The Cultural War and The Overton Window
If you prefer to listen rather than read, this blog is available as a podcast here. Or if you want to listen to just this post:
As I said in my last post, I’m not the first person to speak about the current political climate in terms of a civil war, and the events of the last few weeks mean I definitely won’t be the last either. As one of my commenters pointed out I didn’t mention the shooting last week at the congressional baseball field. But even more recently than that, on Monday morning, a man drove a van into a crowd of Muslims who were leaving a London mosque. That attack was probably a response to an attack earlier this month where some Muslim terrorists drove a van into a crowd of pedestrians on London Bridge before getting out and stabbing people. One would hope that we’ve seen the last such incidents for awhile, but I wouldn’t bet on it.
I think it’s becoming clear that we have a real problem on our hands, the only questions are, “Is it getting worse?” And, “How much worse?” As I indicated in the last episode (of which this is a continuation) the answer to both those questions is greatly assisted by understanding how long it’s been going on, and so I’m more focused on the long term view then I am on dissecting every individual incident. For one thing, if that’s really what you’re looking for there are no shortage of people willing to engage in that dissection. Also, by looking back decades rather than days we find things that are both comforting and sobering. All of this is to say that, as usual, I’m more interested in the 50,000 foot view than the view from the ground. Another person who shares this preference is Dan Carlin of the Common Sense and Hardcore History podcast, who released a Common Sense Episode on this very topic on Sunday, so just before the most recent incident in London. An incident which paradoxically makes his podcast even more timely.
Carlin mentions that a lot of people will want to write off the various perpetrators, from the baseball shooter, to the van drivers, as crazy. And in my experience, that’s definitely going to happen, though people will disagree about which are crazy and which are evil. In fact it’s striking how often people decide that the people who are on their side of things must have been crazy while people on the other side are invariably evil. I would offer that they’re all crazy to one degree or another, but Carlin makes the excellent point that they represent something of a canary in a coal mine. As things get angrier and polarization increases the most susceptible crack first. But he argues, and I agree, that if it continues more and more people will drink the kool-aid and the amount of craziness it requires to turn violent will continue to decrease.
We have seen this happen before. Preceding the Civil War there was Nat Turner’s Rebellion, Bleeding Kansas, and of course, the event which most resembles the kind of thing we’re worried about today, John Brown’s Raid on Harper’s Ferry. More recently when we look at the flare-up of the late 60s/early 70s there was the Weather Underground bombings, the Kent State Shootings and the Manson Family Murders. I don’t feel qualified to get into the psychology of people before the Civil War, but looking at the list of people involved in the more recent social unrest we have the whole continuum from very insane on one end to very sane on the other. It’s hard to argue that Charles Manson is not insane, but the participants in the Weather Underground were sane enough to go on to become respected professors, and I can’t find anyone who claims that the National Guardsman who fired on protesters at Kent State were anything other than sane.
Reviewing these incidents should provide some comfort. As bad as things are today we haven’t had anything yet that rivals the events I just listed. Even the campus protests of today, as angry as the protesters are, don’t (yet) come anywhere near the intensity or scope of the campus protests or the wider social unrest present in the late 60s/early 70s. As much as I worry about increasing violence and the widening ideological chasm, it has been worse. And I don’t think people realize how bad it was. This is another thing Carlin brings up in his podcast and to illustrate his point he uses the following selection from Nixon’s Memoirs:
From January 1969 through April 1970 there were, by conservative count, over 40,000 bombings, attempted bombings, and bomb threats--an average of over eighty a day. Over $21 million ($140 million in today’s dollars). Forty-three people were killed. Of these 40,000 incidents, 64 percent were by bombers whose identity and motive were unknown.
Now you may not want to believe Tricky Dicky, but I think we can all agree that things aren’t as bad now as they were then. Still, as I said in my previous post, whether they remain that way depends on which direction things are headed and how long they’ve been headed in that direction. I have already said that I think they’re headed left, and they’ve been headed left for awhile. But the important question, as always is, what evidence do I have of this? And here I would like to introduce another way of looking at this subject, the aptly named, Overton Window.
The “Overton” comes from Joseph P. Overton, a think tank executive who died young in a plane crash, and if you spend much time in certain corners of the internet you’ll already be familiar with this term. But if you’re not familiar with it, the idea behind the Overton Window is that out of all the things you could talk about some are acceptable and some are completely unacceptable. The things which are acceptable are inside the Overton Window and everything that’s unacceptable is outside the window. The idea was originally developed as a way of describing the political viability of an idea, and specifically what someone seeking a public office could and could not say if they wanted to have any hope of getting elected. Some examples will help to clarify things:
Currently, supporting same sex marriage is squarely in the Overton Window, not only can you talk about it, it’s policy everywhere in the US. On the other hand, opposition to same sex marriage is at the edge of the Overton Window. You can still talk about it, but depending on which party you’re affiliated with it may disqualify you from seeking public office. From this you may have already deduced one of the central features of the Overtown Window, it moves. For example less than 10 years ago Obama said: “I believe marriage is between a man and a woman. I am not in favor of gay marriage.” Can you imagine any democrat seeking a nationwide office saying that now? No, and that’s because in the last ten years the Overton Window moved significantly with respect to this issue.
To take a less partisan example let’s look at single payer healthcare. In 2008 when Obama was running for the presidency, he made sure to clarify that his proposed health care plan was not single payer, because he knew that the idea of single-payer healthcare is unpalatable to a lot of people and advocating for it would have made it difficult for him to get elected. In other words, it was on the edge of the Overton Window. And even after the election, and despite controlling the presidency and both houses of congress, the democrats didn’t try to pass single-payer despite the fact that it was clear, even then, that the frankenstein monster they did put together was almost certainly worse than single payer. Now that healthcare is back on the table not only is single-payer being seriously discussed but even republicans are talking about it. Another example of the movement of the window, though notice that it’s moving more slowly than in the first example.
From looking at stuff inside, or at the edge of the window let’s look at something that was once in the Overton Window and is now so far outside of it, that it’s a major news story if anyone attempts to even slightly minimize its horror. Of course I’m talking about slavery. There was a time when talking about whether slavery should be legal, or whether it should be expanded into new states, or whether free states had a duty to return escaped slaves, were all well within the Overton Window. Now, of course, such subjects aren’t anywhere near the window of acceptable discourse. And I’m probably going to get in trouble for even talking about it.
In all of the examples the window moved left. And as we shall see, that represents another interesting feature of the Overton Window, not only does it move, when it does move it always moves left. In the last post we talked about how conservatives, after decades of effort, finally got tired of trying to change academia and the media and defected to create their own institutions. In this post we uncover the explanation for why. Not only were conservatives unable to make media and academia more conservative, they were unable to even hold the line. Historian Robert Conquest summed up this process in his second law of politics:
Any organization not explicitly right-wing sooner or later becomes left-wing.
And not only are all organizations moving left, there is significant evidence, as we saw with same sex marriage, that they’re picking up speed.
At this point, particularly for those inclined to disagree with me, you’re probably looking for a counter example, some place where the window did not move left. And I will concede that It’s certainly possible to cherry-pick some small issue where the right achieved a temporary victory, or a tiny roll-back. But, as I mentioned in the beginning, my point is to look at things from 50,000 feet, and from that view point, the long-term trends are all moving left. So the fact that Proposition 8 made same sex marriage illegal in California in 2008 or the fact that the effective corporate tax rate was once 50% and now it’s 17% are not facts which falsify the idea. Because, the key fact is not that same sex marriage was made illegal again for a few years, but that it became legal everywhere after a fight of less than a decade. And the key fact is not where the government gets it’s money and if it’s getting more or less from businesses, but how much the government spends and how much it continues to grow in size.
And these two examples represent the two branches of conservatism: fiscal conservatism and social conservatism. And as you can probably already guess I am claiming that within these two broad categories the leftward shift is unmistakable.
If we focus first on fiscal conservatism, no one who looks at government spending could do anything other than conclude that fiscal conservatives are getting their butts kicked. As usual SlateStarCodex beat me to the punch (seriously how does that guy write so much?) and in his most recent post he has several graphs showing the ridiculous growth in government spending, and particularly in welfare programs. Of the graphs he included, my favorite is the one showing per person welfare spending in constant dollars. On this graph there is a spot marked to show when President Clinton implemented welfare reform. And at that spot the graph flattens a tiny, almost imperceptible amount, it doesn’t go down, it’s just flat. Meaning that even when we set out to reduce welfare spending that all we were able to do was hold it flat for a couple of years. Now of course it dropped a lot during the financial crisis, so it’s not impossible for it go down it’s just not something, apparently, that we can exercise any conscious control over.
Looking at that graph reminds me of something Thomas Sowell once said. (Though, for the life of me I haven’t been able to track down the reference.) He pointed out that if government programs really had the impact their advocates claim then you should be able to easily pick out when they were implemented on a graph and yet if you take away the labels and the dates, that’s rarely the case.
The welfare spending per person graph is a great example of this. (Here’s another example.) I am positive that without the label and without the date axis that no one could pick out the spot where the Clinton welfare reforms were implemented. Of course this is all just an interesting, though somewhat tangential point. The important point is that no matter how fiscally conservative the Republicans are; No matter how large their legislative majority; Or how many tea party candidates get elected, Government just keeps growing. In 1913 you needed a constitutional amendment to implement the income tax. In 1935 the only way Social Security was passed was because it was expected to cover just a tiny number of people (the average American didn’t even live until 65 back then) and even so there were serious debates about its constitutionality. In 2001 you could propose (unsuccessfully I might add) to privatize social security, But in 2016 neither candidate was even able to propose raising the retirement age. (Clinton actively opposed it.) The Overton Window just kept moving left. If you can’t even talk about raising the retirement age and be a viable political candidate, you certainly can’t talk about privatization of Social Security, and heaven help you if it get’s out that you ever considered eliminating it.
Government just keeps growing. And one of the points made in the SlateStarCodex article is that this is despite the Republican base becoming increasingly fiscally conservative, and despite the associated rise of the Tea Party, and despite the Republicans controlling both Houses of Congress for 12 out of the last 22 years and the House (which is in charge of the money) for 18 of the last 22 years. One of the favorite phrases fiscally conservative pundits use when speaking about this issue is that, “If something can’t go on forever, it won’t,” and Margaret Thatcher wisely observed that eventually you run out of other people’s money. And that is certainly the case, but it looks like our very best efforts to avoid that eventuality have barely move the needle.
Based on all of this I would reiterate my position that in the realm of government spending the Overton Window is moving left. Even if it took 80 years for Social Security to get to the nearly unassailable position it currently enjoys, it still got there. In part this relative slowness is due to that fact that when it comes to spending we do have a useful measuring stick in the form of money. If we run out of it, everyone (presumably even Paul Krugman) would agree that we have a problem. Krugman might point out the abstract nature of money in a world where we can print our own or spend $3.5 Trillion on quantitative easing. To which I would retort that, while it’s not perfect it is nevertheless better than nothing.
On other hand when it comes to social issues we enjoy neither the same leisurely pace we had with fiscal issues, nor a generally agreed upon measuring stick. With respect to accelerating cultural change, I have already mentioned same sex marriage, and while it’s definitely a great example of the kind of rapid change I’m talking about, a better example might be transgender rights which appear to progressing by an order of magnitude faster still. Though, making such a claim, is precisely the situation where a generally agreed upon measuring stick would come in handy.
Frequently, when someone is trying to measure something abstract like transgender rights they’ll turn to the Google Ngram viewer and look at word frequency. If we do that for the word transgender we see usage of the word as being all but non-existent until 1988 when the graph suddenly goes almost vertical. Unfortunately the Google NGram viewer only goes to 2008, but in the 20 year period from 1988 to 2008 occurrences of the word transgender increased 33,000%! And you can only imagine how much more common the word has gotten since 2008. In other words the concept of being transgender essentially didn’t exist before 1988 and now when I do a search of the word transgender in the news I get articles on Pakistan issuing a transgender passport, two different deputies (one in Colorado, one in Orlando) coming out as transgender, a debate about whether to delay allowing transgender people into the military and a discussion of whether someone can decide that they’re transgender when they’re only three. All of this around a concept that didn’t even exist 30 years ago. If this isn’t evidence of the Overton Window moving left at an ever increasing speed, I don’t know what is. And transgender awareness and same sex marriage are not isolated issues, this is a society wide change that has happened blindingly fast, and which has incredibly broad implications well beyond either of the two individual issues.
Now there are a lot of you who think this is a good thing, or at least not a bad thing. And I certainly hope you’re right, but before we can definitely say that we need to know what the endgame looks like. And this is where both the speed of the Overton Window and the lack of a measuring stick come into play. If we continue at this pace for another 30 years where does that put us? Is it possible that in that time we will have gone too far? Or that we have already gone too far? What measuring stick are we using to know when we’ve “run out of money”? And this is where we finally return to Dan Carlin’s podcast. Speaking on the subject of a potential civil war, Carlin asks a very important question, “What does winning a civil war even look like?” Does everyone have to be comfortable with the most liberal current position that exists today, because in 10 years that will be mainstream? What about 20 years from now? By that time would we all have to be comfortable with positions that even the most liberal person finds abhorrent now? What if there are people who will never be comfortable with those ideas? Do we kill them? Re-educate them? Banish them? And this all assumes something approaching a best case scenario for the left where they win and there’s no violence. Neither of which, especially the latter, is guaranteed.
The Overton Window is an express train heading at great speed towards an unknown destination. I don’t know how to stop it, but it would be nice if it didn’t run over anyone as it hurtles into the darkness.
The world is changing fast, if you think that’s a good thing you should donate since I’ll need the money for my own re-education when the time comes, and if you think it’s a bad thing you should also donate because now you understand better why that is.
Also there will be no post next week. I’ll be taking my summer vacation.