Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Chewing On The Overton Window

A couple commenters I've read recently on other blogs have used the term Overton window. I'd not heard of it. Wikipedia defines it as a concept in political theory which "describes a 'window' in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue." (A Canadian commenter talked about how their Overton window was considerably to the left of the American one.)

The Wikipedia article has a particularly interesting bit about how the window--and public opinion itself--can be made to change over time. One way to shift the window is to promote political ideas which are beyond the fringe of politically-acceptable thought. Exposure to the uncomfortable or unacceptable causes milder versions of the same concept to seem tolerable (reminds me of the Stockholm Syndrome somehow). By this means, the shifting window causes ideas previously just outside the window to be inside.

I think the idea has value in helping to explain how America's political center has moved so far to the right in the past decade or so. Liberals and centrists spent the Bush years in sputtering disbelief at what was being publicly embraced as policy. But these ideas were always warmly supported--and handily exceeded--by the right wing media machine. Meanwhile, there was no counter-balancing organized and unified leftist or even center-left movement. The right is organized and united (against enemies real and invented) and the right wing media have moved in lock step; and with the broader media giving "equal time" legitimacy to every right wing idea (witness the mainstream press coverage of the Teabagger fringe), the disorganized left's response has been overtures to compromise and capitulation. But this tactic is all damage-control. No one is promoting liberal ideas with anything like the force and organization that the right employs. Meanwhile, the boundary of the far right moves further and further to the right, taking the center with it. And taking the leftmost political boundary rightward as well. It's a coup.

I remember having a very Overton-window-like thought years ago. In college I watched the abortion battles of the Reagan years and listened to the fringe right trying to illegalize abortion even in cases of rape, incest or for health of the woman. And I remember thinking that one way of helping to protect reproductive rights might be to tactically espouse a much more extreme position than where I hoped we as a society would end up. For example, I wondered specifically if it mightn't be ultimately helpful to introduce legislation that, say, required any unmarried woman below age 18 who got pregnant to have a state-funded abortion.

Of course I detest the idea (a duplicity which maybe is not to be found among those promoting far-right ideas), and I feel certain that such a measure is rightly (and thankfully) unpassable; but I couldn't help thinking that a vigorous enough promotion of this idea--or something like it--might help make safe, elective abortion on demand seem politically centrist.

I think of this now when I look at the draconian Teabagger ideas. One could take up a whole host of counter-active measures in this way. But of course this would require an organized political left, which our country appears to lack.

Just a thought.


Addendum: OK, upon reflection I realize that my 25-year-old thought experiment may have some difficulties. Not least is the fact that the strategy I offer up is at least as misogynistic as the measures it seeks to combat. I'm not a lawyer, but it would seem that if we seek to preserve the individual liberties of more than half the population, we ought at least to have this, and not just tactical shock-and-awe power, in our favor.

But even if I'm not too sharp on strategy, I think the general concept of shifting the Overton window is worth thinking on.


Dzesika said...

Brilliant. Tomorrow morning, when I'm listening to and generally getting frustrated at the news, I'm going to scream the most extreme opinion I can think of and see if it works. :)

wunelle said...

I suspect my coworkers think I'm already doing this, and I've convinced exactly... ZERO of them. So here's hoping your results may vary! ;-)

dbackdad said...

Great post. I'd never heard of the term but definitely see the logic of it all.

It's the whole "fair and balanced" myth. Giving two ideas of unequal validity equal weight is not being fair or being balanced.

shrimplate said...

Thanks for spelling that out. It's my vocabulary word of the day. Tomorrow I will use it in sentences at work.