Deconstructing the Overton Window

A political post this time, but a point of view you may not have heard.

I was talking with a friend the other day, and he put forward an interesting formulation.

Many of the issues that come up in Washington, DC, are hedged about with “can’t do this” and “can’t do that.” This group won’t go for this, this group won’t go for that, this party won’t agree to this, this party won’t agree to that. The discussion has become calcified into very narrow channels of what’s acceptable. The Overton Window, the space that defines what can be talked about, what can be considered, has become very narrow, so narrow that no solution of the issue is possible. This situation has persisted for years on many issues.

And now along comes Donald Trump.

Trump wants to get things done, but he can’t. Not in the normal way. There is a narrow window of things that one can do with respect to Korea, or ISIS, or Russia, or taxes, or healthcare, or fixing the VA, or whatever. And within that narrow window, the Overton Window, there is no solution. What’s he to do?

What he has done is smash the Overton Window, again and again. He makes some outrageous statement, or more than one, or tweets something outrageously outside the common wisdom. Like refusing to take a military strike against North Korea off the table. Or floating tariffs on all steel and aluminum imports.

And DC goes nuts. Chris Matthews gets all freaked out, and Rachel Maddow gets all smirky, and the talking heads tut-tut about Trump’s latest proposal, when they don’t outright call him stupid or dangerous. “Everyone knows” you can’t do a military strike on North Korea because of all the artillery they have pointed at South Korea. “Everyone knows” that tariffs lead to trade wars that are bad for everybody. And so on.

And then Trump backs up to a more moderate position, but one that is still well outside what the Overton Window previously allowed. And people start considering things that were not possible to consider before. Like Republicans giving citizenship to the DACA folks.

What Trump does is smash the calcified conventional DC wisdom into pieces, so he can reassemble the pieces into something that can work.

This is the only way to get any results, and he’s getting results. Firing VA employees who had previously been protected by arcane personnel rules. Rounding up MS-13 and deporting them by the thousands. Tossing out thousands of regulations. Putting through a tax bill that levels the playing field for American corporations and stops incentivizing them to keep foreign profits overseas. Getting rid of the healthcare mandate.

In foreign policy, it’s been a winner, too. For too long, our adversaries abroad knew exactly what we would do, exactly what would provoke us too much, and they went right up to that line and stopped. They don’t know where that line is any more. The rhetoric on North Korea, the talk of tariffs, the cruise missile strike on Syria, the use of the MOAB in Afghanistan, supplying weapons to Ukraine.

There’s a bunch more. Almost twenty years after Columbine, he finally has people talking about hardening the schools. (Duh.) He finally has people actually talking about trade-offs on immigration. (Duh.) He finally has people talking about a sensible, hard-headed middle road between “China is our friend” (It’s not.) and “China is our enemy” (It’s not.). (Duh.)

And Kim Jung Un is (apparently) coming to the bargaining table, probably because he thinks that’s preferable to having his head on a pike, which is where it’s likely to end up if the sanctions continue.

It seems to be a winning strategy for him, so expect it to continue.

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