The Window Of Discourse
Joseph Paul Overton (January 4, 1960 – June 30, 2003) was an American Technologist and expert in Jurisprudence, who unfortunately perished in a car accident in 2003. He had come with the idea of a Window, in order to explain the dynamics of Politics in the 1990s. The governing principle behind this Window, which was further developed by Joseph Lehman and named after him, was directed inwards, seeking an answer to whether the political viability of an idea depended mostly on its position, rather than on preferences of the politicians. Very few people were familiar with Overton’s concept of Window for long. In recent times, the concept of Overton Window has become a popular phrase in political discussions not only in the US, but also across the globe, though the global community considers the concept in a different manner, and not as explained by its creator. However, this deviation is not important, as the concept is all about deviation.
Well, the Overton Window is basically a Sliding Window, with quite a few frames. Some frames can be seen from the outside, while the rest are on either side… in the wide groove of the wall… and could not be seen. When the inner frames get revealed from one side, frames of the other side get covered up, thus changing the look of the window. Whatever was on one side or out of sight, that could come at the centre. In other words, the said window sets the range of policies that a politician, sounding moderate, can recommend, by delving into a spectrum from “more free” to “less free” with regard to government intervention… and with the movement or expansion of the spectrum – an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable.
One can consider these frames as different political views, which are arranged from one end to the other. According to Overton, the frame on the far right is an extreme form of the Right-wing Politics that calls for the economy and society to be left in the hands of Giant Capital, while the frame on the far left is an extreme form of the Leftist Politics that demands collective rights of the subaltern people over economic wealth, surplus production and power. Between these two, the Philosophy of various forms of Social Structures is arranged in layers. In a similar manner, different social positions, from Radical Sectarianism to Liberal Secularism, can also be arranged one after the other. Such an arrangement of various ideas or ideologies is also possible through the Overton Window.
This concept has been used to understand the dramatic changes in the political character of many countries in recent times. For example, a person, like Donald Trump, became the US President, riding on the Politics of Hatred and Division. It may be noted that the foundation of his success had been laid even before he became the president in 2017. There has been a lot of analyses of his rise in the context of so-called Right-Wing Populism. One should notice that the Overton Window changed its form in the US long ago, due to the influence of hatred. Non-Whites, immigrants, women, labourers… the atmosphere of hatred towards different sections of people has gradually been recognised by many. An unimaginable manifestation of violent rudeness has gradually become a common phenomenon. In other words, what was previously out of Overton’s Window or invisible has come to the fore. The incredible has become normal.
In his 2019 publication ‘Anti-Social‘, American journalist Andrew Marantz crafted a complex, unsettling portrait of how blind techno-utopianism could lead to disaster, as he penned an extraordinary account of this evolution from his own experience. Marantz wrote that he was standing outside a small church in North Carolina on Election Day afternoon in 2016. There was a polling station near the church. The author found that an elderly Black man, named Larry, was passing out flyers, promoting a candidate. Larry told Marantz that he had served as an Army personnel for nearly 22 years. He said that he likes the country, because any person could reach anywhere in the US. Commenting on Trump, Larry stressed: “I know I don’t want that crazy man to be president, but I don’t have hate in my heart for anybody.” Marantz wrote: “Just before nightfall, a White man with a grey beard left the church. On his way to the parking lot, he stopped in front of Larry and delivered an unsolicited monologue about why he had cast his vote for Trump. ‘Bill Clinton has an illegitimate mulatto child – you know that, don’t you?’ the man said. ‘That’s fine. I’m OK with mixed people. But I’m just saying – why doesn’t he talk about it?’ Larry looked at the pavement and didn’t say much. Eventually, the man got in his car and left. ‘I’ve seen a lot in this state,’ Larry said, his eyes still cast downward. He continued: ‘I’ve known people whose kin got lynched. In the last twenty years, or thirty, you didn’t hear people saying these things. These days, suddenly, they feel like they’re allowed to sat it.’” (Chapter 20)
Such changes have taken place in different parts of the world in recent times. It is often seen that the proponents of hatred have come to power in many countries, and those, who used to be considered fringe elements a few years back, are taking care of the Mainstream Politics. The Overton Window has changed fast in those countries in the last few years, and the phrase fringe elements is hardly heard these days. The scenario was completely different a decade ago. Perhaps, Political Extremism has brought the Real Change.
Even in India, the Overton Window has changed drastically. Religion (read Communal Politics) has started influencing each and every aspect of the Indian Society. All other identities and issues have become irrelevant. Experts are of the opinion that those, who want to polarise the society, are claiming that the society has already been polarised! In fact, the mind of a society is just like the stock market… if everyone can be convinced that the share price will rise, then the share price shall really rise. Efforts are being made to push the window frame; however, it is still not clear how successful that attempt really is.
It does not mean that one should wait for realising the Real Change. People should resist the evil forces, who are trying to divide the society by using Religion, Caste, Class and Race, with all their might. There is a vast fertile ground for mental or psychological polarisation in the society. If the evil forces are allowed to spread the seeds of hatred, the destruction of society is inevitable. The structure of our Overton Window depends upon whether they can be successful in doing it. In the concluding chapter of his book, Marantz wrote: “We like to assume that the arc of history will bend inexorably toward justice, but this is wishful thinking. Nobody, not even Martin Luther King Jr, believed that social progress was automatic; if he did, he wouldn’t have bothered marching across any bridges. The arc of history bends the way people bend it.”
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