by 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)