Opening the Overton Window


Opening the Overton Window

Fellow Democrats,

This month I’m going to use this space to talk about extremism and incivility. It has become a commonplace to talk about this as a “both sides” situation, playing Bernie and the Squad against Trump and the Freedom Caucus, for example. The New York Times opinion section is a good source of examples: every writer they publish clearly wishes the American political spectrum ran from Elizabeth Warren to Mitt Romney rather than from Angela Davis to Richard Spencer, and they do their best to defend the borders.

Social scientists call this range the Overton Window. It runs from the extreme left and right to the center, through the categories Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, and Policy. Ideas which are currently policy are the center. Something like nationalizing the means of production might be on the Radical left, while deporting all immigrants might be on the Radical right. In Culver City rent control quickly went from Radical to Policy, thanks to the hard work of many members of this Club. I’m sure you can think of other examples. The window can shift, as it did during the 1980s, when the Religious Right and the New Democrats pulled it to the right, moving previously Unthinkable ideas like a nuclear first strike dangerously close to Policy and knocking progressive programs such as Aid to Families with Dependent Children from Policy to the left edge. It can also enlarge, as seems to have happened in the past decade. 

Like most “both sides” analyses, the proposition that the left and right have become equally extreme in the last decade or so is simplistic and ignores important differences between the sides. Here are four.

First, history. I recently picked up a book purporting to explain “how the Party of Reagan became the Party of Trump.” I set it back down. Reagan was every bit the monster Trump is, from when he called for police to inflict “a bloodbath” on Berkeley hippies as Governor in 1969, to when he announced his Presidential campaign with a speech on “states rights” in the county where Chaney, Schwerner, and Goodman were murdered, to when he appointed a Secretary of the Interior who believed there was no need to protect the environment because the Rapture was imminent, to when he did nothing as tens of thousands of people died of AIDS.

Reagan is not exceptional among Republican Presidents of the past half-century. Consider the “Hard Hard Riot.” On May 8, 1970, a group gathered in Manhattan to protest the National Guard’s killing of four anti-war students at Kent State four days earlier. They were attacked by construction workers, who used their hard hats as weapons while police largely stood by. The workers despised progressive Mayor John Lindsay, who had sought to integrate the building unions, and NYPD hated Lindsay for his attempts at reforming their department. Richard Nixon invited these very fine people to the White House and accepted the gift of a hard hat, marking his appointment as an honorary vigilante. Other examples are easy to find.

Second, as these stories show, the fascist right has consistently been far closer to power than the socialist left. Whether or not you are comfortable describing Nixon, Reagan, or Trump as fascists, since 1964 the Republican Party has relied on a paranoiac base. QAnon is only a surprise to those who do not remember the Tea Party, the Militia movement, or the John Birch Society. These groups not only share ideas, but sources of support. Compare this to the Democratic establishment’s treatment of the left, from the anti-Vietnam War movement to second-wave feminism to the Presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson and Bernie Sanders.

Third, as the Hard Hat Riot shows, the right has always embraced violence and suffered few consequences. Imagine a progressive group engaging in an armed standoff with government agents for months and the leaders not only walking away alive and free but continuing to openly defy Federal law for personal gain. When a disturbed man killed five Dallas Police officers in 2016 following a protest against police violence, he was killed by police. President Obama spoke at a service for the officers, accompanied by Joe Biden. In contrast, when Kyle Rittenhouse killed two liberal protestors in 2020, he was taken alive, praised by Trump, acquitted, and offered internships by three Republican Congressmembers.

Finally, content matters. The “new ideas” on the left are social programs which most Americans want and most developed countries have, which are documented to produce better outcomes at lower costs, while those on the right range from trolling to worse.

Locally, the January 24 City Council meeting was an epic meltdown. It began with the two conservative members excoriating our first African-American mayor, in his second turn holding the gavel, for a tweet criticizing the violence and bias of the current system of policing. Things went downhill from there, with a seemingly endless series of constituents bombarding the progressive Council majority with pseudoscience, conspiracy theories, threats, and word salad.

A friend calls this discourse “trickle-down Trump,” but it is nothing new. To the degree that Culver City has had print journalism, it has had an uninhibitedly reactionary editorial slant for as long as I’ve been able to read, and conservative Council Members have always been able to be as nasty as they wanted to be towards progressives. Consider the Culver City News’ coverage of the Jan. 24 meeting. The Council majority is identified as “progressive,” while the others are not identified ideologically, as if they are “neutral” or “normal,” putting them in what social scientists call an unmarked position. The meeting’s dynamic is described as “contentious” and “sour,” as if no one, or everyone, was responsible. Vera and Eriksson’s attacks are treated as if they are ordinary business, and progressive Council Member Fisch is the only one whose mood is described: “perturbed.” 

The News is telling more truth than they know. The right has not changed; the left has, and our refusal to no longer accept the inevitability and virtue of the status quo provokes their rage. Grassroots movements like Occupy, the Democratic Socialists of America, and Black Lives Matter have expanded the left edge of the Overton Window. We are no longer afraid to ask for what we want, to not only have what other cities and countries have but to step in front to become a model, and to actively make amends for the unjust history we have inherited and continue to benefit from. 

This is a challenge to many who have proudly and comfortably identified as mainstream liberals. Seeing ideas you considered Unthinkable and Radical become Popular and Policy can shake your sense of self. I believe this is a major source of the hatred directed towards Bernie Sanders, the Squad, and our local progressives. It is one thing to define yourself against Reagan or Pete Wilson, quite another to be asked why you aren’t farther from them and to lose the privilege of being unmarked.

This week we also saw the Los Angeles City Council follow the lead of our progressive Council majority (Eriksson was opposed, Vera abstained) and the County Board of Supervisors by voting to end urban oil drilling. This seemed Unthinkable or Radical a decade ago and is now Policy. In the wake of major frustrations nationally, we can draw hope from this victory and, as this Club moves forward into election season with more candidates for County and State offices visiting our meetings, I encourage you to use it as a reminder that change is possible and that we can make it happen.