Friday, May 04, 2007

Republican debate? Nope!

Edit: Links! Thanks to the Sideshow, Pacific Views, and of course Good Nonsense: who shows the good taste to link to me regularly, and has some of the better "piles o' links" posts around.

Further Edit: Next bit on the Overton window can be found here.

Another Edit: Part the third can be found here.

Yeah, I can't be arsed to really get into the Republican presidential candidate debate much. Three of them are evolution deniers, what the hell do you do with that? We know now what we did before: Giuliani, McCain, and Romney are the players, and that's pissing off the social conservatives because two aren't lockstep enough and one's a Mormon and, thus, clearly damned.

Nope. Today, I'm all about the Overton window! I know I've spoken on these concepts before, but a quick blog search shows that I haven't dealt with the specific term, named after Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The linked article is mostly about web standards, but it provides a good explanation of the window:

As I understand it, the Overton window is a visualization tool used by “think tanks” that want to sway public opinion on certain issues. You start by outlining the continuum of possible opinions on an issue, including opinions which seem ridiculous or unthinkable. Then you figure out the narrower range of opinions that people currently consider reasonable. This range is the Overton window. The job of the think tank is to move the Overton window in a certain direction, so that ideas that were once unthinkable become acceptable to discuss, and ideas that were once radical become popular and perhaps even become policy. Along the way, certain ideas that were once popular may “fall out of favor” and become taboo.
Now, first, when I heard about this, I felt like the proverbial "dumbass". Why? Because I know a fair bit about political theory, and I've been chattering about this for AGES, and yet I never knew about this. It's like the first time you find out what Scientology's actually about- whether you're a supporter or critic, it does kind of blows you away.

(Personally, I'm in favor of freedom of religion, but I do think that lawsuits for revealing the "secret teachings" shouldn't be court-admissable. Copyright doesn't work that way, and you can't patent a religion.)


I love this concept, because it explains almost everything that has happened in American politics since FDR, and emphasizes an important concept: that it's not the middle of the debate that matters so much, but its edges. Too far outside those edges and nobody pays attention to you, but if you're just inside enough, or if the whole thing gets moved, all of a sudden you're listened to. The problems start when people assume that the window can't get moved, and insist that everybody else move with it.

Oddly enough, the Overton window appears to function a lot like a prisoner's dilemma. If both sides act all extreme, then neither is listened to, and if both act nice, then the debate can go on. If one acts extreme while the other is conciliatory, then the window moves; while the latter group might get some temporary political success by riding on how the other side is "out of the mainstream", if the side with the extreme elements stays coherent, pretty soon the window shifts.

It's also about this coherence. If both sides have loud, extreme elements, then the question is where both sides are willing to "break off" from their extreme counterparts. The "break points" can end up being the borders of the new "window", as a coherent movement isn't likely to be dismissed.

Most importantly, though, it's about those who are deciding what "acceptable" is. That isn't the participants, that's the moderators or commentators; in other words, the media. The reason why I like this idea so much is because the Overton window explains precisely what the role of the media, particularly opinion writers, is in politics. They really aren't good at directly swaying the public; look at the Clinton thing. And while they may have an impact on the nuts 'n bolts of lawmaking, by and large that's the realm of lawmakers themselves and their helpful lobbyist pals, not opinion writers. What opinion writers mostly do is try to define the Window by constantly pronouncing on what is acceptable and what isn't, and to the extent that they can get the political actors to break away from (or cohere with) other political actors, they set the agenda. The media at large also sets the Window by choosing what to report on, of course, but let's face it- popular opinions among both the public and politicians get underreported all the time, and the subject of non-opinion coverage of politics is more the horse race than the substantive debate to begin with.

And, yes, bloggers fit into this as well. I've said over and over and over again that the vast, vast majority of political bloggers are not journalists, and aren't even necessarily aspiring to be such. What they are is a pack of opinion writers, and what they're attempting to do is push the Window one way or another, a little at a time, through both their writing and their linking.

(Case in point: I don't link to Little Green Footballs, because I consider the crap there beyond the pale. It's outside the Window to me, or at least should be.)

So when I was laughing about the Republican at the beginning of the entry, what was I really doing? I was pointing out that those three guys are outside the realm of "acceptable" opinion; that they're loons, and worth being treated as such.

Outside Overton's Window.

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