The Progressive Overton Window

Hitler and Hermann Göring saluting at a 1928 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. This is current progressive view of present day Republicans and "Conservatives".

Hitler and Hermann Göring saluting at a 1928 Nazi Party rally in Nuremberg. This is the current progressive view of present day Republicans and “Conservatives”.
Source: National Archives Collection of Foreign Records Seized,
Heinrich Hoffmann collection

What constitutes acceptable conversation  for progressives appears to be moving continuously toward only that speech assuming the inhumanity of the Right. Unlike in the past, progressives assume not only are neoliberals (often mistakenly called “conservatives”) completely and woefully wrong, their views are so morally reprehensible, they should not even be discussed in a serious way publicly. With much of the “mainstream” media (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, MSNBC, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, etc., etc.) adopting this point of view, those on the political Right can expect a vigorous progressive campaign to shame them into submission.

The Progressive Overton Window and the Hallin Spheres

What constitutes socially acceptable speech  is often described in terms of what is called the “Overton window,” displayed in the figure below.

The Overton window along with Treviño's degrees of acceptance.

The Overton window along with Treviño’s degrees of acceptance.
Wikimedia Commons / Hydrargyrum

Often called “the window of discourse”, the Overton window displays the limits to the range of ideas the public is willing to tolerate in discussions. For example, advocation of racism is generally far outside the Overton window in the United States.

Invented by Joseph P. Overton, a Senior Vice President of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, sometime in the middle 1990s, the Overton window placed limits on an axis along which ideas were placed according to whether they advocated maximal freedom from government control at one end, and minimal government intervention at the other end. Overton’s essential idea was that a country’s voters would accept only a certain range of ideas as being acceptable. Outside of this range, whether the electorate thought the ideas nonsensical or morally repugnant, they would not tolerate their public  discussion.

A related idea is Hallin’s spheres, which demarcate areas of acceptable discussion in the public news media. Daniel C. Hallin, a historian of journalism, invented this idea in his book The Uncensored War to explain how the Vietnam War was covered. The center of the Hallin spheres is the exact center of the Overton window, with the world of political and social discourse divided among concentric spherical shells. The central sphere contains all discussion on subjects for which there is consensus. Going further out on the radius, one finds in order the shells containing subjects for which there is legitimate controversy, and finally discourse which is deviant and abhorrent.

There is little in human society that is more fascinating than the way people persuade (or delude) themselves about the nature of reality. Clearly, with the extreme state of political polarization in the United States (and probably in all of the West), there does not exist a universal Overton window or set of Hallin spheres acceptable to all. In what follows I will imagine what I perceive to be the Overton window and Hallin spheres that progressives define. These progressive definitions of acceptable discourse I believe to be the grandest of delusions.

The Delusions of Progressives Defining What They Consider to Be Acceptable Discussion

Somehow,  progressives — most particularly those who are professional politicians, their news media allies, and university professors — have persuaded themselves their ideological opponents are a collection of racists, fascists, misogynists, homophobes, and xenophobes, and probably many other very, very bad scumbags. If you think this is much too harsh a judgement on progressive views of the world, you might consider this post on Slate.com, this one on The New Republic, this one in The New York Times, this one in The Los Angeles Times, and this one in The National Review.

This is not to say that one can not find the occasional, oddball idiot among Republicans. After all, registered Republicans form an abundantly large population in which a few eccentrics — even a few abhorrent ones — might be found. The same observation could be made of the Democratic Party. However, it would be extremely hard to persuade anyone these oddballs, particularly the abhorrent ones, are neoliberals. Neoliberals are proponents of free-markets and the limitation of government power over the people, making them by definition the very opposite of fascists. Essentially, neoliberalism is exactly the same as classical liberalism with an emphasis on the desirability of free-markets and capitalism.

Yet the authors of the progressive posts linked above would like to conflate the neoliberal views of the bulk of the Republican party with all that is hateful. If you were to do a Google search on the phrase “neoliberalism and racism” or “neoliberalism and fascism”, you would discover a huge number of links to progressive posts purporting to equate neoliberalism with both of those odious views. Many would like to claim these evils to be the result of capitalism and free-markets. Why should they not be believed?

Those of us who would defend neoliberalism have an unusual barrier to overcome in the nature of the current Republican President. As a great many others have observed, Donald Trump is hardly a “conservative” (i.e. neoliberal) Republican, although he has acted as one more often than not. Prior to his becoming a Republican candidate, most of the opinions he publicly expressed were progressive in nature, leading myself and many others to fear a great “bait and switch” once he was elected. Thankfully, both his cabinet choices and his executive orders have been primarily those of a neoliberal president, even though he still shows a penchant for mercantilism and an aversion to free-trade.

More distressing has been Trump’s loose way with words that has allowed progressives to claim evidence for Trump’s fascism or racism. One of the paramount examples of this was Trump’s reaction to the riots in Charlottesville, Virgina last August over the removal of a statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Here is how Conrad Black of the National Review described the genesis of the riots.

In the Charlottesville melee, it is now clear that Mayor Michael Signer, a radical Democrat and close associate of Clinton campaign manager John Podesta, who early declared his city “a capital of the resistance” (against the constitutionally elected president), intervened for some protesters and against others, ordered the police to facilitate violence at times, and changed his previous support for retention of the contested statue of General Robert E. Lee to a vote for removal. It was obvious to him and to close Clinton insider Governor Terry McAuliffe that they could engineer a showdown between opposing extremes that had nothing to do with the merits of General Lee, but that could escalate the polarization in the country to the embarrassment of the president. It was a cynical exercise in political manipulation by very distasteful means, and has so far been partially successful.

Trump condemned both sides of the riot, as well he should. On the progressive side of the conflict were an Antifa organization and Black Lives Matter. Antifa is an acronym that stands for “Anti-Fascist”, but all American Antifa organizations are distinctly fascist, both in their tactics and their aims. On the opposing side were American Nazis and racist Klansmen. However, because Trump was even-handed in his condemnation of both sides, he was himself judged of being a racist. He promptly confused the issue by later claiming there were also good people on both sides. Perhaps there were, but whatever the truth, it was hard to discern; and nothing could contradict the responsibility of both sides for fomenting the violence.

As most of the progressive-allied American media saw it, Antifa and Black Lives Matter were highly justified in being violent since they were opposing fascists and racists. The way Mark Bray, a lecturer in the history of human rights at Dartmouth College, put it in a Washington Post article,

Antifascists argue that after the horrors of chattel slavery and the Holocaust, physical violence against white supremacists is both ethically justifiable and strategically effective. We should not, they argue, abstractly assess the ethical status of violence in the absence of the values and context behind it. Instead, they put forth an ethically consistent, historically informed argument for fighting Nazis before it’s too late.

That would be reasonable if we were on the slippery slope of the Weimar Republic. Yet the number of American neo-Nazis seems to be very small and getting smaller. According to Wikipedia, the largest neo-Nazi group in the U.S. is the National Socialist Movement with around 400 members in 32 states. Using data from the FBI and the Southern Poverty Law Center, CNN recently put together some illuminating time plots of hate groups and crimes that include the time-variation of neo-Nazi group numbers. Consider the plot below,

Time variation of hate groups associated with racism.

Time variation of hate groups associated with racism.
CNN / Southern Poverty Law Center

Note that the number of neo-Nazi groups has been declining precipitously over the past decade from over 200 in 2007 to just 99 in 2016. You should also note, however, that these plots say nothing about the total number of members populating these groups, merely that the number of groups associated with racism has been declining. Remember the largest neo-Nazi group, the National Socialist Movement, has only around 400 members in 32 states. This data hardly paints a picture of an American Weimar Republic disintegrating into a Nazi Amerika, as touted by the progressive Left.

This conclusion is reinforced by another CNN plot versus time of FBI hate crime statistics shown below.

FBI race hate crime statistics from 1996 to 2016.

FBI race hate crime statistics from 1996 to 2015.
CNN / FBI Uniformed Crime Reports

Here the lesson is that all race hate crimes, with the exception of those against native Americans, which are very small, have been declining steadily since 1996. This is particularly true for those against blacks, which have been cut approximately in half. Any racial hate crime at all is completely unacceptable, but this data again does not support a picture of a United States dominated by racism. The FBI reported an estimated total of 1.2 million violent crimes in the U.S. for 2015, of which the 1621 hate crimes against blacks represents 0.135% of the total.

Finally, CNN tells us there are a couple of hate group types that have been increasing recently: Black separatist and neo-Confederate groups.

Hate group types with increasing numbers.

Hate group types with increasing numbers.
CNN / Southern Poverty Law Center

While the number of neo-Confederate groups ticked up to 43 last year, they seem to have been on a kind of low plateau since 2010. The number of black separatist  groups on the other hand has grown vigorously, being 2.4 times as many as in 2007.  To the degree the U.S. has a problem with racism, black racism would appear to be a much bigger problem than white racism.

More particularly, progressive accusations that President Trump is both a fascist and a racist do not even pass the smell test. If Trump is a fascist, then he should be attempting to increase his control over the American economy and society. As defined by Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, fascism is a form of socialism with the state totally controlling the economy. The only difference between the communist Soviet Union and fascist Italy and Germany was a polite fiction in the fascist states that so-called “owners” actually controlled their companies. The fascist reality was very different, with government forcing companies to do whatever it wanted by regulation and other means. So has Trump been following the path of Mussolini and Hitler?

Rather than trying to amass ever increasing amounts of power in the federal government, Trump has been doing — or attempting to do — the exact opposite. From his executive orders decreasing government regulation over the economy, to his endeavors to “repeal and replace” Obamacare, and to his efforts to reform and cut taxes (particularly corporate taxes), Trump appears to be the exact opposite of a fascist. How progressives with a straight face could accuse him of being one is beyond any understanding. They can make such accusations only with a profound ignorance of the meaning of the word “fascism”.

And what about the loose accusations Trump is a racist? If Trump were a racist, would he have a black as an important cabinet member (Ben Carson heading HUD)? If Trump were a racist, would he be trying to increase federal help for black colleges significantly? In what specific way has Trump demonstrated he believes blacks or any other race to be inferior? In what ways has he attempted to make blacks subservient? The progressive-allied news media may be working overtime to prove Trump a racist, but so far the best they have is smoke from Trump’s inarticulate responses about Charlottesville (see above) with no fire. Somewhat more generally, if Republicans were the party of racism, why are there so many African-American Republicans? A very small list of such worthies would include Alveda King, Colin Powell, Condoleezza Rice, Michael Steele, Herman Cain, Justice Clarence Thomas, Rep. Allen West (R-FL), Rep. Will Hurd (R-TX), Rep. Scott Thomas (R-TX), Rep. Mia Love(R-UT), Don King, Alan Keyes, Larry Elder, J.C. Watts, Thomas Sowell, Shelby Steele, Rep. Tim Scott (R-SC) and a great many more.

Progressives — particularly politicians, their allied news media, and academics — begin with the assumption white American society is dominated by racism. More than that, they seem to believe a large fraction of those white racists are susceptible to fascist ideas, and this is particularly true for Republicans. How they can believe people to be susceptible to fascist ideas when progressives do not really understand the meaning of fascism is not quite clear. Nevertheless, they do understand fascism to be abhorrent, having been the cause of genocide, tyranny, and world war. Therefore, any discussion based on the ideas of Republicans in particular and neoliberals (i.e. “conservatives”) in general is unacceptable to them, too ridiculous to be considered, and is therefore outside of any decent person’s Overton window.

For such a large fraction (approximately a third) of the electorate to get in such a state of mind is extremely dangerous for the republic. If the premises for this state of mind are themselves false, as I have attempted to demonstrate, then they are also very dangerous for the progressives themselves. If the assumptions you make about reality are not only false, but extraordinarily false, reality will always sooner or later come back and take a large bite out of you. It might even devour you.

So, What Should Constitute Acceptable Conversations in a Democratic Republic?

From what I have seen and read,  I would consider very few progressives to be morally reprehensible. From my point of view, most of them are only completely mistaken about the nature of reality and what it allows governments to do. These horrendous errors are no reason to send them to prison or to shun them, just not to elect them and give them power. Their views then fall within my personal Overton window, and within the Hallin sphere concentric shell containing legitimate controversy.

The problem is that progressives do not really want to talk to neoliberals about fundamental assumptions. They already have the truth and know neoliberals not only to be ignorant of it, but to be morally reprehensible as well. Why then should they engage neoliberals in a serious conversation, when the immorality of neoliberals (as they see it) keeps them from accepting the progressive point of view? Neoliberals, they believe, are the tools of the corporations and racists, and therefore are the enemies of the people.

How are neoliberals such as myself different? I know what I believe is true, just like the progressives do. However, I do not believe progressives to be morally damaged goods, and I am more than willing to engage in a serious discussion about premises with them. If one ideological side or the other can not persuade enough of the opposition to switch sides to gain a working majority in Congress (this means 61 seats in the Senate and a majority in the House) plus the Presidency, our slide to civil war will be all but inevitable.

 

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1 Comment on "The Progressive Overton Window"

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Charles
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The amount of vitriol and misinformation I see from the left is indeed unnerving but more so is the separate reality they live in and a willingness to believe it. This is the product of decades of indoctrination through our education system subsidized by our government and a progressive media establishment. Instead of unity we received division and instead of transparency we received a clandestine administration from our last president. If it does come down to civil war who will be blamed? They refuse to accept that Trump won and will resist that reality at all cost. I find it… Read more »
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