.
After that, we are going to be talking with Professor David Karol about how political parties in America change positions over time, and why and how they do so. It is a fascinating discussion. We have a lot to talk about on this show. Let’s get rolling.
We occupy this really weird space in the political world because whenever something crazy happens with Trump, it doesn’t really intersect our specific focus of downballot elections, and we’re really committed to the bit. Trump gets indicted again, we wind up being the only political newsletter that doesn’t mention it.
Beard: Which is probably nice for folks to not have to read a thousand times about Donald Trump’s indictment in the newsletter.
Nir: Exactly. And you’ve got to have your niche, and it’s important to stick with it, but not this time. This time is an exception because there is actually a fascinating downballot angle to the new Georgia indictments, and we want to tell you all about it.
Obviously, if you’re listening to this show, you are very tuned into politics and you know exactly what went down in Fulton County, Georgia, on Monday night. A whole bunch of well-known people were indicted alongside Trump for this alleged conspiracy to overturn the results of the 2020 election in Georgia. And that included people like Rudy Giuliani, Mark Meadows, Sidney Powell, et cetera. And then, there were a bunch of names that most folks probably have never heard of. I had to Google a lot of them. One of them, though, was particularly interesting, and that was a guy named Shawn Still.
Now, Still was one of these 19 people who was indicted because he had served as one of Trump’s fake electors in Georgia. Trump had these slates of fake electors in a whole bunch of swing states, including Georgia, and Shawn Still was on that list. In fact, he even signed this document saying he was the secretary of this group, and at the time that he did so, he was the finance chair of the state Republican Party, but then, he went and got himself elected to the state Senate, and that’s really where our story begins.
We have to turn the calendar back a little bit and talk about the 48th district, which Still represents now, but talk about the prior version. The prior version was this seat in the Northern Atlanta suburbs that had been this traditional Republican stronghold for a long, long time. In fact, it was such a GOP stronghold that the previous Republican who represented it, David Shafer, was unopposed seven straight times. Seven straight times, from 2002 to 2016.
But as we saw with so many suburban areas during the Trump era, and we’re still seeing today, this area began moving to the left and Shafer left the seat open in 2018 to run for lieutenant governor. He was unsuccessful. When he left it open, Democrats managed to flip the seat in that year’s blue wave, and the seat itself and that region in general, the greater Atlanta metropolitan area, just kept getting bluer and bluer. By the way, as an aside, I should mention that Shafer went on to become chair of the state GOP, and he was also indicted on Monday.
Beard: Of course.
Nir: It’s a very, very small world with these Georgia miscreants. So 2020 rolls around, the seat became open again, and a different Democrat won it, Michelle Au. She became the first Asian American woman to ever serve in the Georgia Senate, and I think, in a lot of ways, just emblematic of that whole area and the diversification of the Atlanta region, and really, just how that whole metropolitan area is moving so sharply against Republicans.
Beard: Yeah, we’ve seen this happen in a lot of different places across the country, but nowhere more so, I think, than the Atlanta suburbs, in part because, historically, the Southern suburbs were a lot more conservative than areas in the Northeast and the Midwest where there were some conservative suburbs, but there were also some pretty progressive suburbs of big cities. While in the South, it was a lot more uniform that, as soon as you got out of the city center into these white-flight suburbs, they were very, very Republican no matter what education level there was. So a place like Atlanta, which had these very highly-educated suburbs, you saw some of these biggest shifts off to the left.
Nir: And it’s exactly that shift that has Republicans really, I think, in a panic. Even though Republicans had a big majority in the state Senate, they were still determined to take back the 48th district. So naturally, they began adopting a more moderate position, more moderate tone. They spoke out against Donald Trump.
Oh, sorry, I’m just kidding. They gerrymandered the fuck out of the district. It had been a Biden +18 seat. Once the GOP got done with it, it became a Trump +4 seat, a huge shift back to the right. And Michelle Au knew she was being targeted, knew that Republicans were just aiming to screw her, so instead, she wound up running for a seat in the state House, which she won. But then, there was the matter of the district that she had left open.
Now, it was well-known before last year’s elections that Shawn Still had been one of the fake electors and that he was under criminal investigation, but obviously, when does that ever stop Republicans? He ran for the seat anyway, he had total support from the state GOP, and unsurprisingly, he won by double digits.
Beard: And really, there’s no better example of how much this area has shifted than the fact that they could only get it to Trump +4. Of course, in this case, in 2022, that was good enough for Still to win, but they didn’t exactly make it a safe seat. They made it a slightly Republican-leaning seat by doing everything they could to pack it with every Republican they could find in that area.
Nir: Exactly. And of course, in a midterm election, that was going to be a really hard seat for Michelle Au to hold onto, so it’s totally understandable that she wanted to switch districts, in fact, switch to the other chamber.
But here’s the thing. As you’re alluding, Beard, gerrymandering in a place like the Atlanta suburbs, for Republicans, is a race against time, and not one that they can win. We mentioned now a few times that the new 48th was Trump +4, but in 2016, it had been Trump +19. So in just four years, it already sank 15 points. And the bleeding has not stopped. In 2022, just last year, according to analyst Eli Spencer Heyman, Raphael Warnock actually won the district by two points against Herschel Walker, so this district is still getting bluer. And that says to me that, if Still winds up running again, oh, man, he is going to be in a ton of trouble.
He might still run again or at least claim to run again. If he wants to cut a deal with prosecutors, then, saying that he’s giving up his reelection campaign, giving up his Senate seat, that might actually be something that convinces prosecutors to give him a slightly more favorable deal. But even if he isn’t on the ballot, this is going to be a very vulnerable seat, and it’s really telling to me that Republicans have pulled from the exact same anti-democracy playbook to try to win this district as they did to try to, quote, unquote, “win Georgia’s electoral votes.” Gerrymandering, obviously, isn’t illegal. Unfortunately, no one’s getting indicted for gerrymandering, at least not yet, but just like stealing an election, it’s all about subverting the will of the voters, and it works great until it doesn’t.
Beard: I want to take the specific district that we’ve been talking about and extrapolate it a little broader, because if you think back to the Republican revolution that took place in the South after the passage of the Civil Rights Act and the ability of African American voters in the South to actually vote, and obviously, voting for Democrats in the wake of that, the actual move of a lot of these districts in these states to Republicans took decades. It was a 30, 40, 50-year period. If you remember, Joe Manchin is the very last person holding on from that era, and he’s still in office. We’ll see how that goes next year, but he’s still in office. We saw as recently as pre-Obama in the 2000s, there were tons of Democrats still hanging on across the South as sort of vestiges of this, but eventually, they got swept up.
And I think, as long as the Republican Party is in its current state, led by Trump, led by Trumpists, we’re going to see this slow but steady, sometimes fast, but often slow, movement across these suburban, well-educated seats, both in Georgia, across the South, in these suburban seats in some places like the Wisconsin suburbs of Milwaukee — which were historically extremely conservative, unlike some other suburban areas in the Midwest, they were very much like those Southern suburban conservative seats. They’ve been starting to move left slowly but surely. And as long as the Trumpists are so repulsive to these suburbanite voters, this is going to continue to happen, even if it’s taking 10 years, in some places, to happen.
Nir: Enough for now about Georgia. We’re going to move one state to the south to discuss, well, some other legal news.
Beard: Yes, in Florida. Now, Florida passed an egregiously awful map in the wake of DeSantis forcing it through the legislature. That was a racial gerrymander; that was a partisan gerrymander. And of course, very quickly, lawsuits were filed against the congressional map, and they’ve been winding their way through the courts. They’ve taken a long time. They weren’t resolved, obviously, in time for the 2022 election, so those elections were held under the maps that DeSantis wanted. But a state court trial was supposed to start August 21st over the lawsuits over this congressional map, but unexpectedly, an agreement between the plaintiffs who were suing over the map and the state of Florida has radically changed the situation.
In this stipulation agreement, the plaintiffs have agreed to drop a lot of their claims around intentional racial discrimination and partisan gerrymander writ large. They’re no longer arguing over partisan gerrymandering. They’re only proceeding around a single claim that Black voters can elect the congressperson of their choice in one north Florida district.
Now, in return, because obviously, the plaintiffs have given up a lot here about other districts and about other claims, the state of Florida will agree that, in fact, Black voters can’t elect a member of their choice in north Florida, and that their map violates the Florida Fair Districts Amendment. And the state has agreed to only argue that this racial diminishment clause in the Fair Districts Amendment violates the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause.
Now, in addition, the state has also agreed that, if the court does rule in the plaintiffs’ favor, there’s an agreed-upon Tallahassee-to-Jacksonville map that would be the basis for this new district to resolve this violation. They’ve also agreed to an expedited schedule that would resolve this case before the 2024 elections to make sure that this new map, assuming it happens, does get implemented in time.
Nir: Yeah. That Tallahassee to Jacksonville district was in fact created by a previous round of litigation, the previous decade under these Fair District Amendments that Florida voters adopted years ago. And it’s a plurality Black district. It had elected Democratic congressman, Al Lawson, who is a Black Democrat, starting in 2016, and that’s the district, Florida’s 5th, that got completely shredded by the DeSantis map. And the one that the defendants now are saying that if they lose, that will essentially revert to a district that looks like that old 5th district.
Beard: Yes. And Al Lawson has talked about coming back if in fact this district does return. I’ll note that he did very gamely run for Florida’s 2nd district last year when his district was obliterated. And I think a lot of congressmen and congresswomen would have retired, bailed. He ran an effort as best he could in a very GOP district. He did lose, but I think that’s a pretty good mark for him. And so, I think he has every right to try to come back to his district that was destroyed.
Now, I do just want to say, why did these two sides agree to this pretty unusual stipulation agreement that we haven’t really seen in other gerrymandering cases? And I think for the plaintiffs, their main issue is that they were facing an extremely conservative and DeSantis friendly Supreme court. A majority of the appointments are DeSantis appointments. And this court was not going to look favorably on any sort of close ruling and rule for the plaintiffs. I think everybody expected that they needed a slam dunk to have any chance to get any favorable rulings out of the Supreme Court.
And now, for the state, of course, they have this very friendly Supreme Court, but the destruction of FL-05 was really an incredibly egregious violation of the Fair Districts Amendment. They had arguments. Obviously, there’s a big partisan gerrymander. Obviously, these things violate the Fair Districts Amendment if you have a fair reading of them. But, of course, the state has arguments and claims on the other districts.
The destruction of FL-05 — there was really no defense to it other than DeSantis just not wanting to let Black people in north Florida have a Congressman. That was really the whole thing.
Nir: Yeah. And in fact, that was the centerpiece of his incredibly hot and furious dispute with the legislature. And he was threatening to reject the legislature’s maps because they wouldn’t dismantle FL-05. And ultimately, the legislature wound up completely bending over for him. I was actually pretty shocked, and DeSantis drew these maps and the legislature just passed them. It was a total inversion of the normal legislative process.
The part of the Fair District’s amendments that you’re talking about, Beard, that plaintiffs gave up on their claims. The provisions that prohibit partisan gerrymandering, those actually were successfully deployed in the previous decade in that lawsuit that I was referencing earlier. And that did get some district lines changed as a result.
But like you’re saying, it’s a very easy for far-right justices on a state supreme court to hand wave and say, “No, no, no, no, that’s not a partisan gerrymandering. That’s just politics. There’s no problem here.” But like you said, the situation with the 5th district was just way more obvious than all that. And I don’t want to get too sidetracked here, but it’s a great example of why creating rules that try to bind state lawmakers in redistricting doesn’t really work. You really need independent redistricting in order to get rid of partisan gerrymandering.
Beard: That was actually exactly what I was going to bring up. We’ve seen in state after state that if you try to put rules on partisan legislatures, they’re just going to work to get around them. They’ll work to get partisan judges to get around them.
We’ve seen in Ohio, they have anti-gerrymandering rules on the books. Republicans just ignore the rules and they get a Republican court to let them ignore the rules. And so, that’s why folks in Ohio are working on independent redistricting as opposed to what they have now. You have to get to independent redistricting, so the maps are fair in the first place and you don’t have to count on state judges to rule in your favor.
Nir: If the provision of the Florida Constitution implicated in this dispute over the 5th congressional district sounds something like the Voting Rights Act, Section 2, which of course has been hugely an issue in Alabama — and also is at play in Georgia, in Louisiana, in Texas — there are some similarities. I think the issue here though is that the Black population in north Florida probably would not be viewed as sufficiently compact under the Voting Rights Act to require that a district be made that would allow Black voters to elect their candidate of choice. It’s a pretty geographically large district.
But here, what happened is that the Florida Supreme Court essentially green-lit the prior version of this district, the Black plurality one that elected Lawson. And once that was created, then this provision of the Florida Constitution came into play saying, “Well, now that this district is electing Black voters’ candidate of choice, you can’t take that away from them.”
So, it’s a similar issue, but quite a separate beast because it involves the state constitution as opposed to the Voting Rights Act. But ultimately, and Beard, I think this is where you also wanted to go with this, if the plaintiffs are successful here, that is yet another Southern state where we would be very likely to see another Black Democrat join the Congress in 2025.
Beard: Yes. I will say I am a little worried about this whole state arguing that the entire racial diminishment part is unconstitutional and the Florida Supreme Court being, “Sure, let’s go with that. That’s the only argument the state has left, so let’s just go with it and not letting this happen.”
But assuming that this district does go into effect, it’s an extra Democratic seat that will certainly elect a Democrat looking to the next Congress, along with the Alabama stuff that we’ve talked about, potentially Louisiana as well. And so, it would be great to see that much increase, or in this case, return of Black representation in Congress from the South.
Nir: Well, that does it for our weekly hits. Coming up after the break, we are going to be talking with Professor David Karol about his work on how political parties change positions in American politics. It is a really fascinating and insightful discussion, so please stick with us.
Joining us on “The Downballot” today is David Karol, who is an Associate Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland in College Park, and the author of Party Position Change in American Politics. David, thank you so much for coming on the show today.
David Karol: I’m happy to be here following Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s footsteps. I think that’s what I try to do in life whenever possible.
Nir: She is definitely a very good role model. I think our discussion is going to go a little bit differently from that one. And I wanted to start by asking you to tell us a little bit about how you ended up in political science in the first place and how specifically you got interested in the subject of your book about how party positions on the issues develop and how they change.
Karol: Okay. As far as I know, I was always interested in history, and my father was interested in both history and in politics, and I really got that from him. And he wasn’t an academic, but he had worked in and around universities.
So, when I was an undergrad, I went to a liberal arts college, Grinnell, and a professor there said, “Maybe you should consider doing this.” And one nice thing… I teach at a large university, but… at small colleges, students and professors can have close relationships more easily. A lot of contact, a lot of discussions.
And for most people, being a professor is kind of exotic job. Even people who go to college, it’s not something they think about. But I think my father, just having worked around universities, once that became something I was considering, he kind of reinforced it and seemed like a reasonable thing. He was a non-practicing lawyer and he said, “I don’t think you would be happy as a lawyer.” So, I gradually like that, fell into it.
How I got interested in this topic, and as you say, I wrote a book, Party Position Change in American Politics. I wrote another small book more recently about how the environment became a partisan issue, and some articles. A recent article about how LGBT politics became partisan. So, it’s a long-running interest. It’s not my only interest, but it’s a long-running interest.
When I was in graduate school, I wasn’t originally going to even study American politics. I was going to study the Middle East, and for a number of reasons I moved away from that. But along the way, I took an international relations class. I read an article about trade policy in the United States about divided government and trade policy. And long story short, I decided this article was wrong. And I thought, “Wow, professors wrote something in a big journal and it’s wrong. How can this be?” And then it was like, “Oh, I must fix this.”
That article is not really about today’s discussion, but in the process, I learned that the parties had in Congress changed positions and that the Democratic Party had historically been the free trade party, which I hadn’t been aware of until that point. And I kind of already vaguely knew that the Republican Party … I mean I knew Lincoln was a Republican and Ronald Reagan seemed pretty different on racial issues from Abraham Lincoln, and I knew that, that shift had happened.
But then when I learned about the trade policy shift, which is complicated, I realized, “Well, this is a broader phenomenon. Are there other examples of this?” And so, I dug into that and I found many other cases I hadn’t been aware of, and it was so interesting to me. Beyond the interest in a particular subject or policy, it raised the question about what’s really driving this in people’s political behavior, politicians, and voters in general.
Because throughout many of these parties, revision of their policy stands, most people have stuck with their party at any given point. There’s change that’s important over time, but most people have stuck with the party over time. So, the question of what’s going on there and then what’s underlying these changes really fascinated me.
And as I say, I learned that there were other cases besides civil rights, or race, and trade, and also cases in other countries. I got interested in that; it became my dissertation, became my first book. I’ve worked on other topics too, but that’s probably what people associate me most with.
Nir: So, Professor Karol, you said something fascinating just a moment ago that parties will change their positions, but voters will still often stick with their same parties. We were talking about this a little bit at the top of the show in terms of Southern Dixiecrat-type Democrats who remained members of the Democratic Party for a long, long time, even after the civil rights movement, and the huge shift in Southern politics. I’d love for you to say more about this and why there is this stickiness, I guess you could say, of voters really clinging to their parties even when their parties change.
Karol: Yeah, it’s an important question. I think that there are a number of explanations, and it’s also we have to talk … It’s a little different for voters as opposed to politicians like the Dixiecrat congressmen you mentioned.
So, most people don’t follow politics that closely — if we’re talking about voters and the kind of people who don’t listen to podcasts like this, which is the large majority of people who aren’t that politically attuned. So, many people don’t necessarily notice some of these changes in the position on the part of the parties. We see, for example, that there seems to be a big lag in the response of voters to the party’s polarization on abortion, which you start to see in the ’80s among politics on abortion, which you start to see in the ’80s among politicians. And Republican voters are more pro-choice than Democrats until the mid-’80s, well into the Reagan years. So, what’s going on?
I mean, one explanation is a lot of people just not paying that much attention, especially if it’s an issue they don’t care that much about. And most people don’t care that much about most issues. The issues, politics of issues and changes on them, is often driven by intense minorities that care and that politicians notice. And then, even if voters notice, they just may not care about the issue. And then there’s a number of things they can do. Studies for many years show that voters sometimes will report, at least in surveys, misperceiving the party’s positions on issues. And it’s not random. People tend to say that the party has the position that they like, even when this is inaccurate.
And this goes back to the ’40s when they were asking people about the Taft-Hartley labor law. This is not a new development. It’s not because of misinformation on social media or anything. This is just a human psychological reaction to conflict. Like, “No, there’s no conflict… I want this. I like this party. So they must be the same.” And then a fallback position people can have is, “Well, okay, maybe my party isn’t better than the other party on this issue, but there’s really, really no difference between them,” which is also false. Once voters have to recognize there is a difference between the parties, they can just live with the contradiction. They can say, “I’m Republican, but I’m pro-choice. There are other issues that are important.”
Couple other things that people can do, which is very interesting, and there’s a lot of evidence that people do this, is that they can change their own position for psychological reasons, to reduce the conflict in their brains. Like, “Well, maybe I was wrong about this issue.” They don’t necessarily say that, but they may just, over time, adapt the new position of their party.
And then, you mentioned Dixiecrats. Once in a while, there is an issue, usually one that connects to another important social identity that people have, beyond partisanship, like race or religion or gender, that, for them, they just can’t ignore, they just can’t explain away, they’re not going to change their point of view. And in that case, on issues like that, some people do change their parties and their party affiliation, and that’s when we get the realignments that we’re so interested in. But that only happens some of the time and for some voters. There’s a lot more inertia and stability there.
Beard: Now, to take it from sort of the normie voters that we were just talking about to that committed minority of voters who really care about specific issues, one of the big complaints you hear about the two-party system in America from a lot of these committed ideologues is that there’s no other options. These parties suck and they have to choose between the lesser of two evils, and all sorts of complaints like that. But, as you’ve said, these parties are sometimes a lot more malleable on these issues than people realize. So, sort of talk us through big picture how these changes evolve.
Karol: Oh, okay. Well, I argue that there’s really three models that can explain change of party positions. Sometimes, a party has a… fundamental to this is a view that parties are largely coalitions of… there’s a party brand, but beneath that, there’s politicians, who are careerists, and people who are organized and care a lot about particular issues who have been organized into party coalitions. Sometimes something changes in the world, some external shock leads groups that are already aligned with parties to want something different. And because they already have relationships with party politicians, the politicians usually will be responsive to this.
So, in the 1970s, organized labor that has been a Democratic constituency since the New Deal in the ’30s, and which actually supported fair trade in the post-war period when American industry was just dominant globally, starts to be very concerned about how imports are hurting American workers. They’re losing jobs; it’s putting pressure on their wages even when they don’t lose the jobs. So, they no longer support free trade. And we see many Democratic members of Congress, who were close to organized labor, change their positions. And they might say, “I’m being true to this deeper fundamental value, I’m for the working people.” But on the policy, they changed.
Similarly, I showed that Republican politicians who were happy to support civil rights when it was a matter of banning lynching in the South, getting rid of the poll tax, which, again, is only a regional issue. Once it starts to be anti-discrimination and fair housing laws that impinge on the business community in the North, which is a traditional Republican constituency, that’s a different story, and then they become much less supportive.
So, one story is the world changes. Party politicians take new positions to please existing allies. And I call that “coalition maintenance.” Another model of change… In that case, I should say I usually see pretty rapid change. Another model of change is that some politicians in the party form a relationship with a new constituency that had been outside of party politics before. They might not have been organized as a group. They might’ve been a nonpartisan group. One way or the other, some element of the party elite forges relationships with them and starts to attract them into the party, hoping to advance their own careers, hoping to advance the party, maybe also sincerely aligned with this group.
And over time, as this group gains strength in the party, other politicians in the party, who initially hadn’t been close to it, feel that, in order to stay in the good graces of the party as a whole, in order to be able to secure a united front, to avoid primary challenges, to be able to raise money, and especially if they’re ambitious for higher office, they have to be acceptable to all the elements in the party. So people who are not in the vanguard of bringing in the new group, eventually if it shows some strength within the party, usually change their position and go along so they can be more acceptable.
A classic example of this, going way back in history, is, LBJ was a segregationist politician when his horizons were just Texas. But once he wanted to become a leader of the national Democratic Party and of, ultimately, president, he could no longer be a hardcore opponent of civil rights because even then, before the racial realignment was complete, African Americans were important in the northern Democratic Party and had liberal white allies and union allies. So he had to adapt. And we’ve seen more recently, in both parties, many politicians, including our current president, changed their positions on abortion, on LGBT rights in ways that reflect shifts in the party coalitions. And there’s just a very large number of prominent politicians, you can say, who did that in both parties. And I could go down a long list. And Biden is one example, because he’s had such a long career, he wasn’t originally pro-choice, he was not early to endorse LGBT rights, but it would be pretty awkward for him in 2023, as a Democrat, if he maintained the positions that he had on these issues in the ’70s or the ’80s. And he didn’t do that. And I think that’s not an accident. And as I say, he’s far from unique, and you can see this among their… The Bush family moved from pro-choice to pro-life. Both presidents, Bush and Trump, before he was a Republican, was pro-choice.
It’s a long list, depending on the issue you’re talking about, and the party and the timeframe. And I call that “group incorporation,” because as the group becomes stronger in the party, politicians have an increasing incentive to adapt to please that group. They don’t have to right away. Often, they’re entrenched, they’re incumbents; their district might not have a large representation from that group. But over time, as I say, and especially if they have ambitions, not just to be president but to be governor, be senator, be a legislative leader, the incentive to be broadly acceptable to all elements of the party is a very powerful one. So, I argue that… And that’s a process, the model I just described. I think it fits a lot of the story of abortion, of LGBT rights, of gun-control politics, of environmental politics, where the parties… there once wasn’t a party division on the issue, and gradually one emerged. And certain differences among those issues we could get into, but that’s the broad story.
And then there are some cases where there aren’t identifiable constituencies, and parties just… politicians just try something new and they’re not very constrained by what they were saying before. We’ve seen this on some issues. Like the Republican Party used to say, “You have to balance the budget. Tax cuts will be good, but you need to balance the budget first.” Then the late-’70s, they decided that wasn’t working. They tried just tax cuts. And then they said, “Well, the tax cuts will starve the beast and we’ll get a balanced budget,” which didn’t really work out. But that’s not a story of constituencies and organized interests; that’s a story of politicians who are fairly unconstrained by organized interests, just adapting, trying something new. So, some Republican politicians have criticized Biden for not doing enough to help Ukraine, and others have decided that he’s doing too much. The main thing is to be critical. And it’s not so much that there was an organized lobby that cared about Ukraine in the Republican Party one way or the other.
Nir: Those three models are endlessly fascinating to me. So, I have to ask, when one party moves on a particular issue in a particular direction, how does that affect the other party? Does it tend to move in the opposite direction or do they sometimes make a similar change and both parties wind up converging on a similar position?
Karol: Yeah, that’s a great question. The answer is both dynamics exist. Often, what happens is a group is sort of reluctantly pulled into one party’s coalition, and often, if you ask why that’s the case, it’s because there’s already a group that they are in conflict with that is closer to the other party. So, environmentalists were traditionally a nonpartisan group, but because of the business community’s ties to the Republican Party and because the environmentalists in the business community traditionally have disagreements, it was probably inevitable that they would be drawn into the Democratic coalition for that reason.
There are other cases like this where a group has organized opposition, so we can see both with pro-choice feminists and LGBT rights activists and the religious right, these are groups that, over time, you couldn’t imagine them coexisting happily in the same party for a long time. There was a period where the Democratic Party included a majority of African Americans and white Southerners, but that was a very unstable mix that, of course, didn’t last, and it only lasted for a while when the politicians were really doing very little directly on civil rights. They were trying to appeal to African American voters just on an economic basis. And once that changed, this was bound to end. A lot of scholars have studied, and I included among them, how that process played out.
But sometimes one party is closer to one group, and that means that the other group that’s opposed to their political agenda, their policy agenda, has to go to the other party to get a hearing. We’ve seen that on a number of issue to get a hearing. And so, we’ve seen that on a number of issues. It’s also the case that sometimes both parties, if you look over a very long period of time, you could say from a policy standpoint, both parties are moving in the same direction, but one is just moving much more quickly than the other. So, I argued in this 2023 paper in the Political Research Quarterly about how LGBT rights became a partisan issue, that the Republican Party basically has the traditional position that both parties used to have, which was unsympathetic and unfriendly, and the Democratic Party has moved very far.
You could also say, though, that even Republicans compared to politicians, I mean Trump and Bush nominated openly gay people to at least a couple prominent positions. That’s not something that Harry Truman or JFK would’ve done. And similarly, Trump, who many people would say is racist, had an African American in his cabinet. Now, that’s maybe tokenistic, but again, for most of American history, even when Republicans were getting Black votes in the 19th and early into the mid-20th century, they didn’t do that. So, both parties can move, but if one of them moves much further than the other, the issue still becomes a divisive one where the voters notice the difference and orient themselves accordingly if they care about that issue.
Beard: Now, thinking about a lot of the changes that we’ve seen in the past few years, that seems like something that’s very oriented around Trumpism, which maybe isn’t a direct issue. But we’ve seen a lot of movement in the Republican Party and then in some cases movement in the Democratic Party. How does that fit into these sorts of models?
Karol: Well, it’s interesting. I mean, Trumpism is in the eye of the beholder. I think if we look at the policy record for the Trump administration, on eight or nine out of 10 issues, it was a traditional Republican administration. It was pro-business, against pro-labor. It had a regressive tax cut; it supported deregulation; tried to repeal the Affordable Care Act, didn’t succeed. Trump, really, his differences with the earlier Republican Party, I mean, I think were most pronounced on trade policy. But again, that’s an example where, because we see Biden’s current trade posture with China, especially, the whole political debate has moved away from freer trade in the last 10 years. But the Republicans under Trump are definitely different, very different from Bush and previous modern Republican presidents.
On immigration, Trump is very different from Bush, but the Republican Party was always divided. Bush did not make the sale. He did not get immigration reform through Congress, mostly because of Republican opposition. So, there was a division within the Republican Party before, and I think one side just lost that eternal struggle, at least for now. And Trump reflects that.
And how much of what Trumpism … there are other things that may be idiosyncratic to Trump to a degree, like the weird relationship with Putin. There are conservative intellectuals who rationalize this and see Putin as a defender of Christians and white people. I don’t think most voters are too deeply committed to that view. And I think some of this is maybe the idiosyncratic to Trump.
But so, Trumpism is difficult. There’ve been, of course, I’m sure many podcasts about that and many shows about that. But I would stress the continuities. I mean, when Trump became a Republican, he changed his position from being pro-choice, which he said he was when he ran for the Reform Party nomination, to pro-life. He had not been close to the NRA. He decided he was going to be NRA’s friend. He had not been associated with anti-LGBT views or anything like that. And then he adopted some of those positions too. So, even a figure as unusual as Trump, and he adapted himself to the existing party coalition and the policy positions that they demanded to a great extent. So, he was changed by the Republican Party, at least as much as he has changed it, I think.
Nir: So, Professor, one interesting observation you made is that these changes don’t largely come from new elected officials replacing old ones, but rather incumbents changing their stances on the issues. Do we know why they do that and how that happens? And I know that that ties into everything that you’ve said before, but I think a lot of folks would expect that when new blood replaces old blood, that’s really when change happens. But your research indicates that’s not necessarily the case.
Karol: That’s right. For some social phenomena that really is true, you need what is called a turnover, generational replacement. Another way to talk about, it’s the Grim Reaper does a lot of work. That’s really true in some areas. I think some people develop their musical taste and it freezes when they’re young adults, and there are not a lot of big band fans anymore. And that’s generational change. And that model is important. The famous Thomas Kuhn, who talked about paradigms in science, he said that science could change one funeral at a time, because the older scientists are wedded to their view and the younger people are convinced by the better evidence of the new view. But older people are entrenched, and so change is gradual. But the difference I would say between politicians and professors is that politicians don’t have tenure. It’s a big difference. Big difference.
And so, if your party is changing around you and you want to stay viable politically, and especially if you want to advance beyond your current position, you have a big incentive to change with the times. And as I said, Joe Biden is a great example of that. Throughout his whole career, he’s been slightly center-left for the country as a whole, in the center of the Democratic Party. And he’s maintained that position by changing as the party changed. I mean, he’s embraced transgender rights. Now, this is something that it would’ve been unthinkable decades ago. And politicians, for them, these are questions about their career in a way that they just aren’t for voters. And that’s an important difference.
It’s also true that they’re human beings and they may be influenced by the same larger context that voters are. They may also have a psychological drive to stay with their group, with the party. They may be convinced like other people in the party that the world has changed, and the fundamental values that they have now require a new position. So, that’s possible too. I don’t want to be too cynical, but when you see the shifts that the politicians make and beyond that, when you look at the timing of their shifts, they generally are politically advantageous for them. And I came to this in my research looking at this, because the older work in this area said that politicians do not change their positions.
Not because maybe they wouldn’t because they wouldn’t be prepared to, but because they couldn’t get away with it, because they would be seen as flip-floppers and unreliable. And so, they’re inhibited from doing it. And if I made what I think one contribution, it’s to show empirically that there is a lot of shifting by incumbents, successfully. And that they figured out that it is better to take the position that is currently advantageous and take the hit for changing than to stick with an old position that people no longer want. And if possible, they deny that they ever had the old position and things like that. But in the end, they want to be acceptable to the people who care about the issue right now for careerist reasons.
And because of that, you get important changes on the part of incumbents. And so, change is not always that slow. There is also certainly some element of generational change that can be important too. Some politicians, as I said, are entrenched. They don’t really feel a lot of pressure. Immediately it changed their position. And maybe if they retired, a younger person would take the new dominant view within the party. But there’s also a lot of adaptation, and, I think, more than scholars who wrote before me acknowledged.
Nir: Are you saying that science would progress more quickly if physics professors had to stand for reelection every two years?
Karol: If they had to stand for reelection, maybe, among physicists, not among the voters as a whole, I think.
Beard: Now, if you’re a voter or an activist, maybe someone listening to this podcast and you’re very passionate about an issue that’s maybe not a current issue, that stands for, let’s say, the Democratic Party. What are the best ways in which to go about trying to influence how that party is positioned on an issue?
Karol: Okay. That’s a really interesting question. I’d say historically, people didn’t ask that. They asked just, how can I get any politician to support this cause that I care about? But now in polarization, people are very tied to their parties. So, I would say get involved in a group that focuses on that issue and let politicians know that you care about it. And groups do a lot. They give endorsements, which they publicize. They raise money for politicians. They volunteer time, they show up at events. Target politicians who seem persuadable. At first, maybe people who get less attention, maybe don’t start with the President of the United States, but start locally where your group has more strength and contact them in a coordinated way.
And another thing is build coalitions with other groups that are already deeper and more entrenched in the party that may be sympathetic and looking for allies. This happened between African Americans and organized labor in the 1940s, for example, in the northern Democratic Party. And this can work over time. Politicians really notice intensity.
For them, it’s not just about what a poll tells them 50% of people think about an issue, because they know most people don’t care and don’t pay attention to most things, most causes. So, if they see that there’s a small group of people that really cares about this, and it can make a difference in how they will vote in primaries, whether they will raise money, whether they will get out the vote, they will pay attention.
They may also be sincerely believers in the cause, but if they can see that there’s something politically to be gained, that there’s a constituency there, they will be responsive to it. It doesn’t mean that they will give this group everything at once. The Democratic Party did not support same-sex marriage until it became broadly popular, but they did other things that were supportive of LGBT rights. And that was originally not a popular cause. And politicians are responsive and parties are malleable. We’ve seen both our parties change, and a lot of that is a story of people who are active and push specific causes and politicians responded over time.
Nir: This has all been tremendously fascinating. We have been talking with David Karol, an associate professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland in College Park, about his work on how party positions change in American politics. David, before we let you go, how can our listeners learn more about these issues, and specifically your work and where can they follow you online?
Karol: Okay. So, they can look at my books on this topic, Party Position Change in American Politics: Coalition Management, and Red, Green, and Blue, about the polarization on environmental issues. A couple of more recent articles. I have a website, Google online at the University of Maryland. On social media, on what used to be known as Twitter, I’m just @D-K-A-R-O-L and at Threads, @D-A-V-I-D-K-A-R-O-L_D-K.
Nir: Well, thank you so much for joining us on “The Downballot” this week.
Karol: Great to be here.
Beard: That’s all from us this week. Thanks to David Karol for joining us. “The Downballot” comes out every Thursday everywhere you listen to podcasts. You can reach out to us by emailing email@example.com. If you haven’t already, please subscribe to The Downballot on Apple Podcast and leave us a five-star rating and review. Thanks to our editor, Trever Jones, and we’ll be back next week with a new episode.