The Overton Window and Political “Punctuated Equilibrium”

Originally posted by Nonpartisan on 06/10/07

Part II of a two-part series on the vital center in American politics

We’re talking about James MacGregor Burns and the concept of the “vital center” in American politics.  In yesterday’s diary I presented Burns’ thesis of good government as “finding a middle way that has a vitality of its own” and identified one significant problem I had with the concept of vital center: its essential reactiveness and cynicism.  But there’s another reason, too, that I find Burns’ obsession with the vital center shortsighted: he neglects to consider how it is that the center moves one way or another.

Daily Kos diarist thereisnospoon helpfully filled in this gap in a brilliant post last year on the Overton Window:

There is also a corollary to this premise: that by playing too far to their base, they will alienate the unnerved middle of the country. … On the contrary: the GOP knows that the middle DOES matter.  They know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.

In his piece, Spoon quotes extensively from an earlier post by Josh Trevino, a founder of RedState and Republican think tank operative.  I’ve always found Josh to be one of the most intelligent of Republican bloggers, and his post on the Overton Window doesn’t disappoint:

The mission of a think tank is to introduce ideas into public discourse and normalize them within the public discourse. The steps an idea takes to full legitimacy are roughly as follows:

Unthinkable
Radical
Acceptable
Sensible
Popular
Policy …

One useful tool [for achieving this] is the Overton window. Named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy who developed the model, it’s a means of visualizing where to go, and how to assess progress. Let’s say, for example, that you want to make education as free and choice-based as it can possibly be. Let’s start by developing a continuum of educational states, from the desired extreme of total freedom, to the undesirable extreme of total statism. It might look something like this:

No government involvement in education.
All schools private with government regulation.
Voucher system with public schools.
Tuition tax credit with public schools.
Homeschooling legal.
Private schools restricted.
Homeschooling illegal.
Private schools illegal.
Children taken from parents and raised as janissaries. …

Step by step, ideas that were once radical or unthinkable – homeschooling, tuition tax credits, and vouchers – have moved into normal public discourse. Homeschooling is popular, tuition tax credits are sensible, and vouchers are acceptable. (On the latter, they’ve been soundly defeated in Michigan of late, but the point is that they are a part of normal public and political discourse.) The de facto illegality of homeschooling, by contrast, has gone the way of the dodo. The conscious decision to shift the Overton window is yielding its results.

Spoon and Trevino are talking mostly about NGO’s and their impact on American policy debates.  But Presidents can, and do, themselves alter the Overton window where resides the vital center.  Ironically, those who most successfully accomplish this goal often themselves lose election or reelection — but the damage is already done to the body politic, the change already effected.

Let’s start with a Civil War-era example.  One of the ugliest facts of Burns’ book is its idolization of the great slavery compromisers like Henry Clay and Stephen Douglas.  In Burns’ framework, such men put off the date at which the the nation would rupture along the Mason-Dixon line — most notably through Clay’s Compromise of 1850 — and thus contributed directly to the continued success of the American political system.  The fact that their compromises left millions of human beings in bondage does not seem to faze Burns, but perhaps it should sway his readers.

In the 1850’s, the Overton window on slavery would have looked something like this:

Free all the slaves (Radical Reconstruction)
Free all the slaves, but make them second-class citizens (Presidential Reconstruction)
Keep slavery, but keep it out of all the territories (Lincoln’s 1858 position)
Keep slavery, but keep it south of the Mason-Dixon line (Missouri Compromise)
Keep slavery, but let each new state vote on whether it wants to be slave or free (Kansas-Nebraska Act)
Keep slavery and extend it to all the territories and new states (Calhoun’s position)

Make all American blacks slaves

The bolded options are those that would have been acceptable for mainstream discussion — i.e., that occupied the vital center of the 1850’s.

By 1865, the Window would have shifted until it looked something like this:

Free all the slaves (Radical Reconstruction)
Free all the slaves, but make them second-class citizens (Presidential Reconstruction)
Keep slavery, but keep it out of all the territories (Lincoln’s 1858 position)
Keep slavery, but keep it south of the Mason-Dixon line (Missouri Compromise)
Keep slavery, but let each new state vote on whether it wants to be slave or free (Kansas-Nebraska Act)
Keep slavery and extend it to all the territories and new states (Calhoun’s position)
Make all American blacks slaves

If there ever were a case where the Overton window needed to be moved, and fast, it was on the issue of slavery in the 1850’s.  And that is exactly what Lincoln did during his four years in office, as we see above.  Yet Burns counts the “radical” Republicans’ defeat of Douglas in 1860 as a failure for his Jeffersonian system of government.  To be sure, Burns paints Lincoln as a “moderate” in a radical party, and there’s some truth to that; but the fact remains that to be a Republican in 1860 was to be in some sense a radical, no matter what one’s personal beliefs.  Given this, a system of government that counts the abolition of slavery as a failure appears to me to be a very flawed system indeed.

Since the Democratic half of the Union was ineligible to vote during the 1864 election, Lincoln never had to face the full brunt of popular displeasure at his moving of the Overton window.  (Nevertheless, George McClellan’s score of 45% against Lincoln in that year, despite McClellan’s being a deadbeat general and a Democrat, is telling about the public’s attitude.)  The current Bush administration, however, is a perfect example of a President decisively moving the Overton window, this time in a conservative (and neoconservative) direction, and then facing dire consequences at the polls.  By many lights, President Bush is so unpopular that he has placed a millstone or a Chinese cangue around the neck of the Republican party, a weight that will dog them for a generation or at least for several election cycles.  But think for a moment of how many reactionary laws have been passed by this Administration and its attendant Congress.  Bush’s refusal to play to the middle has resulted in many political defeats, but also in a dizzying array of conservative legislation.

Assuming a Democratic President is elected in 2008, the most egregious of Bush’s actions will likely be repealed — the sending of troops to Iraq, the detainment of enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay, the warrantless wiretapping of civilians.  But how many of Bush’s less-noticed pieces of conservative legislation will be allowed to stay on the books for years, perhaps generations?  Will National Wilderness Areas again be closed to logging as they were during the Clinton years?  Will energy companies be reregulated?  Will free trade agreements like CAFTA and with other countries such as Morocco be un-negotiated?

Some of these things may in fact happen, but most of Bush’s laws will undoubtedly remain on the books.  More importantly, many of the ideas he actively promoted in relation to these laws will likely remain within the vital center for decades to come.  It is in just such a way that the Overton window is moved most often and most effectively — by Presidents, as Spoon says, “introducing radicalism into the public discourse” just as think tank officials do, only much, much more effectively.

But moving the Overton window has electoral consequences for these Presidents or Presidential candidates, often extending to their movements for several election cycles.  Simply put, the American people don’t like having the Overton window moved by politicians.  When Woodrow Wilson moved the Overton window on internationalism during the League of Nations fight, his party was excluded from the Presidency for the next three election cycles, a backlash against the unsettled feeling Wilson had instilled in American culture; successor Warren Harding’s call for “a return to normalcy” presaged an Overton stasis in his administration and those of his two successors.  Similarly, Barry Goldwater’s foreign-policy hawkishness moved the Overton window in that area but led him to resounding defeat and kept his extreme rightist philosophy out of the Presidency for sixteen years.

Yet looking at the long-term results of each of these Overton shifts, the backlashes are never as strong as the original movements.  Lincoln’s antislavery movement led to the disestablishment of that “peculiar institution,” an object partially but not completely undone by the institution of black codes in the South after Reconstruction.  Wilson’s internationalism softened up American isolationism and made the Marshall Plan more palatable to the vital center.  Goldwater’s defeat ushered in the Conservative Revolution that took center stage with Presidents Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II.

All this leads to one clear conclusion: the Madisonian system of American government, with its “Swiss watch” of checks and balances, and the Jeffersonian system, with its two opposed and nearly equal parties, are both incomplete models for American politics through history.  In their place, I want to posit a theory not unlike Niles Eldredge’s and Stephen Jay Gould’s Punctuated Equilibrium for biology.  In 1972, Eldredge and Gould revolutionized evolutionary theory by arguing that evolution did not proceed, as had been previously supposed, at a static and gradual velocity.  Instead, they showed, evolution was a process that for most of biological history proceeded almost not at all (the “equilibrium”,) but that during short bursts, called speciations, it proceeded quite rapidly (the “punctuations”).

It is just such a process, I believe, that creates the Overton shifts in American political history.  For much of our history, American ideas and politics rest in a state of near-equilibrium, following the Jeffersonian or perhaps the Madisonian model.  But when a fierce ideological leader arises, whether as President or as a Presidential candidate, and shifts the Overton window to the detriment of both his own career and his party’s short-term electoral health, a punctuation occurs that drives the vital center in one direction or the other.

Assuming this process is accurate, what should we as Progressives expect from our Presidential candidates?  Burns would have us focus all our attentions on appeasing the vital center in Clintonian Presidencies, while the Republicans put up nominee after Goldwateresque nominee who shift the vital center to the right in spite of short-term electoral misfortune.  Instead, I posit that we would do better nominating a candidate who will consciously swing the Overton window to the left by showing the face of a no-holds-barred ideological Progressive.  Howard Dean was our chance to do this in 2004; John Edwards is the most obvious choice in 2008.  If, on the other hand, we continue nominating vital-center appeasers like John Kerry and Hillary Clinton, the Republicans will continue tugging the vital center in its recent rightward tilt — with disastrous results for Progressive ideals.

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