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Australian attack bloggers and the Overton Window

Posted by Possum Comitatus on June 19, 2008

By Changa’s Boots

One concept that’s been picked up by US left of centre bloggers in the last little while is the Overton Window. I want to talk about it on the Possum Box because I think we can use it to think about the strategies of some of Australia’s right wing attack bloggers and columnists.

Ever since it was raised in a post on Daily Kos (which in turn was picking up on a post from a Libertarian think-tank) it’s been provoking discussion among the netroots. The basic proposition on Kos was this: while the Democrats are still playing to the essentially 1990s strategy of triangulation for the centre, Republicans and their fellow-travellers are constantly working to shift that centre by articulating extreme views that expand and change the limits of political acceptability.

Kos puts it like this:  “[The GOP] know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.” Except, as some of Kos’s correspondents point out, the GOP don’t even need to take any heat – that’s what Fox News, shock jocks, and wingnut bloggers are for. It’s a no-risk, all benefits strategy for all concerned – not least because radical positions for the “opinion leaders” of the right can be career-building, and can help to nurture a niche (albeit crackpot) audience.  It’s a long-term strategy for committed political actors who are not seeking election, wherein the electorally focused GOP become beneficiaries/patsies of their more extended, focussed policy advocacy. (Obviously, the strategy depends on policy advocacy working on the GOP, too.)

The strategy is named for one Joseph Overton, who was vice president of a conservative think-tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He was quite systematic in setting it out – his primary concern was education policy (taking down public schools and arguing for home schooling yada yada yada), but he rightly thought it was applicable to a range of issues. The continuum on which you can place any particular policy proposal, according to Overton, goes a little something like this:

* Unthinkable

* Radical

* Acceptable

* Sensible

* Popular

* Policy

By shouting long and hard enough on behalf of radical proposals, you can alter their position in the public mind. Even by proposing unacceptable proposals persistently enough, you can make slightly less extreme proposals seem moderate by comparison. Intuitively it makes sense, and it’s a useful explanatory device for the shrillness of much of the discourse in the right-wing blogosphere in the US. Voila: the culture wars in a nutshell.

How does it apply in Australia? Well, our right-wing think-tanks may be slower of wit and less weighty in terms of policy development than their US colleagues, but who needs them when you can work the Overton window in the Murdoch papers and the blogosphere? Let’s take the Bolt/Blair/Albrechtsen axis, for example. On issues like the stolen generations, climate change, feminism and the “war on terror” they articulate positions that are pretty far removed from mainstream opinion (if election results and polling are any indication). But their rhetorical style and the prominent platforms they enjoy mean that they can run lines that make slightly less OTT positions from the Liberals seem like the soul of reason.

In a variation on the Overton, they also work hard at simplifying complex debates and shift the ground in a debate. “Name just ten”, “global cooling?” and “Rudd is spin not substance” are lines they all run in various forms that aren’t just out-there death-beastery, but active distortions of the topics under discussion. They also selectively misrepresent whole categories of their opponents – academics, artists, bureaucrats, the “guilt industry”, Greens, Left-wing journalists, NGOs – by presenting radical positions taken by misguided individuals as the norm, or taking isolated remarks out of context and treating them as the core of the opposing argument.

The aim is not really to win any substantive policy debate (think of Blair’s blogging style, and you’ll realize it’s simply not geared for that purpose). Rather, the focus is smearing and discrediting opponents, throwing doubt on established premises in policy debates, shifting the goalposts through simplification, and most importantly of all, keeping the conservative base on-message. Want some examples? How about Blair’s concerted attacks on Tim Flannery? What about the daily red herrings of Bolt and Blair on climate change? Witness Bolt’s constant, simplistic demand that opponents produce people who were stolen “because they were black”. And then there’s Blair’s deployment of groupthink to whip up the “winged monkeys” into regular attacks across the blogosphere, often on bloggers who have not sought any kind of engagement with him.

The beauty of this kind of advocacy is that the columnists themselves never have to fight an election, and aren’t accountable to anyone except their employer. The consistency of their lines of attack suggests that, if there isn’t actual orchestration going on between them, their common master certainly approves of and values their lock-stepped views. Win, lose or draw for the Liberals, they can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be righties on big soap-boxes spruiking for them, and furthering their own careers in the process.

If all this is true, what should the left do?

For the Rudd government, the advice on this basis of the right’s Overton strategy would be: be bold. Seek not the centre, because it isn’t a stable target any more. Spend some political capital in an effort to seize the agenda, and benefit by isolating these people. Make the culture wars no longer worth fighting by depriving them of relevance. Do not fight on their chosen ground.

For the rest of us, perhaps the best strategy is to ignore them. Bullying tactics aside (naming anonymous bloggers, trying to make trouble for people at work, or directing the monkeys at people struggling with drug addiction), it’s all sticks and stones. I really enjoy reading blogs like The Blairboltwatch Project, but I wonder whether it institutionalizes Blair and Bolt as blogospheric voices, and risks misrepresenting their Overton-ing for serious invitations to debate. And I’m sure all of Planet Janet’s Christmases came at once when Paul Keating had a shot at her in the Oz recently. Maybe we all need to get better at practicing an aikido debating style: jump out of the maddies’ way when they attack and watch them go arse up on the other side of the room.

Seriously, though, the lesson here might be not only that we can’t win back the right-wing base through reasoned discussion, but that some right-wing commentators just aren’t seeking debate in good faith, and are just running lines in the hope that less extreme (but no less sympathetic) positions are adopted. Which side of politics heeds them probably doesn’t matter too much to them at the end of the day, but continuing apparent relevance does. The proper response is not to pander to a shifting centre, but to inspire it with good policy, clever advocacy and straight talking.

Changa’s Boots can be contacted at:

changa IatI hushmail dots com

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