Tag Archives: Overton Window

McConnell And Asymmetric Polarization

I have previously made my opinion of Mitch McConnell very clear–he has been far more destructive of American constitutional governance than Trump.

America actually lucked out with Trump–a self-engrossed buffoon too incompetent, too ignorant, and too mentally-ill to do the permanent damage to which he aspired. McConnell, on the other hand, understands government and how to manipulate the arcane rules of the Senate to achieve truly evil results.

In the wake of the Georgia special election that allowed the Democrats to take control of the Senate, Jennifer Senior wrote a column for the New York Times that echoed my own reaction:

So tell me, Mitch, in these, your final hours as Senate majority leader: Were the judges and the tax cuts worth it?

Were they worth the sacking of the Capitol? The annexation of the Republican Party by the paranoiacs and the delusional? The degradation, possibly irremediable, of democracy itself?

Those close to him say that Mitch McConnell has his eye on his legacy, now more than ever. But I wonder whether he already understands, in some back bay of his brain where the gears haven’t been ground to nubs, that history will not treat him well.

Senior points out that McConnell plays the “long game,” and that he never does anything unless it serves his personal interests.

He’s methodical in his scheming, awaiting his spoils with the patience of a cat. So if hitching his wagon to a sub-literate mob boss with a fondness for white supremacists and a penchant for conspiracy theories and a sociopath’s smirking disregard for the truth meant getting those tax cuts and those conservative judges … hey, that’s the cost of doing business, right?

Suddenly, incomprehensible as it must seem to him, McConnell is being out-eviled from the right. And that reality is finally beginning to dawn on the media outlets that have aspired to “fairness” by framing contemporary politics with a patently false equivalence–ignoring the fact that the GOP has been moving to the right much, much faster (and much, much farther) than the Democrats have moved to the left, in what political scientists term “asymmetrical polarization.”

(Actually, the Democrats are simply returning to their previous position(s) after also moving right in a misconceived effort to out-Republican the GOP. See, among other things, Bill Clinton and welfare reform…)

Senior writes that, chief among the reasons for this state of affairs is  that the G.O.P. has run what she calls “a decades-long campaign to delegitimize government. Run against it long enough, and eventually you have a party that wants to burn the system to the ground.”

What really struck me about Senior’s column was her recitation of things I hadn’t previously known about McConnell–what you might call philosophical U-Turns if you are gullible enough to believe that McConnell ever genuinely embraced a moral agenda. She notes that he had “a youthful fling” with the civil rights movement, before enthusiastically embracing Nixon’s southern strategy, and that he was once pro-choice (!).

Those of us who follow public policy already knew that McConnell had joined the majority of Congressional Republicans in abandoning the GOP’s purported concern over deficits in favor of tax breaks for the rich and subsidies for favored businesses. And then…

When preserving power prerogatives overtook his party’s concerns about the former Soviet Union? No problem. McConnell refused to hear out warnings about Russian interference until weeks before the 2016 election (at which point he buried them), and he refused to consider bipartisan legislation that would attempt to curb foreign meddling until he earned himself the moniker “Moscow Mitch.”

When his party went from free trade to nativist populism, powered by xenophobia and racist resentment? Not a problem. He’d side with the populists, including their dangerous Dear Leader, until his workplace was overrun, five people were dead and the Constitution itself was among the critically injured.

Norman J. Ornstein, as usual, is analytically spot-on, describing McConnell and the radical Republicans who followed and then eclipsed him in perfidy as embracing an “ends-justify-the-means philosophy” in which winning is more important than governing.

It’s true that American politics is polarized. It is demonstrably not true that the Democrats have gone far to the left. It may look that way to the casual observer because, next to today’s semi-fascist GOP, sanity looks “left.”

We are looking through an Overton Window. It needs to shift.

 

Left, Right, Center: Just Words

When it became apparent that Joe Biden had effectively won the Democratic nomination, it intensified the longstanding arguments between the party’s moderate and left wings about just where the American public falls on that beloved–and misleading–left/right spectrum.

A good example was this article from Washington Monthly, reprinted on Alterrnet.

This is the fourth consecutive defeat for Sanders-style revolutionary leftist politics in the Anglosphere: Sanders lost to Clinton in 2016; Sanders-style revolutionary candidates lost most of their Congressional races in 2018 while moderates were much more successful; Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to Labour politics was obliterated in Great Britain by buffoonish Boris Johnson’s Tories in a direct Sanders-Trump parallel; and now the Biden victory in the 2020 Democratic primary.

But defeatism would be the wrong lesson for leftists interested in passing social democratic policies in America and Britain. The reality is that leftist policy has never been more ascendant in the Democratic Party since at least the 1960s if not the 1930s. The Biden 2020 campaign platform is well to the left of the Clinton 2016 platform, which was itself well to the left of the Obama 2008 platform.

The article went on to point to the mountain of social science research confirming that so-called “Leftist” policies are favored by significant majorities of Americans, which is undeniably true. (The author also pointed out those insisting that economic self-interest can trump cultural divisions are just as undeniably wrong.)

This was just one article among hundreds arguing that this or that campaign success or failure was the result of mistaken political strategies and issue framing. (If Bernie hadn’t insisted on using the word “socialist”….)

To an extent, that’s true.  What all of these analyses miss, however, is the role played by our American insistence on labeling everything. It isn’t simply intellectually lazy; labels significantly distort political reality.

If I consider myself a moderate or conservative, I will recoil when told that position A is “socialist” or “communist.” If I consider myself a liberal or socialist, I will automatically oppose measure A if it is supported by people I consider conservative or reactionary.

Actually, what is “left” and what is “right” at any given time is highly contingent.

When I was a politically-active Republican, the majority of the views I held were the same views I share on this blog. (Not all, obviously, but most. My basic political philosophy has been pretty consistent.) Back then, I was labeled “very conservative.” As the GOP marched over the ideological cliff,  my positions–which hadn’t changed– became “liberal.”

Hard as it may be to believe in our culturally and politically polarized time, many of the positions that Americans label “far left” today were considered unremarkable and mainstream in former years.

That shift is best explained by a concept called the Overton Window. Basically, as public opinion shifts, so does the location of the “middle.”  That middle, at any given time, defines what is politically possible.

In a sane society (granted, that isn’t what we currently inhabit), voters would analyze political positions based upon the perceived ability of those specific proposals to solve identifiable problems–not upon the consistency of that proposal with a label ascribing it to a tribal ideology.

But that would require understanding the problem, agreeing that it is a problem, and thinking carefully about the pros and cons of the proposed solution. It’s so much easier to react not to the proposal but to its identification with the “tribe” that supports it.

I guess that’s why we can’t have nice things…..

 

A Warning About The Overton Window

Well, Happy New Year!

The year 2018 is likely to be pivotal for America; in November, we will see whether outrage is sustainable–whether Trump has continued to be embarrassing and dangerous enough to keep large majorities of Americans active in the political resistance.

A lot can change in eleven months. Outrage can be exhausting. Propaganda can change public opinion. Voter suppression tactics can be ramped up. Racism, xenophobia and misogyny can be normalized and justified.

And then there’s this: Vox has recently warned readers about the Overton Window.

“Don’t normalize this” has become a kind of rallying cry during President Trump’s first year in office — a reminder to not get too acclimated to Trump’s norm-breaking and erratic behavior.

But the real danger of the Trump presidency might have less to do with Trump’s abnormality and more to do with how “normal” he makes other Republicans look by comparison.

It’s a timely warning, because let’s face it: next to the antics and ignorance of this Administration, behavior that once would have shocked us seems pretty tame by comparison.

There’s a concept in political theory developed by Joseph P. Overton which suggests that there’s a “window” of acceptable ideas and policy proposals in public discourse. Everything inside the window is normal and expected, while everything outside the window is radical, ridiculous, or unthinkable. And Overton argued that the easiest way to move that window was to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the window as possible. Because forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they rejected it, would make all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison — it would move the “window” slowly in that direction.

A great deal of that damage has already been done.

Trump’s presidency has forced news networks to grapple with conspiracy theories, right-wing trolls, and dishonest government spokespeople — making them a regular fixture of our national political debates. And that grappling has moved the Overton Window in ways that will warp our politics long after Trump’s presidency comes to an end.

This is the phenomenon that allows us to look at seriously radical politicians and fail to recognize how far they are from what used to be the mainstream. It is the sort of “normalization” that allows us to consider Senators and Representatives “moderate,” despite their consistent support for Trump and his warped agenda, simply because they smile occasionally and refrain from throwing verbal feces.

As odious as Trump and his crew of institutional vandals are, our immediate–and imperative– task is to defeat and replace his complicit Congressional enablers. We can’t let the Overton Window diminish our recognition of their culpability.

If there is a massive Democratic wave in November, it will do three things: it will be a stinging repudiation of Donald Trump; it will hasten the day when the GOP returns to its roots and some semblance of sanity; and–counter-intuitive as it may seem–it will also be a wake-up call to Democrats, because it will signal the continued operation of democratic accountability.

We have eleven months to resist normalizing the bizarre. Eleven months to make sure that vote suppression tactics don’t work. Eleven months to recruit, encourage and support good candidates. Eleven months to begin what will be a long process of restoring sanity and responsibility to American government.

What’s that old saying? This is the first day of the rest of our lives…

Happy 2018. Let’s make it count.