Creeps, To The Right (an incomplete draft)
There's nothing new about the Overton Window
thing per se, but it is worth discussing and thinking about. Digby
got the ball rolling on that front; tristero
fleshed it out a bit more.
Basically, the Overton Window is an explanation of the structure of wingnut insanity-dispersal. Wingnut think tanks don't come up with ideas so much as they articulate reactions to long-standing liberal ideas. These articulated reactions, made to seem more palatable through general sophistry and pseudo-academic veneering, are then sown (to use Digby's metaphor) into the ground of the media, the polity, the culture. Then, after repeated re-plantings, ample fertilize-applications, and some tender and reluctant thinning, the "crop" is harvested: the pay-off is not that wingnut "ideas" are necessarily embraced, but that they are accepted as a reasonable alternative. The purpose of the Overton Window is to make wingnut insanity seem reasonable -- to make the populace, which overwhelmingly favors liberal policy, overcome its repugnance of insane, atavistic policy proposals that the civilized world had left behind years ago. Then, after
a period of such "ideas" being bounced around the chattersphere, comes the chance that they can be applied as policy: the penultimate pay-off to wingnut efforts. This is clever, devious stuff.
Again, Overton Window is about structure. And, again, it's not new. It was the original purpose of the wingnut think tanks whose origins lay in the early 70s when (depending on your source) either Louis Powell or Irving Kristol hooked-up with some wealthy reactionaries and they jointly determined to set-up the industrial-scale insanity-dispersal machine that now does everything from sponsoring most of the shittiest programs on PBS to providing steady paychecks to fascist nerds who would otherwise be flipping burgers for a living. Overton Window is just another name for both the aim and the apparatus of the Vast Rightwing Conspiracy.
This structure of think tanks, and the pundits it nurtures, also serves a secondary purposes aside the spreading of wingnut "ideas:" its feeds on liberal "idea-factories", either by assimilating them into the wingnut-Borg hivemind, or by killing them. As an example, there was Iran-contra figure and general menace to civilization Michael Ledeen's neocon manifesto published in Partisan Review
So much for structure. But now for the concept
of Overton, a slightly different can of worms. The application of Overton Window's concept -- as applied to personalities, politicians, pundits, media efforts, strategy -- is of course older than the creation of its structure. I'd date it from the late 50s. As it metastisized, its first victim was the authentic conservative movement represented in Eisenhowerism, which was viewed by the populace as acceptable, even respectable. But as that was the case, it goes without saying that the hard, reactionary right found it unacceptable and disrespectable. So, over a long process starting with the John Birch Society's president calling Ike a commie to Ronald Reagan in 1976 calling the last of the Rockefeller Republicans, Gerald Ford, a communist, they killed the respectable wing of conservatism. By Reagan's election in 1980, the type of Goldwaterish Republicanism had so triumphed over the Rockefeller version that George H.W. Bush, in order to stay in good graces with the movement, was required to change hats so to speak. Ronald Reagan was the penultimate crop that the Overton Window had first sown in the form of a candidate in 1964.
It took a while, but it was steady. Conforming to the model process of Overton Window, Barry Goldwater was soundly rejected by the American populace. But of course that was to be expected; and while the Repugs would have loved a Goldwater victory, the real purpose was just getting him out there, to get his hard-right positions into the public conversation; to weaken, as it were, the American immune system. From there it was fore-ordained that conservatives would be pushed into the center, and the hardcore reactionary right would then be considered "mainstream" conservatism. Neatly, the political spectrum was shifted. Mission accomplished. The "ideas" of the hard-right -- annihilation of the welfare state, escalation of jingoism, inculcated paranoia of an "enemy within," expansion of the military-industrial complex, social darwinism, war against the nascent civil rights movement -- gained traction.
The fulcrum to the final shift is represented by Richard Nixon's administration. Nixon was a half-breed: part Rockefeller conservative, part wingnut. Domestically, while Nixon's economic and environmental policies, being Rockefellerian, made a lot of wingnuts squeal, his ruthlessness with the press and other "enemies," his Southern Strategy, and his war against the "counter-culture," conformed to the Overton Window model: as stances, they were just a few shades more reactionary than the last Repug candidate's. Nixon's foriegn policy, however, (apart from Southeast Asia) was something else.Detente
was not only sensible, it was popular. Naturally, it was liberal. Just as naturally, it was therefore intolerable to wingnuttia, whose congenital tendency for war-mongering and enemy-seeking is perhaps its most dominant trait. The new Overton Window structure
then started to flex its muscles. It attacked Nixon and his successor, Ford, as being too soft. The neoconservative spawn (Richard Perle, et al) of Scoop Jackson -- the Senator from Boeing who was a reverse-image (domestic liberal, foriegn policy superwingnut) of Nixon -- shoveled heaps of wingnut bullshit-insanity into the polity; enough of it stuck. Detente
was killed. Plan B was the essence of Overton Window strategy. Nixon and Kissinger, butchers of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia, and Ford and Kissinger, butcher-accomplices of Timor, weren't butchers enough for wingnuttia
. They were too centrist. The time was ripe to go a shade deeper into the extreme of the political spectrum.
Enter Ronald Reagan. Finally, the ultimate pay-off to all their hard work. At last, the perfect wingnut beast had been built. Now the insanely reactionary war on government, a virus Goldwater had introduced, had overcome the American immune system. His Southern Strategy was less crude than Nixon's; you could say it had been perfected from aggressive to passive-aggressive. His whoring to Corporate America, his war on the environment and the poor: harvests of the crop Barry Goldwater had sown. And as a finishing touch: this personification of the long-term wingnut desire to destroy the New Deal, this man who was the perfect antithesis to FDR claimed ...FDR as a role model!
What was left for them? A couple of things. Overton Window in the form of Richard Nixon had radically intensified the war on liberal culture. His "silent majority" was reactionary. It stuck just enough. So, conforming to the Overton Window model, the war had to be further intensified. It had to be replaced by something super-reactionary. By then in this instance too the structure of Overton Window was able to further the concept of it. Richard Viguerie and Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson's American Taliban apparatus of mailing-lists, tax-exempt foundations and religious TV networks made inevitable the triumph of the Moral Majority of Reagan's Era. From tiny seeds indeed do grow giant monstrous pterocaryae trees
which shade and stunt -- if not yet completely kill -- the garden of liberalism that had sustained America.
Overton Window in the form of Richard Nixon had also attempted to transform the Executive into a tyrant.
They tried outright, constitution-shredding wingnut tyranny in the Nixon years. It didnt take. But Reagan tried it again with better success -- the Overton concept "worked" finally in the form of tyrant-executive. At last. And the media had been beaten back -- Katherine Graham explicitly stated that she didn't go after Iran-Contra like she went after Watergate because it was "too soon", and didn't want to shatter people's faith in the Republic. And so now Bush in this regard has free reign to improve on his predecessor's work, to "Overton" the country further right: his presidency is the Triumph of Overton Will
Though Reagan wasn't able to kill the entire structure of the New Deal, he accomplished his mission well enough by killing its mentality. Vast swathes of the country no longer accepted New Deal thinking. Dubya has sought to improve on that -- all the while spending in amounts that would scandalize the average New Dealer. Dubya has made atavistic war on something even older, and therefore something even more ingrained in liberal America: the gains of the Progressive Era
. And there is evidence that he wants to "roll-back" even further than that: to pre-revolutionary times, as King George Bush.
GW Bush is the penultimate pay-off of Overton Window, then. He's the personification and product of all the super-reactionary aims of the Overton Window mentality. It's as if the wingnut movement is Destro and Dr. Mindbender and he is Serpentor. He's the living aggregate of all the bits and pieces of the most awful wingnuttery in American history, the Anti-Christ of liberal democracy.
Overton, then, is not just a process or scheme or concept; it's a prophecy of an American Reich that is now being fulfilled.