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Political Animal

The Overton Window

By Brian Morton | Posted 12/31/2008

Some years back, during a summer vacation with friends at an Ocean City beach house, I was asked by their daughter to "explain politics." The girl was a bright and precocious junior high school student who, up until that point, really hadn't thought much about the political system.

On a paper plate with a magic marker, I drew a line going from right to left, and then at the center of that line, I bisected it with a smaller line. "This," I told her, "is the political center" (and resisted the urge to follow that up with Texas political commentator Jim Hightower's aphorism that the only thing you'll find there is a double yellow line and a dead armadillo).

On the line I marked off different sections as we moved away from the center: liberals and conservatives who believed in strong national defense, those on the left who wanted more government regulation and a stronger social safety net, and those on the right who argued for smaller government and lower taxes. I illustrated my thesis by pointing out to her the general position of various political leaders at the time: Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Jesse Jackson, Trent Lott, and Tom DeLay.

And then, partly in jest, I drew a dotted line from one end of the original line, and swung it below, to have it meet up with the other end of the first line, making it a giant circle with a flattened top. "And of course, there are the 'radicals,' those who are so far off the ends of each side of the spectrum that they almost meet each other." Ramsay Clark. Lyndon LaRouche. Sun Myung Moon.

I admit, it was a simplistic way to illustrate the American political spectrum, but then again, most times one isn't tasked to explain political theory while wearing wet swim trunks after a meal of Grotto Pizza. But here we are, years later, and what was then "the center" hasn't been the political center in a long time, thanks to the efforts of Dick Cheney and Rush Limbaugh and Fox News and, well, any media organ that went along with the Iraq war virtually without question.

Beginning from the time Al Gore was mocked for saying the Social Security trust fund should be treated as a "lock box," on through George W. Bush's pre-election claim that he could rebate taxes, grow the economy, and maintain the surplus, we started seeing the center shift to the right. Bush was elected by a vote of the Supreme Court the first time, and by the slimmest of majorities the second time, and yet he managed to govern as if he achieved landslides in both cases. How did this happen?

They moved the Overton window.

Little did I know, back when I was drawing on the paper plate back in the 1990s, that a social scientist named Joe Overton, who was the vice-president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, created a model that went far beyond my simple scribblings to explain how policy can change by "moving the edges." For every position on the original line--we'll oversimplify by saying "far left," "left," "center-left," "center," "center-right," and so on--there is a "window" that encompasses several positions on the line, and that illustrates the accepted norms of public policy discourse. So "a total ban on all guns" would be outside of the edge of the window on the left side of the spectrum, as a policy prescription from the far left, and "use of nuclear weapons in small-scale warfare" would be off the charts on the right side. These are exaggerations, of course. Or so we hope.

Over the course of the Bush years, the conservatives, by dint of media saturation and message discipline, managed to change the accepted norms of policy discourse, and slide the window far to the right, where the "center" no longer was the center. The way Overton put it was to make popular ideas that are so far off the edge part of the discussion that ideas that were once mildly unpalatable become reasonable.

Sort of like Dr. Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's stages of grief, the public looks at any policy in various phases: unthinkable, radical, acceptable, sensible, popular, and policy. So, for example, the idea of "universal health care" in 1993 was fairly radical, and the Clintons took a hit on the chin for trying to move the window too fast. The insurance companies unleashed "Harry and Louise," the public resisted, and universal health care died an ugly death as a policy idea.

Fast forward to now, where a bad economy is hurting everybody, skyrocketing costs and an aging electorate are combining to make people more uneasy about their future, and businesses are unwilling to foot the bill for health-care costs for workers, and suddenly an idea that was seen as radical 15 years ago is somewhere between sensible and popular.

Due to a combination of events and Bush administration overreach, Barack Obama may have an historical chance to slide the Overton window far back to the left. Maybe the center might even become the center again.

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The Fix (8/4/2010)

Police State (7/7/2010)

Funny Business (6/9/2010)

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