Monday, January 5, 2015

Overton Obstacles

The remarkably negative reaction to Lucinda Creighton's new political initiative suggests that the Irish welcome change, so long as nothing changes.  What caused such a negative reaction?  It was hardly the four platforms, carefully designed to offend no one.   Though perhaps that's the problem.  Sure, Reboot Ireland's use of 'PC language' is a bit dated (God knows most Microsoft Windows users understand 'reboot', but the average smartphone user?).

But that isn't it either.  I think it has to do with narrow, leftward drifting nature of the 'Overton Window' in Irish politics.  The Overton Window, named after Joseph Overton,  describes the prevailing range of political ideas that are acceptable to the electorate at any given point in time.  Some ideas are 'in the window' and therefore are acceptable as part of any party's platform, while other ideas are beyond the Pale.  The window looks like this:

The task of those advocating policies for change is to 'move' the Overton Window up from Unthinkable and Radical to Acceptable then Sensible and ultimately into Policy.  The concept applies both to social and cultural issues (abortion, gay marriage) and to economic issues (minimum wages, water charges).

Of course, political activists will want to move the Overton Window to make their ideas sensible and popular in the hearts and minds of the electorate.  But the political mainstream is formed around what is already popular (and policy) and so those with radical or unthinkable policy ideas have a job to do.

The problem is, the gravitational pull of the Overton Window makes it hard for new political parties to distinguish themselves from existing parties if they start advocating policies that are already mainstream.  This fate appears to be befalling Ukip, who - according to Nick Wood - are now sounding just like the rest of the LibLabCon PC-consensus (and that's not the Windows version).

So how do you 'move the Window'?  The classical, Gramscian technique is to propose radical but outlandish ideas far to the Left of the mainstream/Overton Window consensus (that their advocates know won't be acceptable, for now), which in turn makes far more reasonable, 'compromise' policies just a little to the Left of the window seem quite reasonable by comparison - then repeat the process:

It sometimes works in reverse (e.g.: Thatcherism in the UK, which threatened to dismantle the Welfare State but ended up dismembering the unions instead).  Nevertheless, most of the time the Overton Window moves Left rather than Right (clearly in the case of social policies and increasingly in the case of economics policies - ask a deposit holder in Cyprus if you don't believe me).

The problem for Reboot Ireland is that it is starting firmly within the Overton Window (even Lucinda's admission that she favours gay marriage places her firmly in the 'Acceptable/Sensible' consensus camp).   Hence some of the negativity - there isn't a big demand for 'more of the same' right now.

So without a Ukip style pitch for the 'Popular Liberalism' vote (already captured by Independents it seems), it would appear Reboot Ireland will go nowhere. Other than gradually drifting to the Left with the rest of the mainstream consensus as the Overton Window eventually moves.  Not that they'll be around long enough to 'make the drift', given where they are starting from...

Maybe what Ireland really needs is its own Russell Brand.  Someone who can appeal to that fast growing constituency - the politically ignorant - who can be easily persuaded by the next celebrity with a soundbite.  The Overton Window has become the Overton Tweet.


  1. I enjoyed this Gerard. Have to agree with you, why start anew if it's the same old same old? Perhaps the window has actually expanded of late so to be extreme you need to be really extreme

  2. So true, Gerard. What the 'rebooters' have failed to grasp is that voters who are socially conservative are not necessarily economically liberal. Eddie Hobbs isn't going to gladden the hearts of people whose main interest in voting for the new party was its apparently principled stand on issues of conscience, not their tax policies. Likewise, Ms Creighton's shift to the liberal left on social issues in search of votes will not be deemed credible by those who are already suspicious of her, and just alienates those who thought they could trust her to stay true to her beliefs. A sorry sight, I'm afraid.


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