Who Broke The Overton Window?
It’s been smashed to pieces. Who’s responsible?
The Overton Window, a political theory devised by Public Policy expert Joseph P. Overton, has recently become the go-to model for commentators discussing what is and isn’t socially and political acceptable in the public discourse at a given time.
So the theory goes, if a policy idea falls outside of the Overton Window of that specific time and place, it will likely be unpalatable or unfeasible to the public.
The spectrum, as you can see in the above diagram, starts with what is policy, and branches out from there in either direction.
The opposing directions do not necessarily correspond to the left/right political axis, but more closely resemble the scale of Authoritarianism to Anarchy — or no freedom to overabundance of freedom.
During the late 20th century into the current millennium, there is a case to be made that the Overton Window as a model would have been a largely accurate way of describing the political zeitgeist.
That is no longer the case.
As society becomes more and more divided on the key issues, the extremes become legitimised, or at least considerable, in ways they cannot be during times of broader consensus.
This stretches the Overton Window wider and wider, to the point of redundancy.
If everything from Anarcho-Communism to Neo-Nazism is tolerated, any policy that falls between can be considered fair game.
Unsurprisingly, the connected phenomena of Trump, Brexit and the rise of the alt-right are the symptoms of this collapse of the Overton Window as a reliable model. The causes are complex, but two in particular appear to have had the biggest impact:
The economic crisis of 2008, and the rapid of advance of technology/the internet.
Let’s examine these causes in more detail.
How the 2008 crash cracked the glass
It’s abundantly clear that the 2008 banking crisis dramatically altered the political discourse.
Job losses, savings and property value disappearing overnight, the effects on the average citizen were dire — comparable only to the Wall Street Crash in terms of impact.
Such an event naturally causes the public to question the political status quo.
In this case, the Neo-Liberal centrism that had formed the basis for most western democracies throughout the 90s and 00s was immediately seen to have failed.
“Yesterday’s global model of prosperity has failed — and failed badly. Its hidden costs were ultimately too great for societies to bear — even those that were supposed to be its winners.”
That Neo-Liberal status quo, that “global model of prosperity” was in effect, the Overton Window of the time.
When that fails, policies and solutions that fall outside of the Window suddenly look attractive or plausible.
Yet the crash on its own was not enough to land us in the position we’re in now, with the glass of the Window firmly shattered into pieces on the floor.
It took the rapid and invasive rise of the internet to do that.
How the internet broke through the remaining barrier
There are two reasons the internet was the final nail in the coffin for the Overton Window (to gratuitously mix metaphors).
First, the access to an abundance of previously inaccessible, or hard-to-access information and theories.
The internet is awash with articles and ideas to justify basically every position possible, from Nazism to Necrophilia.
Second, the bandwagon effect.
Social networks and forums encourage a bandwagoning, or herd mentality, among users.
“Humans are herd animals. It takes incredible courage — and a peculiar sort of resilience — to go against the common consensus.”
— the propagation of online networks where like-minded users can interact and reinforce their own biases and viewpoints has enormously accelerated the pace at which such bandwagons can take off.
The classic example would be Gamergate, in which a group of disenfranchised white males effectively spread their ideology to a global level in a matter of weeks by reinforcing, reacting positively to, and sharing each others’ assertions.
A position that would have been confined to basement bars and mens’ club backrooms in the late 20th century, suddenly had a worldwide audience and all the perceived legitimacy that comes with that. The inevitable backlash only further reinforced their position, invoking a siege mentality within the group’s members.
Others have pointed out the links between Gamergate and the alt-right, and not only do the movements’ growth styles mimic one another, there is much crossover in terms of membership.
Like Gamergate, a group of white men are once again reaping the benefits of the bandwagon effect, though this time they aren’t really disenfranchised. In fact, what makes the alt-right, Brexit and Trump movements so dangerous is that it’s already powerful white men who took the opportunity to socially engineer the political discourse for their own benefit, and in the process completely destroy any remaining relevance of the Overton Window theory.
Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Arron Banks and the rest all saw that the Window was wide open, and decided to take society through it.
Now we’re all outside. Outside in a world where anything is politically plausible.
And once you’re outside, there’s no longer much use for windows.
Jackson Rawlings write about politics and philosophy. He is pro-Europe, left-leaning and very opinionated. You can follow him on Twitter here.