America Falls Out the Overton Window

Republicans are too concerned with what is possible and too little worried about what is right.

The Overton Window is not just the name of a potboiler by Glenn Beck.  It actually refers to a theoretical political model that attempts to clarify Bismark's famous observation that "politics is the art of the possible."  Not the literally possible, mind you; the Overton Window contains, at any given time, the various policies that could be achieved within the political environment of the moment.

For example, Hillary Clinton discovered that national health care was not possible in the early 90s; it lay outside the Overton Window as it was then.  A decade of strenuous stretching on the part of the Left, and Obama gleefully discovered that the Window had moved; a government health-care takeover is now enacted, as long as it didn't include a "public option" of actual government-run health care.

The goal of Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid is to stretch the Window a bit more to the left so as to slide the "public option" through; the goal of conservatives is to drag the Window the other way so as to make repeal of Obamacare politically possible or better yet, necessary and thus to Save America As We Know It.

As the issue of health care illustrates, the Overton Window moves over time as society changes and opinion-makers have an impact.  Over long periods, it can move a great deal.

Windows of the Past

In 1789, despite the best efforts of John Adams and the other New England Founders, it proved politically impossible to ban slavery in the Constitution.  The South simply refused to agree; the choice was a Constitution permitting slavery or no Constitution at all, and Adams went for the former.

Today, of course, the situation is exactly reversed.  It's inconceivable that America would ever accept a Constitution that did not ban slavery; public opinion and social mores have reversed almost completely.

It doesn't always take centuries for the Window to move profoundly.  As late as the 1960s, it would have been inconceivable for homosexuals to have special rights and protections; their actions were illegal even in the privacy of their own property.  Today, of course, not only can they proudly flaunt their behavior, they are protected in most states from any discrimination and many judges and politicians are trying to define homosexual relationships as equal to marriages.  This change and its speed is unprecedented and could not have been foreseen, but it's no less real.

How is it that the Overton Window moved so far and so abruptly?  It's taken over a hundred years, but the early Progressives and other cultural Marxists intentionally set out to accomplish it - even before the underlying theory itself was set down.

Plotting to Move the Window

Educator John Dewey called for what's now known as "the long march through the institutions."  The idea was that progressives - liberals and statists as we now know them - would attempt to take control of the curricula of teachers' colleges.

This way, teachers would be immersed in Marxist thought and would impart it to their students.  The next generation would be a bit further left, allowing the next batch of professors to be even more left.

And so on until today, where America's great universities are home to more openly Marxist professors than admitted conservatives and where their proclaimed goal is to teach students that everything their parents taught them was wrong.  Is it any wonder that our entire political and cultural elite is of the statist Left?

With every major outlet of opinion spewing pro-big-government, anti-freedom rhetoric, the true surprise is that there's any resistance at all.  But unfortunately for liberals, conservatism has one advantage on its side: the truth.

Everywhere it has ever been tried, totalitarian statism has failed utterly and usually bloodily, from Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union to North Korea.  The welfare states of Europe are collapsing into bankruptcy and potentially Islamist chaos.

On the other hand, the Communist Chinese recognized decades ago that they had to free the economy if they ever wanted their country to become rich and powerful; they did and they have.  Although totalitarian, they are Communist in name only.

As a Communist big-wig said recently, "We are the Communist party and we define what Communism means."  He means it, too; dissent from the party line can mean death even if the "party line" of today is the exact opposite from what it was yesterday.

The Impossible Necessary; The Unthinkable Inevitable

Traditional Americans look with horror at the raging monster in Washington, but we have to consider two things: what is necessary, and what is possible.  The fact that these two are so utterly far apart is what leads us to the deep concern expressed in these pages.

For example, let's think about America's golden age: Eisenhower's 50s and JFK's 60s, where the United States strode the world like a colossus and even the poor felt rich (Jim Crow aside).

Remember, those were hardly the days of laissez faire capitalism and small government.  FDR's New Deal had been in place for decades and was entrenched beyond criticism.  The maximum income tax rate topped a confiscatory 90%.  Unions controlled the majority of private-sector jobs.  If we were to return to the policies and political culture of those days, we would not really have changed our path or direction, merely our point on the road.

Yet consider how utterly unthinkable today would be many of the wise policies of those days!

True, many if not most private-sector employees were unionized.  However, companies could and did go bankrupt when their unions got too greedy, and most importantly, public-sector union monopolies were almost unknown.

The corrupt triangle of today, where Democratic politicians extract taxes to pay outlandish salaries to unionized government worker, who then are forced to pay large union dues to union bosses who turn around and put the money back into the pockets of Democratic politicians, existed only in a few notoriously corrupt cities.

Many states had an outright ban on public-sector unions.  As a result, most government employees actually were expected to do their jobs usefully: repair the streets, take the trash, teach the kids.  Malingerers and the incompetent could be and were sacked.

Is there any chance of a return to this sort of effective, efficient, responsible government?  No; the Overton Window is miles away from permitting us to forcibly dissolve public sector unions.  A lot more states will have to go bankrupt, but if there's enough suffering imposed on the taxpayers, the window could shift rapidly.

How about dealing with our enemies?  Eisenhower's America summarily deported any immigrants who were found to be Communists with little to no controversy and occasional applause.  Anti-Communism was not just a Republican issue either; President Kennedy was every bit as staunch:

Let every nation know, whether it wishes us well or ill, that we shall pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe, in order to assure the survival and the success of liberty.

This wasn't just rhetoric; though not without egregious blunders, JFK really was a true-blue American anti-Communist at heart, and he was murdered by a Communist for his efforts to fight communism in Cuba.

In contrast, JFK's own brother was murdered by a Palestinian; Americans have been murdered by Muslims for decades, and then we had three thousand Americans immolated in the heart of our greatest city.  Yet our president and his entire administration cannot even bring themselves to give the enemy its proper name, having banned both the "I" word and the "M" word from being anywhere near the "T" word.  Whenever anyone dares to point out transparently obvious fact that virtually all Terrorists are Muslims whose barbarism is inspired by dedication to Islam they are immediately castigated as religious bigots, reality notwithstanding.

America of the 1950s and 60s openly, frankly, and unapologetically banned Communists from entering.  Can we even imagine a similar policy towards our equivalent enemy today: members of the Muslim religion?  No.

Speaking of immigration, during the labor shortages of WWII, the United States permitted Mexican farmworkers to enter and help out raising essential food supplies.  After the war, the temporary visas expired but the laborers remained.  By the 1950s, there was a noticeable problem with illegal immigrants in the Southwest.  The New York Times actually printed the following analysis which is equally true today but which would never, ever run in today's Times:

The rise in illegal border-crossing by Mexican "wetbacks" (rooted from the watery route taken by the Mexican immigrants across the Rio Grande) to a current rate of more than 1,000,000 cases a year has been accompanied by a curious relaxation in ethical standards extending all the way from the farmer-exploiters of this contraband labor to the highest levels of the Federal Government.  [emphasis added]

In response to this lawlessness, Eisenhower created "Operation Wetback" - yes, that was its official and public name.  He sent the Border Patrol to round up the illegals and deport them.  Just as Arizona has demonstrated, officials only needed to actually deport around 10%; the rest deported themselves.  In less than a year, the problem was solved.

Today, as the insane ruling by Judge Bolton in Arizona illustrates, our governing elites will stop at nothing to keep the illegals here.  No law, no degree of public protest, not even the 70+% support of the American people will overcome their determination.  Judge Bolton's transparently absurd opinion tells the tale:

Requiring Arizona law enforcement officials and agencies to determine the immigration status of every person who is arrested burdens lawfully present aliens because their liberty will be restricted while their status is checked.

In other words: making people sit in their car and wait while the cop who pulled them over runs their ID is an unconstitutional burden on the innocent!  Naturally, we don't anticipate this new right to apply to speeding tickets, broken taillights or other irrelevant trivia; no, the cops can abuse and detain you to their little heart's content.  When it comes to enforcing the very definition of what it means to be a nation, though, well, we can't have that!

Yet at the time, "Operation Wetback" was barely controversial.  Of course we have the right to control our borders; of course we have the right to expel noncitizens who don't have our permission to be here.  How could it be otherwise?

Fifty years of the Left dragging on the Overton Window has made all the difference, at least to our out-of-touch elites.

Smashing the Window

In a democracy, it's easy to view the Overton Window through the prism of the democratic electoral process.  "The voters will never go for that; I'll never get re-elected."

Electoral democracy, however, is not the only force which affects the possible.  Abstract reality does, too.

Our politicians may feel that voters will never allow Social Security to be cut - but when our deficits grow so great that the Chinese refuse to lend us any more money, we can print as many Social Security checks as we please and they'll still bounce.

Obama may feel that his supporters won't allow any oil drilling in US territory - but when the Saudis no longer accept the devalued US dollar and our gas stations run dry, the Overton Window may make a very abrupt and long-distance shift.

The Democrats may consider the massive vote potential of impoverished and illiterate illegal immigrants to be worth infuriating the American citizenry, but it's not totally inconceivable that a governor will re-read the U.S. Constitution and tell the Border Patrol, Justice Department, and Judge Bolton alike to go pound sand while his (or her?) state exercises its natural Constitutional prerogatives no matter what the Feds say.

We all consider the Civil War to be a sepia-toned part of ancient history, but when political compromise is no longer possible and one side feels its very existence and way of life is threatened, civil war is what you get and we're not alone in discussing the possibility.

Our Republican elites ramble on about the need for stay within the bounds of the politically practical.  The problem is, doing that for decades on end is how we've arrived where we are, where the "possible" is unacceptable and the necessary is inconceivable.

For ten years, Winston Churchill warned alone about the threat of Hitler.  Nobody in England wanted to even conceive of another horrible war.  Nobody was willing to take the slightest chance of bringing about a war.  Nobody was willing to fight, or prepare to fight, or even contemplate the idea of fighting.

Then war came.  Suddenly Churchill was in charge and England fought with all its might through to a victory that had been nearly unimaginable when it all began.

Today, we do not need a negotiator or a smooth-talking lawyer.  We do not need Republicans who "play well with others."  We do not need technocrats or administrators who are good at running bureaucracies.

We need a Churchill who knows what is right, and will continue to demand that right be done each and every day, as loudly as he can, all by himself if necessary, marching alone... until one at a time, the rest of the nation lines up behind him and the necessary gets done.

A Churchill cares nothing for the Overton Window or "the art of the possible."  He'll grab onto the edge of the Window and drag it by main force to where it needs to be, and only then jump through it dragging everyone else along with him.

Otherwise, as things stand today, the Overton Window opens directly onto a very high and precipitous cliff.  Unless we stop them, Obama's Democrats are about to throw America through, over, and off that very cliff.

Petrarch is a contributing editor for Scragged.  Read other articles by Petrarch or other articles on Politics.
Reader Comments
1) statists on the right are innumerable, as the laast ten yrs of neo-con idiocy are still making their grief apparent in shifting this window to the point of absurdity.

2) that a political personage would actually claim a moral identity seems a paradox, a contradiction, but I do think it is possible, were this person to reject the notion that morality is defined by other than a logical framework, such as modern Puritans or "Progressives" advocate.

Such a hero would have my vote.

Will you run for office Mr Petrarch?
August 4, 2010 7:08 PM
I've thought about it, but alas, I have not the funds nor the means to get them as of yet. Perhaps someday...

What you are decrying is the modern concept of "moral relativism", whereby basically something is wrong only if you think it is and there are no absolutes. Society cannot operate that way, which is why it's falling apart. You might find this old article interesting:
August 5, 2010 9:21 AM

Reading this nine years after it was written, I find it fascinating that President Trump is the new Churchill you described. Who would have thought it?

April 3, 2019 1:18 AM

Maybe the old saw of "Cometh the hour, cometh the man" actually had some truth to it!

April 3, 2019 6:53 AM
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