Wednesday, November 08, 2006

It's Up to US, Not to the Leadership: More on Overton Windows

Now that our victory is firmly established and we've gotten the appropriate gloating out of the way, the celebrations are subsiding and the fizz is disappearing from the champagne.

The time now comes to realize the work that lies before us, and to establish our attitude for the coming two years of MAJORITY in the House and Senate.

And that, my friends, brings good news and bad news.  Yes, I can give you platitudes about how our battle is far from over; how we must hold our party's feet to the fire; how the GOP machine is anything but beaten; how Rove's deck is still stacked heavily against us; how K-Street continues to ruin our lives.

But that's not what I'm here to do today.  Those things are obvious.

No, today I call for calm.  I call for patience.

Above all, I call for those who will be frustrated after vainly expecting swift recriminations against the Bush Regime and massive public policy shifts to watch contentedly as we shift the Overton Window OUR way, slowly but surely.

In case you don't remember what the Overton Window is, allow me to quote a major chunk (if you've already read it, feel free to skip!) from my popular post on the subject, derived from Josh Trevino's great post at Swords Crossed [N.B.: the Kos archives are still down; the entire piece may also be found on my blog here]:

the GOP knows that the middle DOES matter.  They know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison....<snip>

To quote Trevino:

"The mission of a think tank is to introduce ideas into public discourse and normalize them within the public discourse. The steps an idea takes to full legitimacy are roughly as follows:







One useful tool is the Overton window. Named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy who developed the model, it's a means of visualizing where to go, and how to assess progress.

What the GOP does is systematically look at how each possible policy position is viewed by the American electorate, and deliberately attempt to shift positions from the "Unthinkable" or "Radical" categories to the "Sensible", "Popular" and "Policy" categories, by any means necessary.  And they're willing to take decades of propaganda to get it done.  To continue:

Do you see how this works?  Systematically, piece by piece, the GOP takes what had been considered impossibly radical positions and makes them worthy of consideration just by talking about them--and then makes what had been considered outside possibilities truly possible.  Now, I happen to believe that legalization of homeschooling is a good thing (though there should be oversight)--others may disagree.

But the important thing to remember is that the Republicans are carrying out this same exercise with every public policy debate today--from invading Iran to making birth control illegal to eliminating Social Security.  The once unthinkable becomes possible--and they don't care if they take some heat for it initially.

To finish:

Step by step, ideas that were once radical or unthinkable -- homeschooling, tuition tax credits, and vouchers -- have moved into normal public discourse. Homeschooling is popular, tuition tax credits are sensible, and vouchers are acceptable. (On the latter, they've been soundly defeated in Michigan of late, but the point is that they are a part of normal public and political discourse.) The de facto illegality of homeschooling, by contrast, has gone the way of the dodo. The conscious decision to shift the Overton window is yielding its results.

So there's your tip from the VRWC for the day. It's a methodology that could work for the left as easily as the right, although I'm not aware of a single left-wing think tank (and they are few) that operates so systemically. If you're of an analytic bent, and want to figure out where a legislative or policy strategy is heading, try constructing the scale of possibilities and the Overton window for the subject at hand. Change can happen by accident, true: but it is just as often the product of deliberation and intent, and it does all of us well to understand the mechanisms by which it occurs.

Amen, Josh, and thank you.  This is something that the Democrats still do not understand.  You win policy debates by crafting arguments for extreme positions--and then shifting the entire window of debate.  You do not win by trying to figure out which position is most popular among Americans right now.

When Concerned Women for America does its thing, that's exactly what they're doing.  They're taking some heat today, in preparation for tomorrow's very real policy battle.  They're priming the public to even talk about the idea of eliminating birth control.  And far from turning off moderate voters, they're going to sway them.  They're going to WIN moderate voters by playing to their base.  But playing to it with careful calculation.


And this stands in stark contrast to the Democrats: When the rightwing attacked the Democrats for promoting "Hillarycare", and the Democrats started to take some heat, we just slinked back into a corner and didn't raise the issue again.  To this day, we are afraid to talk about single-payer health coverage, for fear of offending the middle.

Meanwhile, the progressives among us insist that our leaders simply come out swinging in favor single-payer health coverage to rally our base--without priming the moderate voter for the idea in advance.

Both strategies will fail miserably.


Democrats and Progressives think that winning elections comes down to one of two alternatives: a) taking a principled stand of leadership; or b) listening to focus groups.

The truth is that we need to do both. It is not an either-or scenario.  We cannot achieve victory by playing to the base and ignoring the middle, nor can we win by playing to the middle and ignoring the base.  We need to do both--and the GOP understands this.

Remember that Frank Luntz is the master of the focus group--and that there's many an election they would have lost without him.

To win, we must take principled stands of leadership--using phrases and frames that are calculated to shift the Overton Window to our side.

To win, we must sway the middle by playing to the base--and we must understand that this is a difficult and heavily calculated process that requires time, money and manpower.

Understand very clearly how this works.  For the last 12 years, the GOP has been pretending to be moderate, while its rabid dogs like Ann Coulter push the discourse further and further right.  The Party looks good, the base is kept happy even though it doesn't get everything it wants, and the very definition of moderate changes.  Meanwhile, of course, the political temperature of the water starts to slowly boil the average American froggie, who is taken unawares.

Now, obviously, we do not want to repeat Republican tactics step by step.  We don't want to drive this truck as far left as the GOP has driven it to the right.  To do so would engender a Democratic defeat as decisive as the drubbing we have given the GOP this year.  However, this country's discourse now stands SO far to the right that the people are ready for a change, and a major correction is now long past due.

But that correction will take TIME.  It will take MONEY.  It will take MANPOWER.  But above all, it will take significant effort from all of US--even more effort than we get from our Leadership.

The American people are not looking for major shifts leftward in public policy right now because they have NOT been PRIMED for them.  The Overton Windows are still shifted dangerously far to the right, in Fox News territory.  To make major shifts right now would be political suicide.  Remember that the Republicans did not attempt to destroy habeas corpus and the EPA in 1980; they waited until 2006, when the public had been appropriately primed by their think tanks.  Our wait will not be so long--but a wait it will be.

The American people are not looking for recriminations against the Bush criminal regime right now, much as we may devoutly wish for them.  Given fresh crimes uncovered borne of subpoenas over a year from now, we might get them.  But not now.  We might even have to wait until they leave office.  But please keep ultimate victory in mind: more important than seeing them locked up in the brig or even removing them from power prematurely is discrediting forever their corrupt and mendacious ideology.  And that will take time.

And time is on our side.  The Republican disaster of governance will not stop now; it will redound over the next two years.  Iraq is still a mess.  The economy is still a house of cards.  Our education system is still a disaster.  We're still the laughing-stock and object of scorn in the world.  The people will remain as angry at Republicans now as they were at Democrats during the 80's and 90's.  And we will use that to our advantage is we are PATIENT and give it some TIME.


So do not be disappointed in Pelosi's House and Reid's Senate.  Hold their feet to the fire and don't allow them to triangulate, of course; but be PATIENT.

Remember that, in the overall scheme of things, it is THEIR job to be "moderate" and push no-brainer policies that the American people will approve of: raising the minimum wage, doing something coherent about immigration, giving tuition tax credits to the middle class, funding stem cell research, etc.

And it is OUR job to push the envelope for more progressive policies and shift the very terms of debate in the country--but without stabbing our own guys in the back.  We're the vanguard, and they're the rearguard--intentionally.  That's how it works.

So take heart--and do not be overly disappointed in our Leadership.  The job of MOVING that Overton Window is up to US.  The job of the Leadership is to make sure that they stand squarely in the CENTER of that Window, as we shift it left.

The HARD work falls to us to do what we must.  As does the need for us to be PATIENT as the Leadership does what THEY must.

Together, we can shift this thing back to the Left--where it belongs.


Blogger DavidByron said...

You've written some good stuff on this. You mostly get it I think, however, what you are suggesting still sounds like the underpants gnomes in execution. You know what you want and where you start but there's no "how to".

The extremists on the Right are supported fully by their media and their mainstream. The "extremists" on the left are attacked by even progressives in the blogosphere (the nearest equivalent of their media operation). I for example could not post this comment at either dKos or MyLeftWing because I am banned by them because I am too "extreme" on the left.

Whether it's Chomsky or ANSWER or Ward Churchill or Cynthia McKinney you know it's true; the Democrats always piss on the left in America.

Take impeachment (now supported by the majority of ordinary Americans). Where is the support for the telling of this "unthinkable" / "radical" story by the Democrats?

So while I think you have the goal right, where is the "how to"?

(accidentally posted under the May 2006 post first)

7:05 PM  
Blogger WalkingHeartattack said...

Amen. nailed it right on the head.

3:02 AM  
Blogger thereisnospoon said...

thanks guys. btw, davidbyron, I responded to you on the post you accidentally posted on. I saw it! ;-)

6:25 PM  
Blogger DavidByron said...

I was able to read the comments at dKos. Most seemed to be slightly off the topic, either agreeing THAT progressive views needed pushing or suggesting WHICH views could do with pushing whereas it seems to me the point of talking specifically about Overton Windows is a very specific type of problem and solution.

One or two people did ask "How?" and I ddin't feel you had any answer for them either but to repost it, here's your reply to me in the other place:

the "how to" is simple. The activists and the blogs stand up and push the window. The Democratic Leadership makes a stand to make "popular" policies into "real" policies.

But it isn't that simple. The rightwing can work it because their media and their leaders actively support their "extremists" or window pushers. That is just about the very opposite of the case with progressives / democrats. It doesn't even work that way just limited to within the blogosphere.

Look at the way dKos bans entire categories of "extremists" (eg the 9-11 conspiracy theorists or the "fraudsters" on voter fraud).

Which leads me to another question based on the responses at dKos which seemed off the track to me but you ddin't correct there; namely that for a lot of people they interpreted the Overton Window as a means to push already popular issues such as impeachment or nationalised healthcare.

That is NOT what overton windows are about, or if they are then you'd have to say they are already on the next to last rung ("popular") because > 50% of the public already agree with them.

For some reason the ordering of the list seems to be different for progressives. Their issues start of "popular" on the lowest rung and then proceed to "unthinkable" and upwards. For that matter I heard that most blacks in NYC think the government is behind 9-11.

So to recap there are two problems with applying the republican model to democrats:

(1) Democrats just don't have any super nutty ideas. Their ideas start off with majority aproval already. The problem is trying to get any approval from the corporate congress. Republican ideas OTOH start off loved by the elites and the corproations and need popular consent to be manufactured.

(2) Democrats and progressives attack instead of nurture their window-shifting class.

If you take away these issues you don't have Overton window, you just have the sensible observation that if you talk positively about stuff people might grow to like it. That reall isn't the same.

In fact the way democrats work is really a sort of reverse overton window which has been called the Ratchet effect. By attacking their would-be window shifters and by distancing themselves from and repudiating their "extremists" they automatically narrow the "legitimate" window of public discourse to the right allowing a new center to be shifted rightwards.

Without addressing this effect merely getting democrats to talk more positively may not work because they will be labelling themselves as the most extreme left of acceptable discourse.

the "how to" is simple. The activists and the blogs stand up and push the window.

But push it which way? If you want to push it to the left you have to change the way business is done on the left starting with the blogosphere. You have to jettison the idea that attacking lefties is a good way to appear "serious" and instead promote the idea that endorsing lefties is the way to make sure you look like a moderate.

11:50 PM  

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