Socialism and the Overton Window

The Book of Proverbs tells us that “With patience a ruler may be persuaded, and a soft tongue will break a bone.” (Proverbs 25:15), meaning that most goals can be achieved by slow and steady persistence, like water eroding a rock over centuries.

The concept of the Overton Window, or “window of discourse,” states that there is always a range of “acceptable” policy ideas that can be safely debated without appearing like a lunatic. In any society, there will always be some ideas that are mainstream, and some considered beyond the pale. Yet, through patient persistence, the Overton Window can be slowly moved in one direction or another. If there’s one political lesson we should all draw from recent history, it’s that the left is very good at shifting the Overton Window, and persuading not just rulers, but the public at large as well.

Consider the healthcare debate. When Obamacare was first proposed, it was considered a radical and highly controversial policy. Conservatives were worried it would be the first step on the road to a single-payer healthcare system. Such detractors were predictably lambasted by the media as alarmists. “Of course Obamacare would never lead to socialized medicine! Those right-wingers are just fear mongering to stop you from getting affordable healthcare!”

Fast forward a decade, and Obamacare, once considered “radical,” is now the entrenched law of the land. It’s so entrenched, in fact, that Republicans couldn’t even pass a “skinny repeal” two years ago due to their fear that the media would portray them as murderers for daring to touch Obama’s sacred cow. Not only is Obamacare here to stay, but it is now common to find articles stating that “single-payer health care is better than Obamacare,” and even some 2020 Presidential hopefuls have started to promise an end to private healthcare.

Another policy once considered taboo but now rapidly gaining acceptance is infanticide. It has now become almost cliché to repeat President Clinton’s original position that abortion must be “safe, legal, and rare,” but it’s a cliché worth repeating to remind us just how far we’ve strayed. That cliché has transformed into “shout your abortion!” Some even claim abortion is a “part of God’s plan.” This acceptance of abortion is a confusing position to take. If abortion is a routine procedure like going to the dentist, as many pro-abortion activists claim, then why would anyone want to “shout their abortion?” Who would start a movement called “shout your root canal?” Abortion was first a tragic necessity, then an acceptable neutral procedure, now it is a positive good that should be shouted from the rooftops, and soon it will be full blown acceptance of infanticide.  

A final example as of late is the Green New Deal (GND). Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez likely knew that her plan to retrofit every single building in America, end all air travel, and eliminate the bane of cow flatulence was unrealistic and would never become law in the moment. Her fellow Democrats who support the GND likely knew this as well, which is why Sen. Chuck Schumer called Sen. Mitch McConnell’s decision to bring the GND to a vote a “political stunt,” and why Sen. Ed Markey called it “an attempt to sabotage the movement we are building.” What they all knew was that the political climate was not yet ripe for the policies outlined in the GND. However, in positing it as an idea, their goal was to shift the frame of the window. Claiming the world will end in 12 years is meant to normalize a panicky discourse to get people used to the idea that change, any change, will be better than ultimate annihilation. Don’t be surprised then if ten, fifteen, twenty years down the road, something like the GND may not only be law, but may seem tame compared to new policies being advocated by the left.

Finally, let’s look at the use of the term “socialism” itself. Nine years ago, the Huffington Post caused an uproar by claiming that Obama should “embrace the socialist label.” An American President identify as a socialist? Unthinkable! Yet despite this aversion, the left succeeded in making socialism great again. Socialism is now openly discussed as a viable ideology. Congressional dinosaurs like Bernie Sanders and popular demagogues like AOC now proudly “embrace the socialist label.” Even more “moderate” (and I use the term very loosely) Democrats like Kamala Harris, who recently claimed she is “not a Democratic Socialist,” are now supporting openly socialist policies like ending all private healthcare.

As conservatives, we must push back on this. We must continue to fight back against every Green New Deal, every attempt to expand abortion, every attempt to pass policy that will completely bankrupt the nation. It’s easy to laugh at politicians like AOC, mock climate-conscious celebrities who use private jets, and easy to make jokes about cow flatulence, but if we don’t fight back, today’s jokes might become tomorrow’s policies.