Deliberately advancing bad ideas is in fact bad.
"But it’s worth asking yourself if you see anyone on the other side in that light."
That's the most important sentence in this piece. So much political rhetoric seems to be about convincing people who already agree with you.
To me, this misses the real advantages of the concept of the Overton Window and misdiagnoses the problem with how people are thinking about it.
The original description of the Overton Window is meant to describe the range of acceptable public discourse, ideas that don't elicit visceral disgust (as Carlos Maza deftly illustrates). But David French makes a really great case in "Divided We Fall" that the discourse of the two parties has diverged so strongly, that each party is operating under separate Overton Windows that *don't even overlap anymore* on many topics. And each party spends so much time discussing and giving the benefit of the doubt to people at the far extremes of their own window, and distrusting anyone arguing from the moderate extreme of their own window as being potentially traitorous.
To me the problem is this asymmetry. If we could all be as open to thoughtful arguments from the moderate end of our own windows, or God forbid, thoughtful arguments from the other party, we could all expand our own windows. And when I say "your own window," I mean the range of policy ideas that you think have merit and are worth discussing. This leads to the second problem I see: We have a mental model of each choosing *A* position on a topic. An idea that there is an optimal solution, and we have found it due to our own logical prowess. I think the discourse would be a lot healthier if we made room for the possibility of a *range* of ideas that could work, and admitted it's hard to predict in advance which will be optimal, so a wide range of views collaborating in good faith is your best bet.
One final note to say that I probably give others the benefit of the doubt to a fault. I do not think there are all that many people running around advocating for ideas they secretly think are bad. I think there are people who feel energized by being able to understand and advocate for ideas that really push the envelope and get others thinking about problems in new ways, and I think the tendency is no less earnest on the right than the left. But again I may just be naive.
Part of the issue: In activist/academic circles it always seems to be OK, even encouraged, to go more and more radical. It makes people think you're taking the problem seriously and that you *get* that society is truly flawed/racist/oppressive. Advocate for "police reform" and get labeled a squish. Advocate for "defunding" or even better "abolition" and you're considered a serious ally.
Does it matter that the ideas are crazy? That they actually make things *less* likely that anything will happen? "No we're pushing the Overton Window".
This reminds me of a negotiation class I took in grad school. They introduced the concept of anchoring... that in a negotiation, it’s often good to offer first and propose a number much better than you actually want. Saying “I’ll pay $5k” for the used car that’s worth $8k and that you’re willing to pay $7k for anchors the negotiation within a low range. The problem is that if you say “I’ll pay $2k” the person selling the car might just tell you to fuck off because you’re not a serious person.
Just a silly observation, but it seems the Overton Window of the Overton Window itself is shifting as a result of the Overton Window being observed and defined to begin with.
When you are trying to persuade a person to support your policy position, it's good to emphasize the popular parts, and downplay the negative parts. What was weird to me about a lot of the Democratic policy debates, especially around 2019-2020, was that politicians would emphasize the unpopular parts of their proposal, like Bernie proudly declaring he would take private health insurance away from people who wanted it.
Thank you for this! The more general rule here: don't play armchair psychologist with voters. Don't tell everyone masks aren't effective because you're worried they'll otherwise panic buy all the supplies. Don't try to wax poetic on what the internal motivations of your opponents are ("cling to guns and religion," "47%," "deplorables," etc.). And don't think you can do some sort of political jiu jitsu, where you push bad ideas hoping that some combination of momentum and political process will turn them into good policies.
Interesting almost-reversal from just a couple of years ago: https://i.imgur.com/7quUIlz.png
The wiggle room you have is that the tweet says "gain power" which in this post you've noted is not what actually happens when truly insane ideas are pushed.
Text for accessibility purposes:
I want the US policy status quo to move left, so I want wrong right-wing ideas to be discredited while wrong left-wing ideas gain power. There is a strong strategic logic to this it's not random hypocrisy."
The most obvious explanation for Sanders' success in moving the Democrats left is that he got lefties to get over that "People like us are too pure to be part of something as corrupt as electoral politics" attitude that they had in the Occupy era and actually participate in it. Amazing they have so much more clout that way.
One Billion Americans struck me as a mutant Overton frame for more kids and immigrants.
I think the mutant Overton Window approach is more effective on those who already broadly agree with you, and can have the opposite effect on those who don't.
Sure, support for immigration is at an all time high because Trump drove most Dems and a plurality of Independents running in the other direction, but the GOP is as anti-immigration as ever.
Similarly, while Defund the Police is not in mainstream vogue as much as it was this summer, and stodgy Democratic leadership is strenuously avoiding have to talk about it, you don't exactly see Democrats disavowing it either, largely for fear of blowback from the left. If you polled Democrats secretly, I am sure most would say DtP is on net harmful, but ask them on the record and they would give a non-answer that would hedge against left blowback, if not outright endorse it.
So perhaps the Mutant Overton Window is real, but what it does is accelerate polarization by accreting power at the extremes.
I can't put my finger on exactly how, but I think this topic ties into some of the problems with social media and politics. I'm guessing a lot of politicians who have come up in the last decade have done so in large part because of savvy use of social media. Pair that with party primaries being a larger concern than generals, and you get a lot of practical, political incentives to make Overton Window-ish extreme, clickbaity arguments. Then, to get along with the whole caucus once you're elected, this is a nice theory to rationalize your behavior. Which is basically what you said, but as applied specifically to politicians. The thing I then wonder about is... what are the politicians responding to once they're in office? Is it a fear of being primaried? Is it the tortured Overton Window logic you've described? Or... are they just kind of... brainwashed by twitter? I haven't seen a lot of takes on how social media incentives brainwash the public (or at least pervert and polarize public discourse), but I haven't seen it applied to politicians. There is this underlying assumption in most reporting that they're all both maximally cynical, but also reasonable under the veneer of public persona. Maybe many of them are just case studies for being the most brainwashed by social media, because catering to its algorithms has, in some cases, literally been the backbone of their careers. To them, the hearts seem proximate to what causes electoral victory. In fact, this seems to be the area wherein lies Biden's biggest strength (which, Matt, you've alluded to): he doesn't dunk on people. But, maybe more specifically, he doesn't feel the pressure to react on a near-instant social media timeline, and he doesn't seem to think that virality of approval among his "base" is an important precondition to success. My pet theory might be something like: 1) much of the news is entertainment, masquerading as news, and has an extreme negativity bias (e.g. the 4 post-vaccine COVID cases in OR) then 2) a very vocal, irrational contingent of activists consumes low-quality, one-sided content and forms unhinged views 3) early-career politicians can ride the wave of virality from #2 into relevance, and harness that relevance to create a political movement 4) Those politicians from #3 mistakenly (or not-mistakenly) think that the social media pandering that got them there will both keep them there or contribute to governing, or its just the only skill set they have and 5) more rational participants in the system use the Overton Window concept to build a coalition
defund the Sunrise Movement
> But that’s the slow boring of hard boards, not an arbitrary framing effect.
Hey look it’s the name of the thing!
Gun control seems to be a very strong argument against the Mutant Overton Window thesis. When activists push extreme positions on the issue (such as "abolish the second amendment"), it doesn't cause less extreme gun control measures to come off as more moderate. It just makes an unpopular take on the issue more salient, forcing risk-adverse politicians to run away from it, often by emphasizing their pro-gun bona fides.
I think one weird thing about this is that while people often claim that they’re trying to “push the Overton Window”, it’s rare to *actually* use the strategy you call the mutant Overton Window.
For example, people often talk about Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of single payer healthcare as an Overton Window thing. But Sanders clearly genuinely believes in it. He doesn’t actually only support a public option while pretending to support single payer.
Most people who advocate for things genuinely believe in them at least to some extent. It’s unusual to deliberately pretend you support something you actually oppose as some kind of a strategy.