June, 2003: shortly after take-off, an ultralight aircraft crashes near Caro, Michigan. The pilot is a newlywed man in his early forties. He dies in the wreckage.
His name was Joseph Overton.
In the world of politics, however, Joseph Overton lives on. At least, his surname does. In the canteen chatter of government buildings, from the din of multiscreen news debate, one can often catch a politico invoke the Overton window. But what is this idea? What did our young pilot do to get a window view of his own? Well, in short: thinking. In his tragically short time as vice-chair of a Michiganian thinktank, Joseph Overton did some serious thinking.
The Overton window is a model; conceptual, yet beautifully simple. The window refers to the range of ideas that we, as a populous, find to be acceptable. Ideas backed by popular opinion—we should send every child to school—sit comfortably within the window: to hold them is socially salutary. Ideas of a more unorthodox variety, however—we should beat left-handedness out of students—sit at the very edge: to hold them is socially toxic. The model, then, sketches out an easy strategy. To master the social seas, steer clear of the ideological fringes; follow the north star of common consensus. Smooth sailing.
As nature abhors a vacuum, humans abhor a manual. We are the perennial bent cog in the machine, prone to complicating even the most basic of models. As Immanuel Kant once wrote: out of the crooked timber of humanity, no straight thing was ever made.
Indeed, not so long ago, ideas on childhood education had very different Overtonian coordinates. So, the question arises: who moves the window? What force pushes the levers of social acceptability? Well, the answer is a question—a question of freedom. In authoritarian regimes, the parameters of public discourse are set by the dictatorial powers that be.
Think what would be considered politically correct in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. In fact, as Angelo M. Codevilla has documented, the very notion of political correctness was an invention of 1930s Stalinism. In liberal democracies, conversely, public discourse is determined by the public (by and large). For the politicians of such societies—who live and die by the sword of the majority—the window is narrow.
Thus, risk-averse and salary-conscious, wannabe or wannastay elected officials tend to shoot down the middle—often to a chorus of all the parties are the same. What this is, however, is a nod to the power of the people proper. It is a power, however, that more than just politicians ought to be wary of. This Sword of Damocles hangs over all of our heads — sometimes close enough to nick. It carves what we say, how we think. And each of us has a hand on the hilt. Just as politicians lose elections, celebrities lose sponsorships; we plebeians lose friends, status, self-esteem.
A certain portion of responsibility, then, rests upon each of our shoulders. The window is not automated (at least not yet). Consciously or otherwise, we are constantly redrawing the map, patrolling the perimeters. We, the common folk, have a hold of the leviathan’s leash. As history is tired of illustrating, however, the line between democratic deliberation and mob rule is easily smudged. The wisdom of crowds can quickly take an oxymoronic turn—with a heavy emphasis on the moron. Whether in the hands of a man or mob, a tyranny is a tyranny. Majoritarian power can go—and has gone—to our heads. Let us not become our own worst enemy. And although some of us fell asleep at the controls in the first half of the twentieth century—twice—the machine has run quite smoothly over the past fifty years or so. From the ashes of the Second World War, a newfound vigilance was born. The edges were marshalled with a renewed vigour, sharper eyes. The window, which had been wrenched wide by ideologues, returned to normal proportions. Common-sense, comity, consensus, coalition: all made a welcome comeback. And as power flowed back toward common ground, a balance was restored. Like schoolgirls with a grip on one another’s ponytails, the fringes became partners in their own inefficacy. If the Political Right strayed too far, the weighty centre leant leftward. If the Political Left made a move, a rightward shift ensued. The wings were clipped, the commons flourishing. The window was stable.
Why, then, the past tense? Why the hourglass? Well, idle hands are dangerous things—as any parent can attest. Monotony and mayhem are but a stone’s throw apart. In a world where protagonists are plentiful and antagonists few, we are no less enemy-hungry. Thus, even with an impressive collection of twentieth-century villains laying vanquished in our rear-view mirror, our adrenal pumps continue to churn. So, starved, we have resorted to moral cannibalism. On the Political Right, one can be pro-life, pro-border, pro-trade, but dare to even suggest environmental regulation—COMMIE! On the Political Left, one can be pro-choice, pro-immigration, pro-welfare, but dare to even question speech codes—NEOCON! We have become monochrome in our thinking. There is no grey today. And so, a great silence (or rather a great silencing) has descended over the commons. Fewer feel free to even voice their conscience; let alone follow it. Socially, the risks have come to outweigh any possible reward. It has become safer to blend in than stand out. And the fringes, twisting quietude into a faux-consensus, have seized upon the silence. Ideology has become an industry—a duopoly—whereby each fringe fuels the fires of the other. It is an economy wherein fool’s anger is real gold. And with an algorithmic cold-bloodedness, large portions of our media have fanned the flames. The very-same inhuman corporatism that brought us if it bleeds, it leads is haemorrhaging into society writ large. Today, outrages pay wages. Stock in partisanship is soaring. Honesty, humility, objectivity—once strong social currencies—have become bad investments. Once more, the centre is hollowing. What was convex is becoming concave. What was a window is becoming an hourglass.
Centrism, however, is not the answer. Balance is. There are arguments to be won and lost on both sides of the aisle. As the place with the most interactivity, the most connective tissue, a robust middle is precious for apolitical reasons. Human flourishing is not zero-sum. Society, like marriage, is not a game to be won. So, for the kids, we ought to at least try to get along. Divorce hearings, although sometimes the result of them, are rarely delightful affairs. We are imperfect creatures. Perfectionism, therefore, has no business in any domain us-related. The problems of our time are the products of our minds. And so will the solutions be. The onus, then, is upon us to do as Joseph P. Overton did; that is, some serious thinking.