Opening the Overton Window: A Strategy for Progressive Political Change

The political right is currently smitten with a concept known as the Overton Window. Named after Joseph P. Overton of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the core of the Overton Window is that there are, at any specific time, a particular collection of ideologies, ideas and policies which are acceptable to the general public. This assemblage of legitimacy shifts over time; ideas which were once considered unacceptable can become commonplace.

The Overton Window was introduced to many on the Right through a Glenn Beck novel of the same name. (A novel in the sense that it was a bounded stack of paper with words scattered across it.) In Beck’s hyperbolic “faction” an evil genius shifts the window and is able to use the government to bring tyranny to the people.

The alt-right is convinced the nation is in the midst of an immense, anti-tyranny, rightward shift in the Overton Window. Conservatives delight in this movement and the centrality of power which they believe generated it. Liberals, who once also rhapsodized about cultural change when it flowed in their direction, waffle between decrying the shift and arguing for its emulation.

The current composition of the Window will not be altered by a call for structural change, as “democratic socialists”  would hope. Shifts in the Window over time are an effect of strategically linking “new” ideas and policies with America’s “fundamental values.” Significant social, political, and economic transformations can be accepted by the public if they are portrayed as conserving more crucial, underlying tenets of  American society.

—  Political change is all about coding a redesign of the social fabric as necessary to its preservation.

American “fundamental values” emerged from a murky clutter of principles that were shaped by the uniqueness of our history. The political theorist Louis Hartz claimed that America is “exceptional” in that we avoided the feudalism of Europe. His contention is that we were “born equal” – not empirically, but as a shared historical ethos of individual rights, reason, and rationality which still suffuses our culture.

Hartz called our absolute devotion to the principles that we are all reasoning, rational, “self-owning,” sovereign individuals entitled to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” the “American way of life.” He argued that the New Deal succeeded because Franklin Roosevelt was able to code his “radical” reorganization of government as merely pragmatic, rational, responses to existing circumstances. According to Hartz, “[Roosevelt’s] ‘radicalism’ could consist of ‘bold and persistent experimentation’ which…was perfectly compatible with Americanism…Americanism was gospel…and any conscious transgression of it…was highly unpalatable.”

Progressive politics should not be situating itself outside the consensus of “Americanism,” attempting to lure or propel it towards a socialist utopia. A politics for social change should be positioned squarely inside the consensus of American values, using it is a gravitation core to absorb progressive ideas and reshape the Window from within.

Any incantation of “socialism” by the Left runs counter to the broad American consensus of individualism. A progressive politics should work to reinterpret this consensus rather than attempting to undermine it.

In terms of the current corporate configurations of health care, progressives should argue that the nation is witnessing an abandonment of the historical, fundamental, “Americanist” values of individuality upon which the country was founded. It should be emphasized that we are no longer “self-owning.” Instead we are owned by corporations; reduced to mere digits on a spreadsheet. Our health and our lives discounted to fractions of pennies on the bottom line.

Universal health care should be presented as a rational response to defend the essence of individualism our founding fathers gave us. It shouldn’t be framed as a shift in the current fundamental values, but as a necessary protection against their dissolution. Those pressing for universal health care, and a deeper anti-capitalist agenda, should point to the loss of the individual as a fundamental danger – a looming specter requiring practical, rational “defenses.”

The battle for progress will not be won on the terrain of the visionary. Moving forward depends on morphing the future into the past. In a viable progressive politics, everything new is old again.

—TGR—

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Politics of Simulation

Just outside of Los Angeles is a movie set known as Paramount Ranch. The ranch is a well-used filming location; its buildings appear so often in western-themed movies and TV shows their familiarity can become an annoying distraction. 

When the set isn’t being used for filming, it’s open to the general public. You can roam the same streets traversed by The Dukes of Hazzard, Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, and the robots of Westworld.

As you wander through the set (it takes about four minutes, if you walk slowly) it becomes obvious that the “buildings” have no solidity; they are mere facades. As one-dimensional as some of the films shot there. (No offense to The Flintstones in Viva Rock Vegas.)

Paramount Ranch is useful because its facades can be made to simulate any aspect of our shared imagery of the west. These images don’t necessarily represent any actual frontier town; it is their iconic familiarity that makes the  fictionalized appear authentically western to us. 

The general sense we have of the underlying simulative aspects of films and advertising can distract us from the pervasiveness of imagery in our own lives. A simulation is a sleight of hand; a misdirection into the realm of imagery and representation. It is a world in which nothing is as it seems.

Simulations hinder our ability to differentiate between truth and reality, allowing the powerful to engage in stagecraft which comforts us, but conceals intentions and objectives. Our current politics has become a realm of symbolism and metaphor with little substance.

Though the political has historically functioned as a territory of sorcery and enchantment, our current vortex of illusion emerged fairly recently. In the 1980 presidential election millions of Americans were convinced that “trickle-down” economics represented a spirit of “free enterprise” which would financially benefit all. 

However, the ocean of wealth that flowed to the few drizzled barely a drop down to the many. Those in power realized they could separate the metaphor of “free enterprise” from the actuality of its outcomes, and that even those most harmed would yield to a symbolic American freedom authenticated through economic inequality.  

‘Governing today means giving acceptable signs of credibility. It is like advertising and it is the same effect that is achieved – commitment to a scenario.’                                                                       Jean Baudrillard

The resultant division between the 1% and everyone else has been maintained not through overt repression but through simulations of openness and inclusion in the political process. The forces of hierarchy persist behind the pageantry of democracy. 

Every town hall meeting conducted by a reluctant politician relies on the symbolic. Familiar elements are deployed which, in some way, represent “open discussion” to those attending – a public forum, time for questions, and so forth.

The extent to which a member of Congress actually thinks about what is being said by their constituents is dubious at best. Politicians at these meetings often have the pained expression of someone who’s been given number 88 at the DMV and just heard the loudspeaker announce “3.” 

It doesn’t matter. Politicians and constituents aren’t engaged in deliberation; they’re performing a ritual. Everyone plays their role. Those in attendance dutifully ask specific questions and politicians flee along a circuitous route avoiding any meaningful responses. The process repeats: pointed question followed by rhetorical sidestep. This is the familiar script. Constituents leave the meetings believing they’ve engaged in deliberation, but they were really part of a theater-in-the-round production touring the country.

Town hall meetings are simulations; they are phantoms of an ideal of civic engagement that exists only in the symbolic. The meetings are artful veneers; the familiarity of their iconography provides the illusion of speaking to power. The ritual replaces the real.

Presidential debates are the pinnacle of contrivance. As in town hall meetings, the theatrical overwhelms the substantive.

Watching debates, we are seduced by the ceremonial. Candidates hover behind phallic lecterns of power; journalists sit passively at tables earnestly lobbing questions which inevitably disappear into labyrinths of pointless phrases and hollow rhetoric. Myriad rules on speaking time and the structure of responses fabricate a phantasm of substance. As we watch the debates, we are aware of the emptiness of the liturgy but remain captivated by its incantations. 

In the 2016 presidential debates we were absorbed into a clash of the unreal. One candidate was so formularized everything she did seemed like an ironic parody of how a simulated politician acts. She lost to the hate-child of George Wallace and Huey Long – a tiny-handed flimflam who brayed the familiar libretto of the demagogue. Our “democratic election” was a contest between wizards of Oz; two illusory floating heads distracting us from the void behind the curtain.

Donald Trump is the most virulent political creature to emerge from our Orwellian lagoon. He has embraced politics as art(ifice). Democracy becomes a musical where the plot and dialogue don’t matter as long as the songs are catchy.  

Trump is angered when people refuse to hum his incendiary tunes and instead focus on the actual lyrics. For the president, the meeting in Helsinki with Putin was a dazzling success; it may have been a political disaster but it had all the markings of a Tony award winning production.

Trump believes that, in politics, the spectacle is sufficient. He may be right. 

Simulations maintain inequality by mollifying the public. We willingly acquiesce to a democracy in which inequality is fueled by a symbolic freedom and perpetuated through the pageantry of participation. But we are not merely spectators, we are also the actors. We have the potential to end these simulations by refusing to participate in them.  

The powerful maintain their position by turning all the world into a stage. We can no longer be merely players.

–TGR–

Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;  thegoldinrule@gmail.com

The Rise of “Quit Lit” and the End of the Infinite Game

“Quit lit” is clearly a rising and resurgent cultural phenomena. After all, it’s been given the kind of catchy, rhyme-y name you’d force on a pet ferret. But behind the roll-off-the-tongue moniker, the artifacts of quit lit – social-media essays, written primarily by former university adjuncts, detailing their disillusionment with academia and reasons for leaving the profession – are a flare in the darkening sky, illuminating an America in which, more than ever, winning is everything.

Those, like myself, who first entered academia expecting an open-ended pursuit of scholarly wisdom, now find themselves trapped on a runaway train which long ago flew off the rails of intellectual engagement. Universities claim they are guiding students on a pilgrimage to enlightenment while administrations reshape faculties into neo-liberal class stratifications and tenured professors disparage teaching in order to win the status game over adjuncts.

A useful perspective for framing the descent of academia, and situating it within the broader disjuncture between expectation and reality which has come to shape much our lives, is James P. Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games. According to Carse:

“A finite game is played for the purpose of winning, an infinite game for the purpose of continuing the play.”

The construction, maintenance and expansion of national parks is an infinite game; gashing the land for the financial interests of a dying oil industry is finite. A politics devoted to the “arc of justice” is infinite; a system of justice contorted by wealth and power is finite. In academia, the collaboration of administrators, tenured professors and adjuncts on the search for, and transmission of, new vectors of knowledge is infinite; an administration pre-occupied with reshaping universities into profit-making machines and a professorial class fueled by egoism are decidedly finite.

As the nation’s passage towards social and economic equality plummets into the finite, academia needs to be the guardian of the infinite game. Its refusal to do so, and its obsession with profit, prestige and reputation, isn’t only a failure of universities; it threatens the entire narrative of progress upon which this country was founded.

The intellectual promise of history was marked by a move from the finite to the infinite. The tide of the Enlightenment erased the absolute truths of the Classical and Medieval ages, substituting instead a faith in open-ended processes of reason and rationality. The eternal unchanging essences of Plato’s Forms were replaced by the “I think therefore I am” of Descartes. Progress manifested itself in a continuous quest towards elusive horizons of knowledge.

We are now witnessing this historical process in reverse. The infinite game of progress is increasingly bruised and battered by a nation which has become a never-ending rugby scrum.

Academia used to be the protector of the infinite by opposing attempts to shape all of society around the finite goals of the economic sphere. But universities now function as large corporations and worship at the same alter as all financial institutions.

The increasing budgetary reliance of universities on part-time, contingent, underpaid adjunct/teachers has been twisted into a new finite game. Adjuncts, and teaching, now function as the maligned “others” whose lowered status secures the ongoing “victory” for well-paid, status-driven tenured professor/researchers.

“[In the finite game] it may appear that the prizes for winning are indispensable, that without them life is meaningless, perhaps even impossible.”

Publications have become the singular path to the financial security of a tenure-track position. The strategic focus on stockpiling publications has deformed the vectors of academic research, and the odyssey of knowledge, from infinite to finite. A study at UCLA found that, in the sciences, “researchers who confine their work to answering established questions are more likely to have the results published, which is a key to career advancement in academia. Conversely, researchers who ask more original questions and seek to form new links in the web of knowledge are more likely to stumble on the road to publications, which can make them appear unproductive to their colleagues.”

Participation in the game of academia is limited to those who have willingly, even eagerly, jumped into the finite. The rewards of tenure-track jobs flow to those who abjure long-term open-ended scholarly pursuits in order to excel in the sport of publication accumulation.

“Since finite games are played to be won, players make every move in a game in order to win it. Whatever is not done in the interesting of winning is not part of the game.”

The academic competition is ultimately won by those who can construct the highest heap of articles and books. Embracing the quantification of academia has become a useful, though highly simplistic, tool for an enterprise increasingly devoted to separating out winners (professors) from losers (adjuncts).

“A title is the acknowledgement of others that one has been the winner of a particular game”

Publications are primarily strategic; they are designed not to share knowledge (though that might be an unintended consequence) but to win the game. Thus, the forces of aggregation are in no way deterred by the reality that at least one-third of all social science articles, and 80% of those in the humanities, are never cited.

Adjuncts of my generation offer a unique viewpoint on the relation between the finite and the infinite. We entered an academia which was seemingly still engaged in the infinite game, only to witness its swoon into the finite. But quit lit is not merely the frustrated cries of those who have lost the game; it is a jeremiad against the darkening of the infinite where it should be – it must be –  shining the brightest.

The advancement of neo-liberal corporatism which is shaping our politics and our universities is the triumph of the finite game. The obligations of each generation to strive for justice, to protect the planet, to help the less fortunate, and to forge new horizons of knowledge are being replaced by the ethos of a financial ledger.  We are all living the experiences of my academic generation as we watch the infinite dissolve before our eyes.

“Evil is the termination of infinite play”

We are trapped in a unique period of history as the promise of infinite horizons decays into malevolent victories won by the most small-minded amongst us. But from the prowl of the finite emerges the possibility of rebirth and revolution.

We are a generation whose lives span the chasm between the memory and promise of the infinite of Kennedy and Obama, and the current triumph of the finite. Disillusioned by the rift between the expected permanence of the infinite and the reality of its decline, we are the generation that must resist the ongoing normalization of the finite and we must counter the claim that a society based on the infinite is an illusion. It is vital that we reclaim our universities, and the endless expedition of education, from the snarl of the finite game and reinstate them as bastions of the infinite. We must rescue our politics from the forces of corporatism and hierarchy and we must demand that our government and institutions of higher learning play a new game. One in which we all win.

—TGR—

(Quotes are from Carse’s Finite and Infinite Games)
 Richard W Goldin, Lecturer in Political TheorY; California State University;   thegoldinrule@gmail.com