Imagine that you live in a room with just one window. It looks out onto a rather normal scene: a bit of lawn, a strip of flowers alongside the road, a maple tree in the middle. The scene changes a bit with the seasons, of course. In winter, there are no flowers, no leaves on the tree, and snow covers the grass. In autumn, the tree turns a brilliant orange, the sun casts long shadows, Queen Anne’s lace blooms at the edge. In spite of these small variations, whenever you look out the window, you see essentially the same scene and that’s what’s “normal” to you and to everyone who lives with you.
One night, without your even really noticing, someone comes and moves the window a few inches to the right. When you wake up and look out, things look pretty much the same as they did yesterday: spring leaves on the tree, bright green grass on the ground, a few daffodils and tulips along the street. (That garden strip. It’s always changing. Spring flowers now; daisies and black-eyed-susans later. That’s the way of the world.) Well, just off to the right edge of the window, there’s the corner of a three-story building, but it’s not too visible. You’re busy getting dressed and your mind is on your personal concerns. Maybe that building was always there and you just never noticed. A bit later, some other people come at night and move the window a few more inches to the right. Now, the tree is no longer in the middle of the scene that you see every day; it’s decidedly off to the left. And that building, well, it’s nearly front and center. It’s always been there, though; you’ve been seeing it for weeks. This happens a few more times and, a year later, the normal view out your window is of a busy street, a three-story building, and part of a five-story building. If someone mentions that there used to be trees, and flowers, and grass, everyone laughs, or gasps, or gets upset. Of course those things are impossible! Just look out the window! What’s normal is what’s out the window: buildings and asphalt.
And that, as we all know, is how the Overton Window works. Ideas, from either the Left or the Right, fall somewhere on a spectrum:
But if I can yank the window in one direction, so that what was once radical now occupies the position that was once acceptable — everyone says it; we all know it’s true; we’ve been hearing it for years — then I can move policy in the direction I want.
The Right is much better at this game than the Left. Note how no one on the Right ever criticizes even the more extreme members of the Right: Rush Limbaugh, Anne Coulter, Breitbart, and, now, even people on CNN questioning whether Jews are people. And, then, those ideas are “out there,” and, suddenly, we’ve stopped discussing whether we should help parents pay for day care and we’re running around insisting that, yes, of course, Jews are people. OK, sure, everyone is entitled to their point of view and, agreed, both sides are kind of to blame here, but, wait, no, internment camps aren’t legal (What’s the big deal? The Right told us for years that Obama was going to put our grannies in death camps. Camps are normal now!), no, hold on, you can’t make people wear stars and, . . . .
Even when they “lose” the argument, the Right wins by shifting the range of what’s normal.
One thing to notice about the Overton Window is that the way that the Right manipulates the window is very similar to what an abusive partner does. At first, he’s charming and wonderful. Then, there’s that one odd little demand: you ARE going to hang up all his shirts in color-coded order in the closet. And, really, what’s so difficult about that? It’s a simple demand and it’s just not worth making him angry over it. Some of your foibles probably seem odd to him, too. You know, the one where you don’t want to hand over your paycheck without any information or conditions. And then there’s the day when you misjudge which yellow shirt is lighter than the other one and he smacks you. Later, he’s very sorry and wishes you hadn’t made him do that, but the window just shifted. Now, it isn’t acceding to an odd demand that’s the new normal; getting smacked is the new normal. In a few days when he says he doesn’t like your best friend, it’s just easier to stop seeing her than to deal with getting smacked. Eventually, it will, on the Overton scale, be “unthinkable” for you to expect to get through a day without getting smacked for something. A good day is a day with only a few smacks. But this all started out over how you hung up the shirts when you (natch) did the laundry.
Con artists do the same thing. They get you to say yes to some very small request; something you’d be embarrassed to refuse. Will you loan them a dollar to cover their share of the lunch tab? Once you say yes to that little thing, it can become more difficult to draw the line. Last week, you were happy to lend them five dollars; why are you balking over six dollars this week? What kind of cheapskate won’t lend a friend a dollar extra this week? OK, they’ll forgive you for being so cheap last week and will even give you a chance to show that you’re sorry; here’s an investment opportunity you can’t refuse.
The Left has been losing the Overton Window game for decades and now we’ve got a fascist president-elect and CNN and the New York Times are essentially becoming his propaganda machines. What’s to be done? Here are a few suggestions.
- Recognize and call out what’s going on. “Hey! CNN just let a Nazi question whether Jews are people! That’s batshit insane! They’re letting fascists manipulate the Overton Window!”
- Start pulling in the other direction. There’s a huge temptation to just react to what the fascists are doing. Reject that. Don’t talk about how we can “save” Social Security by cutting benefits. Talk about the need for everyone to receive a basic income. Don’t talk about a carbon tax; talk about leaving it all in the ground. Don’t talk about whether some abortion restrictions are reasonable; talk about providing free birth control to high school students.
- Work to overturn Citizens United. It’s not the only reason, but one reason that most members of the Left are far more timid than most members of the right is that the Left has to get funding from large corporations, too. And large corporations favor fascist forms of government. Most members of the media have to get advertising dollars from large corporations. And large corporations favor fascist forms of government.
- Stop the fucking purity wars. The Left has, for decades, been much more involved in purging anyone who is — by your definition/my definition/some great man of history’s definition/the most radical socialist’s definition — insufficiently “pure,” than it has been at, for example, winning the Overton Window war. Anyone who is willing to stand up to fascists is my ally at the moment. Later, when we’ve moved into that grand and glorious ectopia that I once hoped to live to see, we can have a debate about who was most hurt when they called out fascism and not everyone immediately saw how brilliant they were. If you simply can’t support something another Leftist does or says, you can at least not call the police just to show the Right how decent you are. They won’t do that for you.
Feel free to add your own ideas in comments.
Picture found here.