The Overton Window is the current term for moving the inert political middle to the right or the left. It refers to “the range of policies on any given issue that are, at the moment, popular enough for a politician to campaign on successfully.” (“A Theory of Everything,” by Laura Marsh, New Republic, December 2016, pg. 6.) In the old days the middle was called, “the silent majority.” Today it’s the Overton Window, flanked on either side by conservative or liberal views that are eager to enter the main frame. To get the public’s attention, advocates to the right or left, assert the unthinkable. They do it with such force, people imagine a cultural shift has occurred. This, says Laura Marsh, is how radical ideas like homeschooling, tuition tax credits and vouchers went mainstream. (Click)
In the current political rift, Donald Trump represents the extreme right and Bernie Sanders, the extreme left. Both are attempting to shift the Overton Window’s boundaries. So far, the debate is a no holds barred mud wrestle, the effect of which is to entertain the media as it rakes in profits by drafting outrageous headlines.
Believers would be unwise to place too much faith in the Overton Window, however. Neither Trump or Sanders is pulling people in a direction they weren’t already going. In fact, it would be truer to say both men stumbled into their bases rather than having created them. I’ll go farther and say what we are experiencing is less a war between right and left than a growing awareness by the extremes that the middle has shifted. That shift has been taking place over the last few decades thanks to a change in the ethnic mix of the country and the consequence of public education. Yes, that badly treated institution, the public school, has continued to do its work opening minds, having been given a boost from science and technology. Most youngsters, for example, are hip to the fact that 97% of the scientific community says climate change is real, despite naysayers in Congress and the White House. (Click)
Anyone who imagines the Overton Window is a new strategic concept is overdosing on Alice B. Toklas brownies. (Click) It’s Bargaining 101. Any negotiator worth a day’s pay knows the opening salvo in a tug-of-war is to slap extreme demands on the table in the hope of getting something in the middle.
In my opinion, neither the right or left will make crucial decisions. The silent majority adjusts according to its values. Like a groggy giant, it moves slowly, a little unsure from moment to moment of what those values may be. But I predict, the path leads in a liberal direction. Those who want to hurry it along may do more damage than they suppose, unless they see existence in Syria as an enviable lifestyle.
We must keep our faith in the future, no matter the temporary chaos around us. As individuals, we can be monstrously stupid and selfish and cruel. But as a species, as a people, history has shown we have the instinct to do what’s right. I believe in that instinct. I believe in my country.