Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Movement Meta and the Overton Window

If our current Presidential candidates are to be believed, comprehensive immigration reform will once again be on the table sometime early this coming year. But exactly what that reform will look like will be determined more by the ebb and flow of public opinion than any campaign promises made during the heat of the campaign.

Activists on both sides of the debate are ratcheting up their respective PR machines in anticipation of the grand legislative dance that will take place.

Right-wing groups like FAIR and its astroturf surrogates have taken out splashy adds in big time "liberal media" publications trying to reframe the issue as an environmental one. NumbersUSA will spend probably close to a million dollars to train 500 new "volunteer activist experts" to flood the press with fake, 'non-partisan' viewpoints on everything from health care to education…all of course with an anti-immigrant bend.

On the other side, pro-immigrant groups are actively courting newly-minted "pro-migrant bloggers" from the previously uninterested progressive blogosphere in hopes of effecting positive electoral change. Business centered think tanks and "grassroots" advocacy groups made up of the likes of the American Meat Institute and the American Hotel & Lodging Association are beginning lobbying efforts to make sure they get the kind of immigration reform that will be best for their economic interests.

Of course lost in all this politics as usual are the people at the heart of the issue. Those who have been effected by increased raids that have destroyed families all in the name of some cynical political theater to sway public opinion. Those who have died in detention camps for lack of basic medical care in order to prove that some "get tough" policy is an effective replacement for meaningful reform. Those who have been denied basic constitution protections in order that Micheal Chertoff can claim victory in his personal war on the undocumented.

But this is a nightmare for migrants that need not exist.

If we had been vigilant from the start, and more importantly, shrewd enough not to allow this entire issue to be framed from the start by the far-right, a different dynamic might exist today and reform might have been accomplished.

I am still not jaded enough to believe that the current paradigm was inevitable.

I don't want to believe that pro-immigrant avdocacy groups compromise the very people they are supposed to represent out of nefarious political intent. I don't want to believe that corporate and business interests are welcomed into the pro-migrant world for any other reason than the current constraints of political realities.

But at the same time I must question why those political realities exist, and why supposed immigrant advocates work so half-heartedly to change them.

I recently started to examine this situation through the lens of the concept of the Overton Window. ..and doing so it has revealed not only the mistakes of the past but a clear path for action moving forward.

Originally conceived by a right wing think tank, the political concept of the Overton Window has become popular in the blogosphere over the last few years as a way to analyze policy and political action.

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joe Overton, who developed the model. It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable. Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.


Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. … A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

… Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the "window" of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful.
Mackinac Center

Since politicians, advocacy groups, and lobbyists generally work within the confines of the Overton Window as determined by public opinion, the only way to move an issue away from the middle is to shift public opinion towards the ends of the spectrum. But as the right-wing has so successfully found out, public opinion can be shifted drastically over time so that ideas and concepts that were once confined to the fringe can be moved to the center by introducing ideas far more extreme into the debate. The rants of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, or FOX play heavily into this concept as far as general politics go. But perhaps nowhere has this strategy been more effective than in the immigration debate.

By continually introducing fringe elements and concepts, like the white supremacist rants of Pat Buchanan, into the debate, things like the elimination of birthright citizenship, English Only, and deportation through starvation, seem more reasonable and eventually have become acceptable aspects of the greater debate.

At the same time legalization of the undocumented, which actually has the support of the majority of the public, begins to move out of the Overton Window and becomes a more far-left concept.

When viewed in this light, everything done by the right makes total sense.

From the insane rants of William Gheen, to the embrace of the minutemen and neo-nazis like Save Our States' Joe Turner…to the bile of "mainstream" hatemongers like Lou Dobbs, Pat Buchanan, Limbaugh, Malkin, O'rielly and the rest…it's all been done to move the Overton Window of acceptable debate.

As lunatics have increasingly mainstreamed extremist ideas to make previously unacceptable positions acceptable, even rational, practical and accepted positions of the left have been re-positioned as far-left ideology.

In the warped worldview of right-wing framing even relatively conservative and mainstream advocacy groups like NCLR become the provocateurs of radical ideologies…anyone familiar with far-right framing is familiar with "the 'National Council of Race' and its advocating of the reconquista" meme.

But what of the left?

Why have immigrant and migrant-rights activist organizations been so impotent in the wake of this attack from the right?

How has the debate shifted so far from the center that previous attempts at Comprehensive Reform yielded legislation that was immigrant unfriendly at best and in most cases extremely anti-immigrant? Both McCain –Kennedy and the Grand Compromise were at their core restrictionist, punitive, and fostered the relegation of both current and future immigrants to permanent underclass status.

This situation has occurred because the mainstream pro-immigrant movement has spent the entire time chasing an ever-shifting middle ground only to find that once they get there it has again moved further to the right.

And this is because they have not worked to shift the Overton Window back to a more acceptable place.

In fact, they have not only limited their own responses to reflect this quest for the middle, they have worked to distance themselves from, and marginalize, the left-of-center voices of the broader movement that could move the window for them.

While the right embraces it's fringe(the base)...the left tries its hardest to deny their's even exists.

Their response to the Marches of 2006 and 2007 is a prime example of this fact.

After lending only tepid and late support to the 2006 marches, they found the heat put on them from the right was more than they were willing to handle. When Dobbs and the rest of the RW noise machine painted the marches as extremist, framing them as "Mexican flag waving" "illegal aliens" "demanding rights they weren't entitled to"… did the mainstream orgs stand their ground, or at the very least allow the left to spek up to move the window of public opinion for them? ..No, they backed down, lending less support the following year, and outright opposition this year for fear that marches might upset the sensibilities of "middle America"….and one again the window moved further to the right.

The wiser move for course would have been to allow the original march organizers, and the left in general, to present a strong case for the marches and their reason for being. Letting left-of-center surrogates do the heavy lifting of shifting the Overton Window would have been a preferred course of action.

This is certainly what the right would have done. They don't silence Ann Coulter or Pat Buchanan, no matter how far out their claims or positions. This is because they realize that even extreme ideas put forth into the public square only lend credibility everything more moderate.

The same has been true on the web where the right-wing has achieved numerous victories in shaping the debate. FAIR, NumbersUSA, ALIPAC …they have all made great strides in moving the debate towards the far right.

But the pro-migrant movement on the web has been plagued by lack of true voices from the left. The mainstream advocacy groups have relied upon a "top-down" hierarchical model that has limited any strong presence of meaningful left-of-center voices, preferring instead to try to control the message and the medium from the middle.

And the results have been predictable.

The window continues to shift rightward.

If the migrant right movement is to ever achieve meaningful, humane, and practical reform it MUST learn to not only accept the voices of the left…but embrace them. They must come to the logical and practical conclusion that you can't move a debate from the middle. And if they are unwilling or unable move the debate back towards the left themselves, they must at the very least get out of the way and allow those who can accomplish this task do it…

It would of course be nice if they could help…but if they can't …least they can do is make sure that the doors are not shut and that they are not blocking the way.


laura said...

Yes, you are absolutely right, Duke. But one issue is the large amount of funding the racist right wing gets from millionaires/billionaires that want to deflect Americans' rage over their rotten situation onto those least responsible for it: out-of-status migrants. That's how they pay 500 "experts" and ads in the New York Times etc. Not to mention the free personnel they get from CNN and Fox in the shape of Lou Dobbs atc.

How can we match those resources?

With massive grass-roots action? And maybe with some media help like Univision?

I feel like I want to see some ads that show the realities of ICE raids, for example. How to raise money for that? Can the people who organized those amazing 2006 marches do that?

Sentido said...

My feeling is that we need to start pushing again after the election. Democrats are better than Republicans in every way-- and getting as many Democrats in office as possible is the number one priority.

After this, I think there are a lot of ways to move forward.

First, highlighting the role of racism in the debate, and in Conservatism is the most direct way to fight back. The good news is that the right is helping this meme, along every day.

Second, I think the compassion theme is crucial. We should continue showing the effects of anti-immigrant policies on people, families and communities (not to mention businesses).

I think there are a lot of ways forward after the election.

I am not as pessimistic about the Overton window. Conservatives are about to take a beating in public opinion on many issues where they will be painted as narrow and spiteful. We in the pro-immigrant side will benefit from this.

I agree that we need to do a better job standing for our position in the public debate.

The Watchman said...

ALIPAC.US's plan to raise half a million dollars to hire 500 bloggers/experts is laughable.

ALIPAC is all about promoting William Gheen, and has never had more than two employees.

Nearly all of ALIPAC's funds go to Gheen's salary and travel expenses, press releases, etc. In 2007 no contributions were made to any candidates, and in 2006 only $1,500 total.

I noticed in their FEC financial reports ( that they had not paid any employer taxes nor withheld any income taxes from wages for several years until April 2008 after I reported this to the IRS and other agencies.

Moreover, a review of their FEC filings show they are defying the FEC by refusing to provide donor information required by federal law, and there's a history of basic math mistakes and late filing of FEC reports.

If ALIPAC can't manage a payroll of two employees and can't pay taxes and file mandatory reports on-time, how do they expect to manage a staff of 500?

I would not take Gheen seriously. He talks big but I doubt he can execute these grand plans.