A Warning About The Overton Window

Well, Happy New Year!

The year 2018 is likely to be pivotal for America; in November, we will see whether outrage is sustainable–whether Trump has continued to be embarrassing and dangerous enough to keep large majorities of Americans active in the political resistance.

A lot can change in eleven months. Outrage can be exhausting. Propaganda can change public opinion. Voter suppression tactics can be ramped up. Racism, xenophobia and misogyny can be normalized and justified.

And then there’s this: Vox has recently warned readers about the Overton Window.

“Don’t normalize this” has become a kind of rallying cry during President Trump’s first year in office — a reminder to not get too acclimated to Trump’s norm-breaking and erratic behavior.

But the real danger of the Trump presidency might have less to do with Trump’s abnormality and more to do with how “normal” he makes other Republicans look by comparison.

It’s a timely warning, because let’s face it: next to the antics and ignorance of this Administration, behavior that once would have shocked us seems pretty tame by comparison.

There’s a concept in political theory developed by Joseph P. Overton which suggests that there’s a “window” of acceptable ideas and policy proposals in public discourse. Everything inside the window is normal and expected, while everything outside the window is radical, ridiculous, or unthinkable. And Overton argued that the easiest way to move that window was to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the window as possible. Because forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they rejected it, would make all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison — it would move the “window” slowly in that direction.

A great deal of that damage has already been done.

Trump’s presidency has forced news networks to grapple with conspiracy theories, right-wing trolls, and dishonest government spokespeople — making them a regular fixture of our national political debates. And that grappling has moved the Overton Window in ways that will warp our politics long after Trump’s presidency comes to an end.

This is the phenomenon that allows us to look at seriously radical politicians and fail to recognize how far they are from what used to be the mainstream. It is the sort of “normalization” that allows us to consider Senators and Representatives “moderate,” despite their consistent support for Trump and his warped agenda, simply because they smile occasionally and refrain from throwing verbal feces.

As odious as Trump and his crew of institutional vandals are, our immediate–and imperative– task is to defeat and replace his complicit Congressional enablers. We can’t let the Overton Window diminish our recognition of their culpability.

If there is a massive Democratic wave in November, it will do three things: it will be a stinging repudiation of Donald Trump; it will hasten the day when the GOP returns to its roots and some semblance of sanity; and–counter-intuitive as it may seem–it will also be a wake-up call to Democrats, because it will signal the continued operation of democratic accountability.

We have eleven months to resist normalizing the bizarre. Eleven months to make sure that vote suppression tactics don’t work. Eleven months to recruit, encourage and support good candidates. Eleven months to begin what will be a long process of restoring sanity and responsibility to American government.

What’s that old saying? This is the first day of the rest of our lives…

Happy 2018. Let’s make it count.


  1. If my fellow citizens allow this to continue – who can say?
    I come from a family that has a tendency to speak out, and I know my personal limits on this insanity have reached their apex some time back – so all I can say is:

  2. “But the real danger of the Trump presidency might have less to do with Trump’s abnormality and more to do with how “normal” he makes other Republicans look by comparison.”

    Just consider our own family, friends and neighbors prior to 2016 with our relationships with them during 2017; it brings to mind a bit of poetry I am probably misquoting, “…the world ends not with a bang but with a whimper…” I notice some newscasters, even on MSNBC, appear to be leaning more to acceptance of Trump’s repealing of regulations and the new tax bill; almost -but not quite accepting – that his and the party’s statements that higher profits for big business will automatically lead to more jobs and a boost to the economy. Almost but not quite…

    “This is the first day of the rest of our lives…”

    The above quote inspires hope for 2018 and beyond but don’t lose sight of another quote, “A little knowledge is a dangerous weapon.” The current administration is wielding that weapon with deadly aim and we are in their cross hairs.

  3. Maybe it’s time to let go of the outrage and turn to a more focused purpose. We must return sanity to our government.

  4. You are becoming the perfect gadfly. I always learn something from you. Keep up the good work in 2018.

  5. As long as McConnell and Ryan continue to “lead” Congress, I predict there will be continual reasons for outrage, right up to November.

  6. We have two political parties occupying the political right. I believe Overton’s “window” has been used against the people by our corporate state and it’s media to normalize what is acceptable and what’s not acceptable.

    Dissident voices have been silenced in this country for eons. Our propaganda media model enforces this. Look at the media blackout of voter filled coliseums during Sanders’ campaign. Not even MSNBC would cover it. Rachel Maddow almost apologized to Bernie Sanders.

    Overton’s window would be relevant if we had a true democracy accompanied with a free press. We don’t have either of these.

    The planning of the revolt will not occur on television, radio or in print. They won’t even cover global revolutions properly. Why is that?

    There is no truth-seeking within our media. It’s ALL propaganda. And, it most definitely does NOT represent the people as a check on power within the government.

    One other note…there is almost NO accountability within government. Colin Powell and Bush formerly lied to the American people to invade a country and kill their leader. Nobody was held accountable. Thousands of innocent civilians were killed – not a single person went to The Hague.

    James Clapper and other intelligence chiefs lied under oath to the American people. They denied the USA was spying on its people. Thanks to Edward Snowden, we all know it’s a lie. What happened to Clapper and all the others who lied under oath?

    The whistleblowers received the brunt of our laws, but not the leaders who lied to the American people.

    Don’t we need to ask ourselves, “Why is this happening?”

  7. Peggy; I see our outrage as our motivation to fight the current administration. Outrage can be focused; like anger control therapy. I see evidence of unfocused outrage in the continuation of so-called Bernie supporters who refuse to accept even Bernie’s decision and asking them to join him to support and vote for Hillary in hopes of defeating Trump. They are still refusing to accept reality and their unfocused outrage helped elect Trump. Bernie appears to be focusing his outrage against the destruction of our health care and the Trump tax bill; he is tightly focused at this time on issues wherein lies his greatest strengths.

  8. I don’t understand why Overton has created a window that permits bad things to be compared to good things automatically. Everything Trump says is a lie. Trump is incapable of telling the truth or he does not know what the truth is.

    Americans should be told that Trump lied 462 times (or whatever the number is) during 2017 and has already lied 17 times in 2018, even though the year is only one day old. Give Trump credit for nothing.

  9. Trump has successfully lowered the bar to a yet lower one with his unchallenged lying and conduct while implementing Bannon’s admittedly Leninist views of “deconstruction of the administrative state.” When the whole spectrum moves, former left, middling and right views moves to the right and exchange positions in the process. Our problem is that we are allowing this movement to happen in broad daylight. Trump should be openly challenged this new year on each falsehood he utters lest such misconduct become permanently ensconscenced in the new normal. That is part of the task we have this new year in keeping the fire going to the fall of 2018.

  10. We must turn our outrage into action. The emotional exhaustion of outrage is unsustainable but taking action has intrinsic rewards in addition to actual results. I find a fairly new podcast nurtures my enthusiasm: Pod Save America. Happy new year.

  11. Thank you, Sheila. You have addressed the most serious danger and stated the challenge clearly.

  12. Thanks Sheila, a lot!! This is an extremely important piece.

    We need to hang on to actual reality and not the very warped version this man and his various minions are trying to create for us. While he tries his most to drag us off course into his dreamland we have to fight it and him. We have no choice if we’re going to save this country from utter ruin. The rest of the world is not buying it. To them we look like we’ve lost our minds and some see this as a great opportunity to checkmate us everywhere including here.

    I’m used to having an occasional nightmare when I sleep not a constant one while I’m fully awake. This is where we’re all at except those that want to be in Trump’s dreamland.

    On this very happy note (not) – Happy New Year!!!

  13. And yet that rudderless ship we call the Democratic Party struggles to sail in a forward direction, to find someone to take the helm, and to articulate values, principles and policies that attract voters. If Trump-2018 morphs into something slightly less vile, his narcissism and racism and profound ignorance may not be enough to create an electoral tide that, we all hope, drags him under. In the back of our minds we are all confident that our activist women, whom we’ve ignored for so long, will continue to lead the national outrage and that that will turn into votes against anyone expressing fealty to Trump.

    But where are the men? Don’t look to the uniquely uninspiring leaders of the DNC for salvation. Wherever it it is, it’s not there. Don’t look to Chuck Shumer. Although he is the smartest man in Congress,he is still searching for his voice. Don’t look to Barack Obama. He is too caught up in his role of thoughtful gentleman to lead the kind of down and dirty dog fights that will make up this year’s elections. Scratch Joe Biden for similar reasons. Bernie is too old and too easy a target for Republicans. Somewhere out there, I am compelled to keep telling myself, there’s a person who can help tell the story of how the values of the Democratic Party are the authentic values of America, and the only set of values on the table with any prospect of helping most Americans, and America itself, regain a sense of the positive role government can play in the life of the nation.

    But despair is not an option. Even though my friends all tell me that Kamala Harris is not ready for a lead role, I see it differently. She has youth. She has the kind of intelligence and eloquence that helped Obama transform the game in 2008. She’s the closest thing Democrats have to a politician with charisma and poise. She can tell our story persuasively, and with the right support, can assume the vacant job of party leader. The times call for great energy and fearlessness. She embodies these qualities. Let’s not give in to the cynical belief that America has become too racist for such political stars. And for God’s sake let’s not stand around debating endlessly about the need to let the “right” person rise to the top. It’s unquestionably time we had a woman in the Oval Office, especially following a president who has given testosterone such a bad name. Let’s stop the endless hand wringing and debating and get behind our strongest candidate. At the same time, we can show the world that the U.S. is not South Carolina circa 1861.

  14. Republicans know it’s a midterm elections year too. Now that they have rewarded their donors with our tax money they will be well funded and without any alligiance to the truth. Trump has never had any alligiance to the truth and Pence only to his truth. The Cabinet and Congressional leadership are so enthralled with power that they will say and do anything and everything to mislead their public. Dirty tricks are now the norm.

    This is going to be difficult for America to recover from. We still have a Republican Big Brother in every purse, pocket and room whispering the new normal into our sub conscious. We not only have been subjected to a political earthquake but a cultural one too.

    But we have to do what we have to do. Perhaps Robert Mueller will help. Perhaps the economy will. Perhaps Kim Jong Un will. Putin will turn all of his knobs to support our enemy.

    Make the New Year’s Resolution to take back the America that we built, not sell it for scrap.

  15. The republicans are abusing the American people. Names matter. We need to start calling their agenda what it is; abuse. They are lying, gas-lighting, and abusing the people. Tell it like it is and don’t beat around the PC bush.

  16. As I’ve written on this blog and to my many other readers, we all know what the problem is, and now is the time to use our energy to fix it. Trump, sadly, is protected by the Constitution…for now. But the Congress can be changed greatly if we get to work fielding and supporting quality candidates everywhere and at every level. We MUST put the Republican Party back in the tiny room where they belong.

    Continuous nay-saying, whining and hand-wringing gets us nowhere. Some contributors here keep reminding us of dystopia writ large. Fine. Keep it up. But that daily reminder should be used to motivate real activists to do their duty and educate others, register voters, join phone banks, knock on doors, pass out leaflets, write letters of support and a host of other things for those candidates we need to have in government.

    Once we get these GOOD people in office, they will listen to the voice of the people and prosecute this administration to the full extent of the law, including the emolument clause of the Constitution – which this president flaunts. Remind your candidates of the oath of office they will take and how the current batch of corrupt fools are violating their oath to the Constitution every day.

    Happy New Year to all ….. now, get to work.

  17. Moving the “goal posts” is also another way describe the change in what is viewed as moderate or normal.

    Todd Smekens @ 8:58 am: >>> Dissident voices have been silenced in this country for eons. Our propaganda media model enforces this. Look at the media blackout of voter filled coliseums during Sanders’ campaign. Not even MSNBC would cover it.<<<

    The Corporate Media was very uncomfortable with Bernie Sanders. The Corporate Democrats are now back to trying to triangulate candidates. The candidates have to be a fill in the blanks of sex, race or ethnic backgrounds. Most of important of all they must have an alliance first and foremost to Wall Street.

    The Democratic Party's Leadership had a chance to call for mass demonstrations in DC or NYC in front of Trump Tower before the vote on the Trump Tax Scam. As usual the Democratic Party's Corporate Leadership in Washington DC and DNC sat on their hands. The best they could muster was some sound bytes. The Democrats are like an ice cube in Death Valley, they melt away in face of opposition.

  18. My New Year’s resolution was to return to reading your blog on a daily basis. I have been immediately rewarded.

    Thank you Sheila!

  19. I think that neither party wants to be associated with mass demonstrations. The RNC has solved that problem by outsourcing the job to its propaganda wing stirring outrage through fake news, massive lying to news media, allowing Russian social media intervention and using resources like the Tea Party a wing of Koch Industries.

    Do we really want the DNC to respond in kind?

  20. To All,

    Have a Happy New Year! and remember:

    “You can fool all the people some of the time, and some of the people all the time, but you cannot fool all the people all the time.” – Abraham Lincoln

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