Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Radical!!! - Part 5: The Overton Window

This is part of a 5-part series. Following are the links to the other parts. Part 1  Part 2  Part 3  Part 4

   In the first part of this series, I talked about some issues that have changed over time, including allowing women the right to vote, civil rights for blacks, and even acceptance of birth control. One I did not mention that is very important to this discussion is gay rights, particularly the right to marry. All of these issues relate to the concept of the Overton Window. This is a political theory, conceived by Joseph Overton, that deals with the range of politically acceptable ideas in regards to the possible ideas.
Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the "window" of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.

So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the "window," a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.
Emphasis mine. In short, if you wish to see political change, your course of action should not be to pressure the politician, but to educate and sway public opinion.

   Now, many people may be skeptical about this. There is the idea that our politicians are "bought" by corporations. Well, I actually agree with this, too. The ideas are not mutually exclusive. The corporatations, in my opinion, have been both moving polititions to their preferred side of the Overton Window as well as moving the Window itself by (mis)educating the population. Take this video, for example:

   See? These big oil companies are really just trying to create jobs and secure our energy future. It's not at all about making huge profits and harming the environment!

   That was, of course, sarcasm, but the point is that I think there is a two-frontal assult on the American people. This is necessary because the power ultimately rests in the hands of the electorate. If you can get the people to vote against their self-interests and get the politicians to vote against the interests of their constituants, you win! (And while I agree an oil pipeline will create jobs, it's a case of the cons outweighing the pros.)

   With regards to OWS, this is a mix of good and bad news. OWS will hopefully send the message that the Overton window is moving and that they had better move with it, or they will be voted out no matter how much money their donors give them. The bad news may be that the election results will not reflect this.

   I say this because I have seen a number of people supportive and even involved in this movement talk about how all our politicians are corrupted, some even going as far as to suggest that people not even bother voting. Based on theories like the Overton Window, that is actually the best way to ensure that things stay the same. Some suggest supporting a "third party," but I suggest that is also silly. (And the ones who suggest that the third party be Libertarians really give me the chills!) The idea of supporting a third party is that they will hopefully have good intentions and won't be corrupted - we'll call them "honest" politicians. But that's just bullshit, too. I occasionally argue with these people that some of the problem is that (1) the honest politions are often not going to win and (2) the more honest ones who do get elected are still going to be limited in what they can do, which (3) means that the honest ones may end up appearing corrupted in order to stay in office. Based on the Overton Window, I think I have been correct in such arguments.

   Just look at what happened last year. First, earlier in the year, there were a few Republicans who lost their primaries to the Tea Party. More importantly than that is a lot of other Republicans shifted their political views to the right. Then, in the general election, a lot of Democrats lost their seats. Additionally, some Democrats (seemingly the ones who were moderate to begin with) even adopted some Tea Party ideas in an attempt to win their elections. Some states had huge swings of power in their state houses (I think New Hampshire was one that had a large Democratic majority to a a large Republican majority), many states now have Republican governors that didn't before, and also the U.S. House of Representatives gained a Republican majority.

   How did this happen? The website where I learned about the Overton Window used a picture of a bunch of people pulling on a rope. While he didn't describe it as a tug-of-war, I think you could. And I therefore suggest that the liberals, for the most part, gave up on pulling for a while, and the Overton Window shifted to the right as those on the right kept pulling. The politicians shifted accordingly. The good news is that hopefully the Occupy Wall Street movement will effectively pull the window back to the left. In fact, that is the most important thing OWS can do. The politicians won't react to a movement unless the movement has demonstrated that it can or has affected election results. So, OWS people, keep pulling! And VOTE!!!

   And vote for people who actually have a shot at winning. I hate to say it, but you have to go with the electable candidate even if they are not the ideal candidate. Yet, keep pulling on the Window! That is ultimately the key. If and when the window fits over your ideal candidate, then and only then will they be electable. But if you give up on pulling the Window because you're discouraged as you can't get your ideal candidate in office, you will never get that cadidate in, nor will you get anyone close to that ideal candidate.

   Getting back to how this relates to the series is that the Overton Window cannot be shifted by people sitting in the window. Moving the Window must come from outside the Window. That means taking a radical position and then popularizing that postition, which ultimately makes that originally radical position the norm. The positions I mentioned at the beginning were once radical ideas. Few would think that today because the Overton Window was moved over top those radical ideas.

   I must add that one thing the Tea Party did correctly was promote the idea of holding politicians accountable as opposed to the idea of all politicians being corrupt. The former idea encourages the reality that people are capable of changing the system for what they think is the better as opposed to the pessimistic, self-defeating idea that there is no chance of fixing things. Additionally, it also encourages voters to evaluate their politians based on their performance, instead of painting them all with a broad brush. One of the other things that upsets me with those who suggest that all of the Democrats are corrupt is that they are also discouraging people to vote for the ones out there who seem reasonable. Take Elizabeth Warren for example. I really think she has the best interests of the people in mind. At the same time, she is registered as a Democrat. So, if you paint all Democrats as corrupt, you then paint Elizabeth Warren as corrupt, too. We can't be doing this or we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot.

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