In our political conversations, we encounter ideas that are broadly considered reasonable, and ideas that are considered unreasonable or flat-out bonkers. The latter exist outside the range of the former, with gray areas along the intersections. A couple decades ago, public policy expert Joseph P. Overton codified this idea into into a political concept, the eponymous “Overton Window”.

It’s generally defined as “the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.” It refers to the ideas we can have common dialogues about. Atheism was once outside almost everyone’s window; ditto Civil Rights; ditto the idea of the spherical Earth. A famous conundrum in this vein was Freud being crippled in advancing his ideas of psychology because the language to describe the concepts could not be created, because they were too far outside normally relatable concepts.

Let’s extend the concept of the “Overton Window” to post-Trump politics. A generation ago, you would be hard pressed to convince any American his countrymen would be raking the halls of congress for political opponents to hang (I’d have said it was impossible in 2018). The event would simply not fit into their understanding. They would ask “what is the great issue that brought this great event?” And you would be hard-pressed to explain. “Something to do with race,” would be one part of the answer they could get. Say factions “energized to action by two mythological narratives,” and you’d have lots more splainin’ to do (they would only begin to understand the role played by media distortion). You’d have to show them the chain of events: the election of Donald Trump was an outlier event, a disrupter, an attempt to break from the status quo. That reviled status quo addressed the attack with a counter-attack; an attempt to undo the election, from the application of the Twenty-Fifth Amendment, to a multi-year long investigation into Russian collusion, which proved to be mythological. The counterattack culminated in an actual impeachment attempt, over one phone call. Which is not to say I don’t agree Trump’s removal was wrong IN RETROSPECT, with 20/20 hindsight (but look at the damage the attempt has caused). The man is clearly not sane enough for the office (but I also think most Presidents do things awful enough to relieve them of duty. It’s a distortion of our system that a Starbucks barista has more accountability than a POTUS).

And how the Universe/Karma/God’s Will strives for balance: the Trump faction responded by building a mythos of their own: the “stolen election.” And their faction struck the more dangerous blow, partly because our institutions were not competent enough to contain it, as they had with the Democrats’ attempts at Trump’s removal (that, and people actually lost their lives). Before our post-Trump Overton Window is stretched, we might refer to the Capitol Hill insurrection as another outlier, a one-off. But for the fact that an escalation in our partisan arms race has happened, which the Democrats will no doubt respond to with one of their own.

What has really changed, at least for a while (until the temperature lowers, which I don’t see happening), is that America’s Overton Window has been stretched to encompass concepts of internecine warfare. Americans’ understanding of each other has changed with the new window: over 70 million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and there is a serious possibility that they can be censored from their social medias. Both sides have been coloring the other as not just political opponents, but true enemies, for decades. People I know, who are fine and well-meaning, rub against the boundary of believing all Trumpkins treasonous. The frontier of our imagination has been stretched to hold these concept.

To illustrate how warfare stretches thinking, sometimes to total distortion, try a thought experiment: Consider Detroit. If Canada had invaded, and did to the city quickly rather than what our negligence did slowly, we would have destroyed, then invaded (then rebuilt) Canada. Radical action needs radical imagination, precipitated by a radical event. The whole War on Terror is the perfect example of how far this can go, and how quickly… and how intractable the new frontier can become. Another example: we borrow money from China to build waterworks in Afghanistan, even as we fail to repair waterworks in Flint. This conundrum is explained by the combination of radical agitation for war and our chronically dysfunctional ways of solving our “normal” problems. We flout international law to invade Iraq in order to make her lawful. The incongruities come about from the shift in thinking used for rationality to the imagination used for war. And it’s a common feature of wars that they are happening because they are happening.

It is now a normal American’s Overton Window-expanded-imagination-expectation that a President can rule by [pen and phone][] across vast concerns of the voters. That same pen-stroke can conjure trillions of dollars from the ether (from the future, really). Try explaining that to an American of a generation ago. That pen can send warfare, in some form, to nearly half of the countries on our planet.

In trying to explain the enormity of the issue to our traveler from the past, the crucial concept to convey would be: there is more power in that one pen than has ever been imagined before. The system has outgrown the constraints of its design. The fight to wield the pen is turning, inevitably, towards very real conflict. Peoples’ attitudes are primed for a fight that would have been previously inconceivable. Here is an Overton concept any Neanderthal Man can grasp: real power is worth having, and worth fighting for. Two essential halves of the country abhor how the pen is used on them. If we don’t begin to restrain that pen, something worse than 1/6 is sure to happen. But I’m not betting that is the direction we will go.

The Overton of our Founding Fathers clockwork design of checks and balances was great while it lasted.

Eugene Darden Nicholas

About Eugene Darden Nicholas

Eugene Darden (Ed) Nicholas is from Flushing Queens, where he grew up sheltered from the hard world, learning the true things after graduating college and becoming a paramedic in Harlem. School continues to inform and entertain in all its true, Shakespearean glory. It's a lot of fun, really. In that career, dozens of people walk the earth now who would not be otherwise. (The number depends on how literally or figuratively you choose to add). He added a beloved wife to his little family, which is healthy. He is also well blessed in friends and colleagues.


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