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Thursday, March 2, 2017

Looking through the Overton Window

Politicians are a cowardly lot. They fear saying anything that will alienate voters so they stick to the mainstream of public opinion. They identify the sweet spot of moderate positions on the issues and the liberals fall slightly to the left of that while conservatives align slightly to the right. But both fastidiously avoid going too far from the center into the fringe.

The late Joseph Overton, a vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a Michigan think tank, coined the eponymous phrase “the Overton Window” to describe the range of ideas  deemed palatable in public discourse. Every political issue sits on a spectrum of public opinion. Take drug use for example. On the far left of the spectrum is the libertarian notion that any drug use should be unregulated and completely legal based on the precept that individual should be able to do whatever they wish. On the far right of the spectrum, an ultraconservative position would be that recreational drug use be illegal and violators should be put to death. Those are two extreme positions. The sweet spot, of course, would be in the middle:  a moderate position that makes some drugs like alcohol and tobacco completely legal, some drugs decriminalized with lesser penalties, and some drugs heavily criminalized with long prison terms as penalties for violators. The Overton Window defines what’s politically acceptable. The extreme positions would fall outside the Overton Window because they would be considered radical and unthinkable, whereas positions inside the Overton Window would be viewed as mainstream. There’s lots of room within the Overton Window for conservatives and liberals to squabble but both would agree anything outside the window would be a fringe position far too radical and controversial ever to be seriously advocated.

Remember when I said politicians are a cowardly lot? They don’t lead social change, they follow it. They’re like weathervanes, pointing in whatever direction the political wind is blowing. Our political leaders are not leaders, they’re followers. They follow public opinion because they always have their eye on the next election. Because of this, political change almost always follows social change. Over time, the Overton Window shifts to the left or the right on different issues and what was once considered radical and unacceptable (e.g., civil rights, homosexuality) becomes mainstreamed, and conversely previously mainstream positions (e.g., slavery, smoking in public places) become unacceptable.

Thus, social pressure leads the Overton Window to shift over time, turning fringe positions into mainstream positions, and likewise transforming previously acceptable social or political views into politically incorrect taboos outside the window. This means the Overton Window doesn’t move in response to political pressure from politicians (remember, they seek the sweet spot within the window) but rather from societal pressure when the society that elects the politicians changes how it sees the issues. This has the effect of leaving most politicians behind and scrambling to catch up whenever the window shifts.

Intrinsic to the Overton Window is the idea of acceptable boundaries for public discourse. Two hundred years ago, a candidate might well have campaigned on a platform supporting the institution of slavery. Since then, the Overton Window has shifted and any candidate attempting to do that today would be considered so far out of the mainstream as to be a “fringe” candidate and completely unelectable. The two-party system, for all its faults, has always ensured stability within the nation because its nominees have always taken positions within the Overton Window. America has other political parties such as the Communist party, the Socialist party, the American Nazi party, and the Green party but they have always been considered fringe parties well outside the Overton Window and therefore politically irrelevant. Unlike other nations, America does not have a coalition government because all but the two major parties are considered to be outside the Overton Window. Mainstream means either Democrat or Republican, and at least in presidential elections only a nominee from one of these two parties will be elected. Conversely, the label of “Democrat” or “Republican”  is an imprimatur assuring voters that the candidate, no matter how liberal or conservative, remains squarely within the Overton Window, assuring the stability of the nation will continue.

The election of Donald Trump saw a seismic shift in the Overton Window, creating faultlines that threaten the stability of American democracy. David Brooks framed the election as a choice between “an ardent nationalist, which Donald Trump is sort of a European-style blood-and-soil nationalist, versus a candidate on the Democratic side who is more of a globalist.” Trump consistently took positions considered well outside the mainstream and thus beyond the Overton Window. He was a populist, a nationalist, and an anti-globalist. He argued for protectionism and tariffs; isolationism that included withdrawing from NATO and the UN; and an “America First” policy including massive deportation of illegal immigrants, construction of a border wall, and a travel ban on Muslims entering the country.

The Overton Window continues to shift, as the unthinkable becomes politically acceptable: The president installs a white nationalist in the White House as his de facto Chief of Staff; the president routinely lies to the American public; the president names the most unqualified cabinet in history; the president bans the New York Times and the BBC from press conferences; the president declares the news media to be “the enemy of the people” and states the press should not be allowed to use unnamed sources; the president attacks and insults America’s allies like Australia while cozying up to its longtime enemy Russia. A national registry based on religion is now a topic of debate. What was once unthinkable has become normalized.

It would be frightening to believe one man could shift the Overton Window in such a brief period of time. A popular consensus among civil libertarians is that Donald Trump, through a cult of personality based on his years as a media figure culminating in his reality TV show star status, was able to mainstream the pernicious Alt-Right agenda riding a wave of populism and anti-globalism. But the truth is even scarier and represents a greater threat to American democracy.

Trump did not shift the Overton Window; he merely realized before the media or anyone else that the Overton Window had already shifted. Remember, most politicians are always behind the curve. Apparently the media were too. Trump tapped into the zeitgeist of the American public: the feeling that globalization has left the ordinary citizen behind economically while benefiting only the large multinational corporations; the xenophobia and resentment toward immigrants, especially illegal ones; and the racism inherent in populism.

Trump manipulated the news media by staking out positions outside of what most considered to be the Overton Window. By taking such apparently controversial positions, Trump received more than $2 billion in free media coverage while spending only $10 million of his own campaign funds during the primaries. Trump’s media coverage routinely eclipsed that of Bernie Sanders who drew significantly larger crowds throughout the campaign. Trump received the coverage because he was viewed as an oddity, a fringe candidate despite his continuing success throughout the primaries, because he was constantly espousing positions presumably well outside the Overton Window.

Because the Overton Window has shifted so dramatically, social and political consensus will be difficult to achieve and there will likely be a greater political polarization and less civility in society. But the most important point, and the greatest threat to democracy, is that Donald Trump did not shift the Overton Window: he merely revealed that its boundaries have been realigned by American society. The American people did this. Our values as a nation have changed, and not for the better. The ideas on which America was founded – freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, a nation of immigrants, a melting pot, separation of powers, judicial review – are being devalued, denigrated, and ultimately disregarded. The foundations of democracy, which generations of Americans fought and died to preserve, are being discarded under the guise of populism.

Trump has seized on this and ridden the wave of populism into power. But the underlying problem and the threat to democracy itself stems from the American people who no longer understand or appreciate the unique government the founding fathers fashioned. Whether due to a lack of education in areas of civics or American history or the dumbing down of society through popular culture, Americans themselves have shifted the Overton Window and made the unthinkable a reality. The problem with the Overton Window is that once the unthinkable becomes normalized we accept it as the New Normal. If that becomes the case this time, then democracy will be lost and history has shown freedom lost is not easily regained.

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