Sudden shifts in policy can be positive, but when rhetoric turns to ignorance, we need to fight back, writes Gavin Esler
Too many politicians favour abuse over facts, rancour over rigour
I’ve always been a fan of the Overton Window. It’s not a piece of glass but a political theory named after the conservative American political analyst, Joseph P Overton. He argued that for leaders and campaigners there are certain policy ideas that the general public finds completely outside a “window” of what is acceptable to debate. Such ideas are seen as crazy or extreme, but with courage and political skill, that can change. In Saudi Arabia, the idea of women driving cars was once clearly outside the “window”. Now Saudi leaders have moved the “window” of what is acceptable, and their new policy may result in many other changes.
For American and European leaders the last big shift in the “window” of acceptability came in the 1980s. Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher argued against big government spending, the power of trades unions and for the privatisation of nationalised industries. Reagan said he wanted not merely to “contain” Russia but to roll back what he called its “evil empire.” These ideas were once thought extreme, but as a result of Reagan-Thatcher leadership, they became mainstream. Thatcher correctly pointed out that her biggest triumph was not that her ideas were accepted by her allies on the political Right, but also by her opponents on the Left.
And now the window is moving again. The strong showing of Alternativ für Deutschland (AfD) in the recent German elections means the unthinkable: a far-right German political party now has a large parliamentary presence in the Bundestag (even if most Germans still find the AfD utterly unacceptable). In Britain, the Labour party is proposing a massive programme to renationalise what Thatcher and her successors privatised -- British state-controlled assets such as the railways, public utilities and so on. Such policies were once described as “looney left” but are now quite popular in Britain.
But something else has shifted, and it is the window of acceptability not merely for policies but of behaviours once regarded as extreme or crazy. Donald Trump has so far failed to turn his policy ideas into law, but he has succeeded in shifting the window of what, apparently, is acceptable to say. It used to be unthinkable for a president of the United States to describe some protesting US football stars using derogatory terms. Not any more. The right wing cable news anchor Tucker Carlson claimed in the past week that “calling someone a racist used to be a big deal”. Not any more, he seems to think. And American commentators are struggling to think of any precedent for a president threatening, in the case of North Korea, not just to destroy a regime, but to destroy and entire country.
In Britain the window of what is regarded by some as acceptable language has been shifting too. A former colleague, Laura Kuenssberg, currently the BBC’s political editor, received so many threats on social media that the BBC was forced to assign a bodyguard to keep her safe at the Labour party conference last week. Other prominent women in public life including female MPs from different parties have been targets for despicable abuse including threats of rape and murder. All this behaviour was unthinkable just a few years ago.
More from Gavin Esler
The “window” of acceptability has moved in other ways too. It’s hardly new that ever since Niccolo Machiavelli published The Prince in 1532, political leaders have been known to lie. But never has deceit, spin and falsehoods seemed quite so shameless and when compared with the facts even absurd. A British trade union leader told the Labour party conference last week that they “won” the 2017 general election. They didn’t. Labour won many votes and many new friends but lost the election. Donald Trump’s staff chose to tell the world about enormous crowds at his inauguration. Anyone watching on television could see that the crowds were lower than previous years. Britain’s foreign secretary Boris Johnson has been repeating simply incorrect claims about the amount of money Britain contributes to the European Union. His misuse of statistics has repeatedly been corrected by others. Most worrying of all, some research suggests that when experts, statisticians and others do correct these factually wrong claims, many voters simply do not care. The Overton Window appears to have moved so far that facts are not important to millions of people. That’s a great pity.
We need to move the Overton Window of what’s acceptable back to facts, to politely disagreeing rather than being abusive, to ending intimidation of women and others in public life. We need to create a sense of shame about racism, and about leaders who deliberately mislead and lie. If Saudi Arabia can, at its own pace, embrace a very significant reform, surely it cannot be too much to expect other countries to move the Overton Window too? We have moved towards ignorance and violent language. The time has come to move the window back to a more civilised public discourse.
Gavin Esler is a journalist, television presenter and author