Politics & Policy

For Good and Ill, Donald Trump Has Brought Discussion of Political Impossibilities into the Open

(Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty)

Here’s a term you need to know — the “Overton Window.” Developed by the late Joseph Overton, a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the “window” refers to the range of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. As the Mackinac Center explains, “the ‘window’ of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election.” The key to shifting policy lies not so much in changing politicians but in changing the terms of the debate. In other words, “The window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.”

The Left — dominating the media, the academy, and pop culture — is unmatched at moving the Overton Window. Consider gay marriage, a subject once so far outside the mainstream that less than 20 years ago, Republicans and Democrats united to pass the Defense of Marriage Act to define marriage under federal law as the union of one man and one woman. Now? That view is such an anathema that it’s difficult to get — or retain — a job in entire sectors of the economy if you openly hold to the traditionalist position on marriage.

The Overton Window moved even faster on transgender rights. Ten years ago the notion that a man with emotional problems and breast implants could be named “Woman of the Year” was unthinkable. Now, in some quarters it’s just as unthinkable to refer to Bruce Jenner — Bruce Jenner! — as a man.

At the moment, the Left is working hard to move the Overton Window on the gun debate. The same president who mocked the idea that he was interested in confiscating guns is now openly admiring Australia’s confiscation program. But the president isn’t leading this charge. He’s following the emerging conventional wisdom on the left: that gun “control” is not enough, that advocating outright gun bans is the only morally serious position, and the Second Amendment — at a minimum — must be judicially reinterpreted into irrelevance.

#share#The leftward pressure on the Overton Window has been relentless, with conservatives reduced to applying herculean effort to simply maintain the cultural and political status quo. Yes, the Tea Party has nudged Republicans just a bit to the right, but it’s a sign of the success of the Left that a relatively unchanged GOP can be labeled as ever more extreme and “reactionary.” And few realities show this leftist success better than the fact that the Window now enables expressions of overt leftist hatred and bigotry — against Christians, against conservatives, against whites, and often against Jews.

Then along came Donald Trump. On key issues, he didn’t just move the Overton Window, he smashed it, scattered the shards, and rolled over them with a steamroller. On issues like immigration, national security, and even the manner of political debate itself, there’s no window left. Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table. The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left’s race and identity-soaked politics.

The shattering of the window reflects the shattering of the American consensus.

Critically, the Overton Window was smashed not by a politician but by a very American hybrid of corporate/entertainment titan — a man rich and powerful enough to be immune to elite condemnation and famous enough to dominate the news media. How many people can commandeer live television simply by picking up the phone and calling in? How many politicians can cause Twitter to detonate seemingly at will?

While many of Trump’s actual proposals are misguided, nonsensical, or untenable, by smashing the window, he’s begun the process of freeing the American people from the artificial and destructive constraints of Left-defined discourse. Serious and substantive politicians like Ted Cruz will get a more respectful hearing, and PC shibboleths about allegedly boundless virtues of Islam and immigration will be treated with the skepticism they deserve.

#related#To be clear, this change is occurring both for good and for ill. The shattering of the window reflects the shattering of the American consensus, and the result will likely be deeper polarization, and even less civility, with further strains on the ties that bind our nation together. At the same time, however, the Left’s very success at defining the terms of discourse meant that the price of civility and unity was all too often an acceptance of liberal norms and manners. It meant swallowing liberal pieties and confining your discourse to Left-approved terms. In other words, it often meant surrender.

The marketplace of ideas is getting raucous indeed. What’s a person to do? As I wrote yesterday, now is the time to speak with informed conviction, apathetic to the demands both of political correctness and the mindless reactions against PC. Use the new-found room in the public discourse to speak your mind, but at the same time model the values you wish to see in others. In the new free-for-all, the Golden Rule still matters, reason still matters, and attitude is not everything. Trump should not rule the world he has made.

David French — David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

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