James Long examines the idea of the Overton window – and what it can tell us about Brexit
What exactly is it about our clearly disunited kingdom that has set family members against their kin, split political parties, brought intelligent conversation to an exhausted halt and replaced analytical futurology with staring at the entrails of a sparrow? The Rio Olympics provided temporary relief but as that post-referendum painkiller wears off, we need to consult the ghost of Joseph Overton.
A recent article by John Lanchester in the London Review of Books looked at the ‘Overton window’, the idea formulated by the American political scientist of that name.
The window as Overton (pictured) defined it is the relatively narrow band that socially acceptable political ideas occupy within the range of all political ideas. At any one time, ideas inside the window are seen as acceptable, right and just. Ideas outside it extend to the extreme, unthinkable and potentially terrifying. It feels to most of us that the window is fixed and we’re just looking through it at objective morality. That’s what makes us think that events like the Holocaust could never happen again.
In fact it moves over time and, while we can cope with gradual evolution, the speed of change matters hugely. An abrupt lurch in the Overton window is a dangerous event. That is when logic, proportion, facts and truth get locked in some dark cupboard and anything can happen. That time is now.
The window is terrifyingly moveable in the hands of skilled political manipulators using tribal media megaphones. Constant repetition of powerful simplifications and unchallenged use of untruths can legitimise deeply unacceptable ideas. It has happened before. For parallels in our history, the so-called Popish Plot of 1678–9 is a good starting point.
Donald Trump has moved the American window so fast and so far that we can’t be sure of the outcome. UKIP’s funder Arron Banks understood Overton manipulation all too well. He knew truth and expertise could be ridiculed and sidelined, and the mainstream Leavers took up that part of his plan with shameful enthusiasm even though they found Banks himself unacceptable.
Compare gender discrimination or climate change with Brexit. The first two have seen a slow and still very fragile shift in the Overton window towards action to create a better world. The engines behind that slow change have been painstaking factual argument and discussion of the moral philosophy of fairness. In contrast, the referendum debate was fatally fast, flawed, ferocious, flippant and factually inaccurate. That’s enough F-words for now.
No, allow me a couple more: I believe there are such things as facts and I retain faith in their power. Call it naive, but in my perfect world, political argument would be shaped by that power and political differences would be resolved around reconciling opposing priorities. In contrast, I fear the Horsemen of the Apocalypse may be waiting for us in the dark forest beyond when the Overton window moves so suddenly into unfamiliar ground.
“If a general election were held tomorrow on the single issue of the referendum, the voter wouldn’t know who to vote for” – John Lanchester
And now? Lanchester says: “The trouble with where we are now is that the configuration of the parties doesn’t match the issues which need to be resolved… the Tories are a coalition of nationalists, who voted out, and business interests, who voted in; Labour is a coalition of urban liberals, who voted in, and the working class, who voted out…. if a general election were held tomorrow on the single issue of the referendum, the voter wouldn’t know whom to vote for.”
I believe there were three core reasons to vote Remain. First, the economic future was much safer. Second, Europe had contributed a lot to UK projects and people’s rights. Third, even an imperfect Europe was better than that old Europe which hosted two world wars. Those reasons co-exist easily.
There were many more reasons expressed for voting Leave and they tend not to co-exist at all. To choose but one example: the EU as a capitalist super-state owned by the multinationals versus the EU as a semi-socialist conspiracy interfering with our every action.
A phalanx of disadvantaged people supported the shift in the window but, oh what matching ironies on both sides of the Atlantic! An unethical plutocrat over there appealing to the victims of people like himself, and a mass of people over here pushed into the toxic lower reaches of inequality by blinkered, heartless policies. These voters face huge disappointment, as Lanchester explains. The actions that will be taken to preserve the City of London and prevent a mass shift of banking and investment to Frankfurt will mean still more inequality for them. The super-rich will be favoured.
Joseph Overton was a conservative American think-tanker whose ideas were used to power right-wing radicalism. He has left us with an epitaph because he was killed piloting a microlight aircraft, another realm where sudden ill-considered actions often have lethal consequences. He may have had time to realise that jumping from a great height doesn’t hurt. The pain comes only when you hit the ground.
Former BBC economics correspondent James Long is the founder and editor-in-chief of NowWeKnow