Why the National Debate is Still Conducted on the Right's Terms

Conservative columnist and cable news pundit Amanda Carpenter posted a telling observation on Twitter: "It's remarkable all Palin had to do is say death panels in a Facebook statement to make the President on down start talking about them."

The Daily Show has a snarkier take: "You know a sales pitch is in trouble when it starts with 'look you've got to trust me, we're not going to kill your grandparents.'"

They're both making an important point: the debate over health reform is playing out on the right's terms. The national discourse (if you can call it that) could very well have been about the benefits of a single-payer system, but aside from a sham vote to appease progressives, single-payer is considered anathema in the media and political establishment and instead Democrats are scrambling to respond to a barrage of rightwing talking points.

This brings to mind a strategic concept favored by the right that has floated around progressive blogs but has never been put to use - or dealt with - by Democrats: the Overton Window.

From Wikipedia:

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after its originator, Joe Overton, former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. 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. The idea is that priming the public with fringe ideas intended to be and remain unacceptable, will make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison. The degrees of acceptance of public ideas can be described roughly as: Unthinkable - Radical - Acceptable - Sensible - Popular -- Policy

Dave Johnson, a friend and fellow blogger, is well-versed in the tactic and has been speaking/writing about it for years (the excerpt below is from 2007):

The ongoing assault on public education is paralleled by similar ongoing attacks on so many other traditionally valued institutions in our society. Did you know that there are related organizations working to split the Episcopal Church and other mainstream religious denominations? ...Organizations funded to attack community-oriented philanthropy? ...Organizations funded to attack environmental groups and prominent environmental spokespersons like Al Gore? There are even fully-funded sister-organizations with the mission statement of discrediting science itself!

The Overton Window is a sophisticated tactic to help move the Right's self-described "unthinkable" ideas all the way to becoming policy. The strategy is to make radical ideas seem acceptable and comfortable. They describe a "ladder" of steps - degrees of public acceptance. They say they work to walk the public up this ladder step by step. According to the Overton Window concept, when the public FIRST hears ideas like getting rid of public schools, they consider them unthinkable, but with time and repetition, these ideas begin to be considered only radical, then with familiarity they become acceptable, and eventually sensible and worth putting into policy.

Here are some examples of the Overton Window in action: Beyond privatizing schools and Social Security the Right is also talking not only about making abortion illegal, but even about going back to making birth control illegal. (Some of you might remember that it used to be illegal in several states.) They are talking about eliminating all environmental regulations. They are talking about eliminating zoning laws. California and a few other states had a ballot initiative last year that did both of those - it almost passed - and Oregon actually passed it a few years back. And they are talking about eliminating national parks. Public libraries. Taxes. Even public involvement in government. The Right has Overton Window strategies in operation for all of these efforts and more.

Precisely. Now this approach is in full effect for the health reform battle. And once again, Democrats seem blind-sided and flummoxed by the right's extreme, game-changing rhetoric. HuffPost's Sam Stein reports that the White House is "frustrated and confused by Palin, Limbaugh and Hannity." But this has all been telegraphed for years, from Ann Coulter slandering 911 widows and being cheered by NBC and other media outlets, to John Kerry, a man who volunteered to sacrifice his life for his country, being swift-boated for his willingness to face bombs and bullets.

In the inchoate anti-Obama rage manifesting itself today, we're seeing the results of years of radical rhetoric on the part of talk show hosts and pundits like Limbaugh, Hannity, Savage, O'Reilly and Coulter. Driving across America, it's astounding to realize how much venom is spewed, how much fury is piped into the ears and minds of Americans who tune in by the millions to these rage-mongers. The right loves to point to people like Cindy Sheehan to suggest that the left is equally culpable for degrading the national dialogue, but seriously, there's hardly a comparison between a multi-millionaire like Limbaugh bashing 'libruls' day in day out and a woman who lost her son in a war, especially one we now discover was about Gog and Magog!

Eric Burns of Media Matters writes about the pernicious effects of this avalanche of anger:

After months of bombardment, just 42 percent of Republicans nationwide believe Obama is even a citizen. Only 47 percent of all Southerners believe this indisputable fact. Not surprisingly, on the legislative side, the public is increasingly divided over signature Democratic efforts. Despite overwhelming agreement that health care reform is needed, recent polling has found that nearly 50 percent of respondents feel that Obama's health care plan is a "bad idea." This confusion and discontent is exactly what conservatives are working to cultivate and exploit

So when the left mocks 'birthers' and 'teabaggers' and 'death panels', we should keep in mind that there is a larger and more sinister strategic imperative in play, namely, to move the debate to the far right. Granted, it may not be a conscious strategy on the part of ordinary Americans voicing their fears about "government takeovers" and "socialism." For these citizens, the desire to "take their country back" stems from genuine emotions and beliefs, albeit emotions and beliefs carefully stoked by a still potent rightwing message machine using think-tank-crafted soundbites. Put more bluntly, a lot of these protesters really believe what they're saying. What's distressing (and deplorable) is how wrong-headed some of it is. And what's disgusting is when it devolves into racism and xenophobia.

How to deal with the problem? On health care, the countervailing approach would have been to start from a solid progressive position and negotiate from there. It's still likely that the White House will manage to push through a health care bill - and the media will cheer it as a victory. But because the terms of the debate were ceded early on by Democrats, we will end up with something far weaker than we could and should have.

And one final thought. The danger with the long-running radicalization promulgated by rightwing talkers, is that when you go far enough, you're courting incitement. Just listen to what David Neiwert, an expert on 'eliminationism', has to say about the disturbing direction we're headed:

We've been reporting steadily on the return of the militia movement in post-Bush America, and now that reportage has been confirmed by a disturbing report from the Southern Poverty Law Center describing a "Second Wave" of militiamen organizing across the countryside.... We've also explored a disturbing trend discussed in this report: the rise of Patriot-oriented veterans groups that have been spreading some of the most bizarre conspiracy theories out there -- and doing it as featured speakers at Tea Parties. More to the point, perhaps, they're fearfully fingering their guns because of the nature of these conspiracy theories.

The only thing missing, perhaps, from this report is the role of the mainstream media in helping to spread this fearmongering and paranoia, essentially validating these extremists in their beliefs on national television -- something that has a powerful permission-giving effect for the most unstable and extreme of this particular lot. Glenn Beck -- who has promoted not just FEMA concentration camp theories, but also far-right "constitutionalist" theories on states rights and secessionist movements, just to name a few -- is easily the worst of the lot in this regard. But he's hardly alone. Other right-wing talkers -- including Sean Hannity and especially CNN's Lou Dobbs. Hopefully, this report will get everyone to take a long hard look at the rest of the story here.

Depressingly, a long hard look may no longer be enough. The summer of 2009 may have radicalized the situation beyond repair and the violent repercussions will be felt in the months and years to come.