The Overton Window and Political Compromise

OvertonWindowby Timothy Lane   2/9/14
When Glenn Beck wrote The Overton Window, he created an interesting book (which later had a nice sequel). But he also introduced his readers (even intermittent ones like me) to a significant concept from political science. The Overton window is the concept behind the slippery slope – though one which can slip in either direction (even if down is a lot easier than up).

The Overton window is the range of options that public opinion would find acceptable on a topic of public policy. As choices are made, the range changes. For example, 50 years ago airport security was minimal. Then we began to have an occasional problem with hijacking (often to Cuba), and metal detectors were installed to prevent them (or at least make them more difficult). Then, much later (after the 9/11/2001 hijackings and subsequent events), still more changes were made. In rapid succession and no particular order, these included pat-downs, confiscation of fluids, and confiscation of anything that could theoretically be used as a weapon (as well as searches of places they could be hidden, such as shoes). Each of these was in response to an incident (and one has to wonder how they would response if someone hid them in a fake breast implant). Each made the next one easier than it would otherwise have been. And each took us further into the surveillance state, and made it more difficult even to contemplate going back to the standards of the 1990s, much less the 1950s.

The same sort of thing happened to tobacco. If you go back to 1960, you find that there were reports of tar and nicotine levels in cigarettes, and some awareness that these were harmful long-term (of course, nicotine is a vegetable alkaloid that can be very poisonous short-term, and I’ve read of at least one actual murder using it). Then came the Surgeon-General’s warning in 1964, followed by an anti-smoking ad campaign, and later the banning of cigarette ads from TV. Not until the 1990s were there major changes, as restrictions on smoking in public places became increasingly common, along with massive increases in tobacco taxes and later state lawsuits (helped by legal changes deliberately designed to make it difficult for the tobacco companies to defend themselves). Already there are places even banning smoking in private residences (passed by people who defend abortion rights as a “right to privacy”). And again, each change makes it easier to make the next and harder to go back to the days when people were free to use a legal product.

Of course, such things happen in many different areas of policy. Rush Limbaugh has pointed out how the liberal campaign against SUVs resembles the slowly building war on cigarettes. Similar things are happening with the various foodstuffs – such as the trans fats which once were considered preferable to butter. Sooner or later Michael Bloomberg’s Big Gulp ban will be established somewhere (Berkeley or Santa Monica, perhaps), and then . . .

Of course, Pat Moynihan’s “defining deviancy down” is another example. In the case of abortion, a corrupt, power-made Supreme Court led by the arrogant Harry Blackmum decided to ignore the Overton window, and perhaps because of their over-reaching, the issue remains very contentious with a very wide window of acceptable choices. The general advance of sexual license (such as homosexual marriage) has been more gradual, but so far no less inexorable. Already, for example, we see parades for NAMBLA even as the Catholic Church and the Boy Scouts are attacked for occasional pedophiles in their ranks. Right now pedophilia and hebephilia (whether homosexual or heterosexual) remain atrocious, but there are many on the Left who wish to reverse that (Nancy Pelosi shows up at NAMBLA parades), and eventually they’ll become normal liberal goals (those who reject morality have a hard time arguing against them in the end), and perhaps someday legal and even “normal.” We shall see.

This is also relevant on issues such as gun control and immigration. Conservatives are well aware that any agreement on these issues – a “compromise” with liberals – will never be final. The moment some modest restriction on guns is passed, liberals will be back to push for even harsher ones (though they’ll wait for the inevitable next big shooting incident, which all their anti-gun restrictions somehow never seem to make any more difficult). All the “compromise” will accomplish is simply to push the Overton window leftward. Liberals know this, which is why in the end they’ll take whatever they can get. Conservatives are starting to realize this, and therefore to realize the compromise is merely gradual rather than rapid surrender.

This is even truer on immigration, and it’s why the cleverer Democrats don’t mind the idiotic House proposals. They know that no security provision will ever be enforced seriously by Obama (and possibly not by his successor, given how few people in either party’s leadership are willing to do so). They also know that it doesn’t matter if legalization is “provisional,” because they know that no one provisionally legalized will ever have that legality taken away again even if the provisional basis never actually occurs. And they know that it doesn’t matter if legalization is accompanied by a path to citizenship, because again they will push for it as soon as any legalization occurs – knowing that the Republicans who gave so much for the will-of-the-wisp of Hispanic votes (and the reality of Cheap Labor Lobby lucre) will surrender in the end.

Today, politics in America has become extremely polarized. There are many reasons for this. One is that the parties have become increasingly unified ideologically; there is virtually no overlap between the most liberal Republicans and the most conservative Democrats. Another reason is that all key bases of Democratic support – the activists, the donors, and the media – are increasingly militant in their liberalism. (By contrast, the GOP’s donor base provides a moderating force for them for the most part.)

But the hidden reason for the polarization is the increasing realization of conservative voters that compromise on an issue is never final, but merely leads to pressure for further yielding until liberals finally get their way in establishing a totalitarian state. Many of the ideas in the 2013 anti-gun bill are decent enough ideas in some way. A restriction on magazine and clip sizes to 30 rounds might be reasonable – but if we pass that, they’ll seek 15, and then 7 (which Colorado and New York have already passed), and then eventually single-shot weapons. Similar problems happen regarding the gun show “loophole”. And so compromise becomes impossible. After all, gradual surrender is still surrender. • (2652 views)

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7 Responses to The Overton Window and Political Compromise

  1. Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

    That was an excellent article, Timothy. One obvious question is why the magnetic force is Leftward, toward a bigger and more controlling state.

    Here are possible answers:

    + Ever since women gained the vote, security, rather than liberty, has been given more weight.

    + Disbelief and atheism have become associated with a blind trust in the state. Big Government (at least when run by the “Progressive” types) is thought to be a product of “reason” and “science.”

    + Despite Jonah Goldberg’s naïve views on the subject, there is a ratchet effect to bigger government because of the “do something” principle that politicians are prone to, as often noted by Michael Medved.

    + There really is a devil who holds sway in human affairs and instead of rejecting that dark influence, too many have embraced it (even if they call it “social justice”).

    + As we are more and more packed into crowded cities (which are highly artificial environments), people become used to being regulated and systematized.

    + Relating to the first item, one of the effects of feminism is to emasculate men. Without men holding up their end in regards to freedom, risk-taking, and self-responsibility, there is little left to push back against a regulated, all-encompassing, dependent nanny state. No wonder that Pajama Boy is the ideal of government types.

    Again, a very thoughtful article, Timothy.

    • Timothy Lane says:

      That’s a very comprehensive set of explanations for why the Overton window tends to keep shifting leftward. Still, occasionally it does go backward. This is in fact happening, gradually, on abortion (no doubt helped by the fact that the original decisions — Roe v. Wade and Doe v. Bolton — were such overreaches that “Roe” and “Doe” eventually became pro-life activists), and perhaps also on gun rights. (One might note that women have always been less pro-abortion than men, for obvious reasons, and have been increasingly interested in guns for self-defense.)

      • Brad Nelson Brad Nelson says:

        It’s often been said that sonagrams are the main reason that opinions are changing (for the better) regarding abortion.

  2. Glenn Fairman says:

    Excellent article and comments….

  3. Kung Fu Zu Kung Fu Zu says:

    “But the hidden reason for the polarization is the increasing realization of conservative voters that compromise on an issue is never final, but merely leads to pressure for further yielding until liberals finally get their way in establishing a totalitarian state.”

    There is a reason for such aphorisms as, “the slippery slope”, “the camel’s nose in the tent”, “the thin end of the wedge”, “salami tactics”, etc. They all hold more than a grain of truth. They express the truth of experience. For something like eighty years it seems conservatives forgot these truths and bought into the “good will” of the Left. This is no longer the case. Unfortunately, our founders were correct and eternal vigilance is the price of maintaining our country. Our opponents are not men of good will. Their lust for power can never be sated. They know the first breach in the wall is the most difficult. After that is achieved, it is immeasurably easier to conquer the fortress. The invaders must be repelled and the breaches repaired. This will take a lot of effort and time.

  4. Excellent discussion, gentlemen. I now have a much clearer mental picture not only of the OW, but also of the forces that affect it.

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