Posted on October 22, 2019

Rethinking the Overton Window

Gregory Hood, American Renaissance, October 22, 2019

Texas teacher Georgia Clark asked President Donald Trump to enforce existing immigration laws. Journalists mocked her. The school district fired her. The president ignored her. The incident is a good example of why the “Overton Window” political model doesn’t work. Power doesn’t always flow from popularity.

The late Jon Overton came up with the idea of the “Overton Window” to explain public policy. He argued that policy options were limited to a “window” of the politically possible. When public opinion and societal norms change, the window “shifts.” Public opinion leads, and most politicians follow.

Today, many conservatives and liberals cite the theory. Progressive outlets such as Common Dreams, Washington Post, Paste Magazine and others said Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez shifted the Overton Window leftward with the Green New Deal. More conservative publications such as Townhall, Washington Examiner, and Washington Free Beacon feared they were right.

Similarly, National Review, American Greatness and Eric Kaufmann in Whiteshift said President Donald Trump had shifted the Overton Window. Progressives at The Hill, Vox, The New Yorker and other outlets agreed.

Some analysts outline “stages” through which ideas travel.

Anyone who supports “unthinkable” policies legitimizes more moderate ideas. Effective advocacy can eventually transform the “unthinkable” into “policy.”

According to this model, “policy” is the safe, centrist position. Yet if this were true, there would be no immigration problem. We don’t need to change policy.

Despite current laws, 22 million illegal immigrants occupy American territory. President Trump won’t deport most of them, despite his campaign promises. California’s resistance to the President’s timid efforts resemble nullification, yet local politicians don’t fear a backlash. What’s “politically possible” doesn’t include enforcing the law.

Georgia Clark didn’t understand this. She naively believed the President would respond to her pleas about illegal immigrants. She also thought her tweets were private. Instead, she doxed herself.

A powerless woman’s tweets are hardly newsworthy. Yet America’s mightiest newspapers wrote detailed stories about them.

Other corporate media produced plenty more negative stories.

Some outlets said Miss Clark was “under fire.” Journalists didn’t mention they were the ones pulling the trigger.

After months of hearings, Miss Clark was fired by the Fort Worth school board. The vote was unanimous.

The Washington Post published Miss Clark’s tweets. They are hardly offensive. She complains about illegals in the schools, and says “the Mexicans refuse to honor our flag.”

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Miss Clark is firmly within the “policy” part of the Overton Window. If President Trump wanted to, he could “remove the illegals from Fort Worth” by enforcing the law as he promised.

A 1982 Supreme Court decision stated Texas must provide a free public education regardless of immigration status. However, Miss Clark’s opposition to this isn’t extreme. Texas Governor Greg Abbott complained about this requirement just last month.

Was Miss Clark factually wrong about illegals at the school? She formerly taught at Carter-Riverside High School. There’s no way to know the exact number of illegals there. However, the Texas Tribune reports the school is almost 88 percent Hispanic. About 84 percent of students are classified as “at-risk,” 83.4 percent are “economically-disadvantaged,” and more than 20 percent have “limited English proficiency.”

A former teacher at the school, Ken Wheatcroft-Pardue, celebrated Miss Clark’s downfall in a gloating piece called “Adios, Ms. Clark.” Yet he inadvertently supports her claims by recalling of his former charges, “I always assumed most of them came from households where the parents were undocumented.” He defends the neighborhood, saying it had “wonderful neighbors, great taco trucks and pho restaurants” (bold in original). “Almost all my students at Carter were outstanding young men and women,” he says.

Today’s students aren’t, at least judging by test scores. The average SAT score is 877 (out of 2400), below the Fort Worth ISD school district average, which itself is below the statewide average. Fewer than 20 percent of graduates are “college ready” in reading and math.

Mr. Wheatcroft-Pardue also strengthens Miss Clark’s claim that “the Mexicans refuse to honor our flag.” “As for Ms. Clark’s rant about students not standing for the pledge, I told mine they didn’t have to,” he says. “If they didn’t want to, I totally understood. They’re from a different country, and even if they weren’t, students shouldn’t be forced to perform a rote, meaningless display of faux-patriotism.”

If I said Hispanic students won’t salute our flag because “they’re from a different country,” that would probably be called racist.

The Pledge of Allegiance might be meaningless to Mr. Wheatcroft-Pardue and to foreigners but not to most Americans. Texas law requires that students recite it unless they have a note from a parent or guardian.

However, enforcing this policy appears to be radical. Texas’s attorney general is reportedly fighting a lengthy legal battle with a black student who refused to stand for the pledge. Media have given the student mostly favorable coverage and accuse the AG of pursuing the case for political reasons. If so, that concedes that the Pledge is popular among Texas voters.

These cases reveal three problems with the Overton Window theory, at least as it’s understood by journalists and activists.

The first problem: You can’t safely support something just because it’s popular or existing policy.

Miss Clark wants to enforce existing law. Her opinion about educating illegals is similar to Governor Abbott’s. Most Americans agree with her about respecting the flag. None of this saved her job or spared her from hostile journalists.

Contra the Overton Window theory, it’s occasionally “unthinkable” to advocate existing policies. Americans can’t mention some popular ideas without being attacked. Politicians don’t follow public opinion. They avoid certain proposals (such as Official English) even if they have overwhelming public support.

Conclusion: Popularity does not necessarily mean power.

The second problem: Championing radical or unthinkable ideas is supposed to shift the window in your direction.

This may not be what Overton meant, but it is the lesson many activists on both Left and Right take from him.

It isn’t always true. Perceived extremism fuels radicalization on the opposing side. In response to President Trump, Democrats’ support for immigration law enforcement collapsed. Not long ago, prominent Democrats such as Barbara Jordan wanted strong enforcement. Today, many Democrats want to abolish Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and decriminalize illegal immigration.

Some Overton Window believers think a truly committed activist should deliberately take an extreme, “unthinkable” position. This supposedly shields or legitimizes mainstream activists.

It doesn’t work. Rhetorical excess, bellicose imagery, and violence usually help the other side. Journalists can link supposed extremists to mainstream activists by guilt-by-association, or sometimes guilt-by-non-association. Few would argue the El Paso shooting “shifted the Overton Window” towards enforcing immigration law.

Of course, there’s an obvious retort: Leftists never suffer for their extreme rhetoric, imagery, and violence. This isn’t entirely true. For example, the antifa attack on Andy Ngo was a public relations blunder, even if no one has been arrested. Yet it’s mostly true. Media bias surely explains it.

The third problem: The theory suggests “policy” is the end of the process, rather than a new beginning.

Officials can use state power to impose new conditions. These new circumstances create political momentum in the direction they want. Instead of following public opinion, leaders can shape it.

Leftists do this today. Their hearings on “white nationalist terrorism” and “reparations” are the first step towards silencing political opponents and rewarding constituents. They champion laws to disarm opponents. They give government funds to their own activists. They use law enforcement against enemies. If they like a policy, they enforce it strictly; if they don’t, they question its legitimacy.

Each action or law leads to another that strengthens their power. They don’t just shift public opinion. They embolden supporters and intimidate opponents. Georgia Clark’s opinions weren’t unpopular, but no one wanted to share her fate.

In contrast to leftists, President Trump focuses on public opinion. He talks big but does little. He cites favorable polls to prove his greatness. His campaigning and governing styles are contradictory. He advocates policies he doesn’t implement, such as an executive order on birthright citizenship, a remittance tax, or a flag burning ban. Rather than legitimizing ideas, this discredits them. Instead of encouraging supporters, he betrays them.

Obviously, public opinion affects what’s politically possible. Yet the Overton Window model is flawed because power can shape public opinion. There’s no neutral “marketplace of ideas.” It takes resources and platforms to spread a message.

Without strong political leaders, the government doesn’t govern. Policies are irrelevant. The media rule.

It’s time to rethink the Overton Window. The truth is already on our side. Many people already agree with us on most issues. If that were enough, we’d have already won.

Instead of trying to shock public opinion, we should focus on demanding platform access, creating financial networks, and building institutions and communities the media can’t destroy. Instead of focusing on ideology, we should focus on logistics. We need to change conditions on the ground and make it easier for white advocates to organize. Otherwise, we risk ending up like Georgia Clark, pleading for help from leaders who have already abandoned us.