Shifting the Overton Window on Q&A

It’s been a while since the ABC’s Q&A was as interesting as it was last Monday. Chris Pyne, the Minister for Education and no friend of progressives, was being barraged with questions about the upcoming budget and his plans to further the corporatisation of Australia’s universities. As one particularly irate questioner finished her question – “I truly think that education should be for all and not just the rich…so how can you defend fee deregulation?” – a band of activists in the audience took to their feet. They dropped a banner and began a series of (I thought) rather catchy chants: “Chris Pyne get out | We know what you’re all about | Cuts, job losses | Money for the bosses”.

You can see it here. I’m told the ABC eventually cut to footage of Katie Noonan while figuring out what to do.

Predictably, the interwebz took the bait. Twitter was awash with a variety of judgements; my Facebook newsfeed (disproportionately populated by social change agents) was divided over the action’s effectiveness; the MSM quickly got on board and made their headlines.

And now I’m catching up.

This action is a good example of a principle that progressives ignore all too often: ‘extreme’ voices contribute to shifting the centre and help to legitimise voices closer to the middle of the debate. In this case, the actions of the Sydney University Education Action Group, opposed though they are by the average caller to talkback radio, enable others to advance similar arguments with less extreme tactics and be seen as comparatively more sensible and acceptable.

Does this really work?

Opening the Overton Window

In short, yes. In Don’t Buy It, a practical messaging guide for progressives, Anat Shenker-Osorio gives as example the debate around privatizing social security. She describes how the idea was at first (rightly) seen as radical and extreme but that this was no surprise to conservatives, who had sneakily “found some brave souls in their movement to be the right flank and say what was deeply unpopular”. This made it possible for others to riff on the same idea, yet sounding less and less crazy. Consquently, “suggestions that wouldn’t have even been up for debate a decade ago…now sound like sensible centrism.” The process by which the centre of acceptable debate shifts to include previously unthinkable ideas is captured by a model, the “Overton Window” (after a Conservative academic who described it). This process is how conservatives have made progressivism extreme, centrism progressive, and conservatism centrist.

An illustration showing how the Overton Window operates

In Australia we see the right employing similar macchinations. The ultraconservative Cory Bernadi publishes a book attacking a woman’s right to choose and putting ‘traditional families’ on a pedestal. These views are far-right of the mainstream, and that’s the point: they still get out there, they are still heard, and they provide cover for other far-right, slightly less extreme, views. Even if Conservatives actually disagreed with Bernadi, they’d still have the shrewdness to appreciate how sensible their own views would seem in comparison with his. What is acceptable is pulled towards Bernardi’s ideas.

This is happening at the moment, too, with the Commission of Audit. A strategic master-stroke, the Commission of Audit has made recommendations so sweeping, so neoliberal, so anti-Australian, as to be unthinkable. And that’s exactly the point. If the Coalition ends up adopting just one in ten of the recommendations, they can paint their decision as centrist, balanced, and moderate. As Greg Jericho writes for The Guardian, “the softening up is not just for the budget, but to shift to the right what is considered a “neutral” position. Take the proposed $15 fee for GP visits. The budget will likely introduce just a $6 charge. Both are poor policies – one just seems less radical.” Yet in this hypothetical, if it hadn’t been for the Commission of Audit’s role in shifting the goal posts, the Coalition’s measures would have been seen exactly as they were: sweeping, neoliberal, and anti-Australian.

It’s also something the left has failed at before:

“Not long after Bill Clinton’s health care reform proposal went down to defeat in the Senate, Bill ran into Bernie Sanders, Congress’s only avowed socialist. Bernie approached him with a grave look on his face. “Mr. President, I am so sorry. I failed you on health care.”

Clinton was puzzled. Sanders had supported his reforms. “What do you mean, Bernie?” said Clinton. “You were with me every step of the way!”

“Exactly.” replied Sanders. “I should have been burning you in effigy on the steps of the Capitol. Then people would have understood how moderate your plan really was.” [1]

Looking through the Overton Window

It’s worth understanding the psychology behind this. When the human brain confronts a difficult question, it likes to substitute it with an easier question and answer that instead, to make life a bit easier. “Is policy X extreme?” is a difficult question, and hard to answer in absolute terms. But “Where does policy X sit on a spectrum of extremism?” is easier to answer.

This is the contrast principle at play: “If we see two things in sequence that are different from one another, we will tend to see the second one as more different from the first than it actually is.” [2] Things seem smaller when next to big things, shorter when next to tall things, and lefter when next to right things. If the spectrum of extremism extends so far as to include something like privatising the Australian mint, or mandating that CEO wages are capped at a certain multiple of the minimum wage, it changes how things closer to the centre are seen.

There’s more things I could explore on this: I think it’s interesting to evaluate whether it is strategic for more moderate progressives to criticise ‘extreme’ actions (I suspect not), if it changes depending on whether the ‘extreme’ is manifested as a tactic, like civil disobedience, or a message, like 100% renewable energy by 2020 (I suspect so), and I’d love to talk about the Movement Action Plan and the role of the rebel in bringing issues to the mainstream.

But the main point to understand is that the parameters of acceptable public dialogue are influenced by what lies outside them. When progressive activists do things that are too edgy or provocative for the mainstream, the mainstream becomes more sympathetic to left-wing views that are less edgy or provocative.This is how the Overton Window shifts. This is how the time comes for ideas. This is how change is born.

[1] John Neffinger, “The 3 Lost Lessons of Healthcare History: Will Obama Re-learn Them in Time?”, Huffington Post, September 6, 2009

[2] The quotation comes from Take Back Your Brain, I encountered the concept in Robert Cialdini‘s excellent, Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion


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