Closing the Overton Window

A window, which has been shown to actually work
A window, which has been shown to actually work
It’s become quite common for political pundits and online commentators to talk sagely about the “Overton Window” when they’re talking about public opinion. (Click here for a sampling of recent uses of it) It’s presented as an immutable law of political science – there’s a range of possible policies available on any given issue or set of issues, but only a certain amount (those within the Overton Window) are possible/politically deliverable at any given time. Thus, to make something politically possible that’s currently not, one must shift the window somehow.

There’s always a general vagueness about just how it works, but that the the Overton Window exists is taken as read by a lot of people, and I’m sure most people who cite it believe it’s an idea that’s been discussed by academics over many years and has been rigorously tested and proven to be correct. You might think that, but you’d be wrong. Here’s a search for it with Google Scholar, which indexes millions of pieces of academic research and writing, which brings back no serious academic references to it. It does get mentioned in a few Glenn Beck books, some obscure libertarian pamphlets and in publications from the think tank it emerged from, but no serious academic attention has been paid to it.

Why is that? I’d propose that the most obvious explanation is that the Overton Window isn’t actually a theory, it’s just a vague assertion. See, for instance, this article about it (pdf) which starts from the assumption that it exists and goes from there. Any actual theory of political science has to be testable, and if the Overton Window was a theory it would come with a set of testable predictions about public opinion and how it shifts over time. It would also come with justification for some of the simplifying assumptions it appears to be based on, most notably that all the policy options for a certain issue can be placed on a straight line. None of that exists for the Overton Window, and none of its advocates appear to have put any effort into trying to prove it, preferring to assert its truth without testing.

I’ve written before about Zaller’s Receive-Accept-Sample model of public opinion, and I think it provides an interesting counterexample to the Overton Window in that it’s a genuine theory which has been thoroughly tested and shown to make accurate predictions about how public opinion works. However, as it’s slightly more complex than ‘you can do some things, you can’t do others, but if you want to do the others then sizeable donations to our think tank might help make them possible’ it doesn’t get mentioned much by supposed experts on public opinion in the media.

This is a shame, because I think Zaller’s work on how elite opinion leads public opinion (in The Nature and Origins of Mass Opinion) is a much more useful concept than talk of windows. Zaller shows that when elites (politicians, media and other opinion formers) are generally agreed on an issue, public opinion follows suit. Public opinion on an issue only begins to shift when elite opinion begins to divide and differ. To use Zaller’s example (though there are many others in the wider literature), American opinion on the Vietnam War was mostly in favour of it until newspapers and politicians started raising questions about it, and then it began to fade. (That’s a bit of a simplification, but the key point is that public opinion tends to follow elite opinion, not vice versa) If there’s not an elite consensus, then public opinion will tend to cover a much wider spectrum.

Public opinion is a much more vague and nebulous thing than an idea like the Overton Window gives credit for. In truth, most people have what Converse called ‘nonattitudes’ to most issues: they’re capable of giving an opinion on something if asked, but that opinion is often completely random based on what they’ve seen and heard recently rather than a fixed and carefully considered outcome of rational thought. Trying to analyse something so amorphous using concepts that are fundamentally weak is almost a guarantee of misunderstanding what’s actually happening. Public opinion can be shifted much more quickly and much more widely than people think but the key to doing that is finding messages that reach people and become part of their considerations, not obsessing over the location of mythical windows.

Why Nick Clegg should be copying Michael Gove

One of the distinguishing traits of a senior politician is to be in possession of a circle of loquacious friends, always ready to talk to the press about things they don’t feel ready to talk about personally in public. Michael Gove’s friends have been talkative this weekend, telling the Daily Mail all about his views on the European Union.

It’s pretty much just Gove throwing a bone to the Tory Right, of course, saying he’d vote for the UK to leave to the EU, coupled with complaints about how those horrible human rights laws stop him from doing exactly what he wants. This helps us to show us how Gove suffers from two of the problems that befall many of the anti-EU brigade: first, the inability to understand the difference between the European Union, the Council of Europe, the European Convention on Human Rights and the European court; and second, the odd way in which conservatives who talk about limiting state power have an aversion to human rights conventions that protect the power of the citizen against an over-mighty state.

This is just Gove trying to shift the Overton window a few more inches to the right, rather than some major shift in Tory policy – after all, if he was serious about this he’d have said it himself at the Tory conference last week rather than leaving it to some anonymous friends to talk to the Daily Mail. However, the question we should ask if it’s all right for senior Tories to talk about ending our membership of the European Union, why is it so wrong for senior Liberal Democrats to talk about the possibility of ending the coalition?

As I talked about a few weeks ago, the party’s negotiating position in any internal Government discussions is weakened by the insistence that the Coalition must not be allowed to end early:

By saying – explicitly or implicitly – that nothing short of Cameron falling under the proverbial bus or it’s equivalent will make the Liberal Democrats walk away from the negotiating table, the party is drastically weakening its hand in any discussion. It emboldens the Tories to push further to the right, as there’s no counterforce to draw them to the centre if the Liberal Democrats have hidden their most powerful weapon in negotiations. Leaving aside my position that it should end now, I’m not saying that Clegg and Alexander should be threatening to walk out over everything, but if their counterparts don’t believe it’s possible that they will, then they’re dangerously weakened in negotiations.

In the same way that Gove doesn’t state his anti-EU views publicly, we don’t need Clegg giving regular speeches about bringing the coalition down. However, the response to something like Gove’s comments should be senior party figures (other than Lord Oakeshott) pointing out that the natural response to any Tory moves to quit the EU would be the Liberal Democrats quitting the coalition. Both domestically and internationally, the Tories are willing to do their negotiations in public, and Liberal Democrats need to be willing to do that.

If Clegg won’t do it himself, then others need to be given a licence to do so. It’s the role Vince Cable’s carried out at some times, and Chris Huhne did too, but too many other party figures seem to be too tightly wedded to the policy of not rocking the boat. As we’re seeing now over policies like rights for shares, that polite acquiescence is letting dangerous and illiberal policies head towards the statute book, and the party should be willing to fight fire with fire and match the Tory strategy. Otherwise, all the public associates us with is meekly rolling over for whatever the Tories want, unable to walk at any no matter what. The public need to know what the red lines are, and Liberal Democrat silence on them gives the impression they don’t exist.

There’s little else to learn from Michael Gove, but sometimes he’s a useful example.

Why do we let the Tories define the terms of the discussion?

Jonathan Calder has a good post arguing that the Draft Communications Bill goes against the Coalition Agreement, with the implication that it should be terminated now, not be something that floats around there in the hope that Lib Dem activists can improve it.

While I share Jonathan’s perspective, I’m concerned that yet again, the Liberal Democrats have been outfoxed behind the scenes. I’m sure someone will now try and tell me that Nick Clegg did wonderful things by ensuring this is a draft bill, rather than a final one, and so has to go through extra scrutiny and amendments first, but I’m afraid that’s just a minor concession. The main argument – on whether there needs to be a Communications Bill at all – has been lost. Yes, there are changes need to the system set up under the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (RIPA), but this Bill has a much wider scope than just reviewing and amending RIPA.

I do welcome the fact that Julian Huppert will be on the committee discussing and reviewing the draft bill, but let’s not get too carried away. No matter how wonderful and amazing Julian is, he’ll only be one member of that committee, which means all our wonderful liberal ideas can easily be outvoted and ignored by the Tory-Labour majority who’ll be more concerned with ensuring that the police can have the powers they demand to fight terrorist paedophiles, or whoever the scary monsters using the internet for nefarious purposes are that week.

The key issue is that we’ve let the terms of the debate be set and so the argument will not be over whether regulation and monitoring of internet communications is necessary, but what form that regulation and monitoring should take. It’s the same process that happened with the Health and Social Care Bill – rather than sticking to the idea of ‘no top down reorganisation of the NHS’, we then let ourselves wander into an argument over how it should be done. I also suspect that the Tories played us very well over that, coming up with an initial extreme position that we’d then negotiate down to something they found perfectly acceptable, but that we’d then argue were ‘very real concessions’. Because we’d then agreed to having the debate over what changes were necessary, we were then committed to supporting these changes we’d negotiated, despite how unpalatable they might have been twelve months before.

I fear we’re going to have the same process on the Communications Bill. This original proposal will be amended and changed into something that seems more reasonable, when compared to the original proposals. However, it’ll be something that if we were to be offered it now, we’d turn it down flat, but after months of negotiation, obfuscation and various smoke screens, the hope is we’ll have forgotten that. It’s a classic use of the Overton window, using an extreme proposal to shift opinion in that direction, then presenting something that would have seemed unreasonable originally as a sensible compromise.

Sometimes, politics is about compromise and coming to agreement on something that might not be all that either side wanted, but sometimes it’s about sticking to your principles and not wandering away from that. This is a bill that needs to be killed, not amended, then we can start from scratch on changing the draconian rules that are already in place.

UPDATE: You should go read this post on Contrasting Sounds that skewers many of the proposals included in the bill, and manages to make my point in less than a paragraph:

Already as a party, the Lib Dems have missed an opportunity to anticipate the content of the bill (despite plenty of Lib Dem activists anticipating the content of the bill), and therefore laying out some red lines. The inclusion of Clause 25 regarding the postal service proves just how little influence we’ve had to date on the actual substance of Conservative and Home Office intentions. Already we’re going to have to spend political capital just getting back to the starting line. That’s slightly worrying. Why is it surprising that the Tories – a secretive, authoritarian party – want to pass a secretive, authoritarian surveillance bill?