When one surveys the political scene today it’s very easy to give in to despair. This might be because we’re not looking at things in the right way. Perhaps we’re focusing too much on short-term possibilities and ignoring the long term. Perhaps instead of expecting real change in the short term we should be focusing on the possibility of shifting the Overton Window a little.
The concept of the Overton Window is of course that on any political topic there is a continuum of opinions and political options but not all of these opinions and political options are available. There is a narrow window that limits policy options and debate. Any option outside the window might as well be invisible, in fact might as well not exist. Any attempt to discuss options that fall outside the window will be ruthlessly suppressed. As a result no-one even tries to discuss such options.
Over the past few decades the Overton Window on many key issues has shifted dramatically. Superficially the shift has been towards the left (and this is the shift that most people have noticed) but in some cases it has moved the other way, which is another example of the dangers of trying to see everything in terms of a left-right conflict. The most spectacular shifts have been on issues such as immigration, homosexuality, abortion and global warming. Equally dramatic shifts have occurred on issues like foreign policy, free trade and free markets. You can discuss immigration, but you cannot suggest that immigration has any negative consequences. You can discuss homosexuality but only if you are proposing to encourage the practice. You cannot discuss abortion at all. You can discuss global warming as long as you start from the premise that it is real and it’s all our fault. You can discuss free trade as long as you are in favour of it and want to extend it further.
The Overton Window is absolutely crucial because it defines the limits of the possible. If the Overton Window can be shifted then the limits of the possible change. And it may be that some slight shifts could be possible and may even have begun.
This has momentous implications when we consider the current political scene.
There is zero chance that Marine le Pen will win the next French presidential election. There is zero chance that the Sweden Democrats will win the next Swedish election. No matter who wins the US presidential election this year it is unlikely that anything will change dramatically.
On the other hand Marine le Pen and the FN have put immigration onto the political agenda in France. The Sweden Democrats have put immigration onto the political agenda in Sweden. UKIP have put the question of Britain’s EU membership onto the political agenda in Britain. In the US Donald Trump has made immigration a live election issue. To a lesser extent Bernie Sanders has opened up at least a tiny amount of debate on another forbidden topic – economic justice as opposed to social justice. If Trump wins he may be able to push the Overton Window slightly on the issue of political correctness, and even on free trade.
These are small but worthwhile achievements. It is worth casting one’s vote for parties or candidates that challenge the status quo, not because any significant change in the status quo is likely to happen in the short term but because it may help to shift the Overton Window just a little. And shifting the Overton Window may make real change possible in the medium term.