Shifting the Overton window may be a more subtle thing than most who know about the concept would suppose.
The Overton window — named after Joseph Overton, who conceived of the idea in the mid-1990s — is the range of discourse considered the political norm. Go outside this window and you are supposedly unelectable.
Noam Chomsky talked about manufacturing consent much earlier than Overton’s insight. Shifting the Overton window, in Chomsky’s terms, would normally require powerful elites to change the range of discourse they deem acceptable and that they control through their media and financial clout.
As a candidate, United States President Donald Trump repeatedly violated Overton’s fundamental precept of not doing or saying things outside the “window”. He dismissed accusations of rape talk as “locker-room talk”.
He was overtly racist, flouting generations of Republican consensus that you use dog-whistle language to appeal to the racist vote. He made crass, unachievable promises such as repealing and replacing Obamacare with something far better, without revealing how it would be done.
Trump was aided and abetted by a pliant right-wing media and his ability to talk directly through social media. But does this fundamentally invalidate both Overton and Chomsky?
What is happening in the US shows that shifting the window is more subtle than elites in smoke-filled (or whatever the recreational drug of elites is these days) rooms deciding what the media will tolerate as “mainstream”.
Trump apparently shifted the window far to the right as an enabler of gender-based violence, white supremacy, police violence and hate speech. This showed in increasingly crass, unpleasant and violent behaviour from the previously closeted right. Vilifying children who had seen their friends mowed down in a mass shooting as “crisis actors” took it to the white middle class in a way that had never happened before.
All of this, in terms of whichever “window” theory you embrace, amounts to a mainstreaming of the far right and hence a shift of the discourse to the right.
Yet the effect of making right-wing extremism overt seems to have awakened the relatively apolitical white American to how obnoxious and pervasive these things are, much more so than when they were supported by dog-whistle politics and “law and order” messaging that was only implicitly racist.
The US experience makes me wonder what it would take to trigger a similar response to gender-based violence and, in this country, the structural racism no governing party has succeeded in eliminating in more than a quarter of a century. Neither the ANC nor the Democratic Alliance has significantly addressed the lack of dignity and personal value placed on the poor.
I have heard ANC insiders discussing the poor as you would speak of the thing you scraped off your shoe. The manner in which the poor are treated in public health and in general by government services is a disgrace. As enforcement of the Covid-19 lockdown has shown, we are far from a civilian, rights-based policing mindset.
What could spark an apparently spontaneous shift such as that which has taken place in the US over police brutality and structural racism?
First, you need long-term conscientisation. Many people who are aware of an injustice but are not convinced of the extent can be activated by a trigger event. In the US, there have been many such potential trigger events where police violence was exposed sometimes with a huge reaction. Previously the reaction has not spread much beyond the African-American community and even there, there were divisions over issues such as protest tactics.
So you need something else — in this case, there was a broader anger at the dysfunction of the Trump administration and a general awakening arising from the switch from covert to overt bigotry.
Something needs to flick the switch in conditions where anger has built up beyond those most deeply affected.
The nearest we have seen to such a rapid switch was the escalation of rape culture and fees must fall protests in South Africa in 2016. Broader societal support was not enough that time for the movement to be sustained to the point of forcing real change.
Much of the focus during the 2016 protests was on attacking the methods of protest. That is what makes the current US situation so interesting: ordinarily torching shopping districts would have curtailed the spread of the protests to the tamer middle class. It didn’t happen this time. I remain unconvinced of arson as a tool of protest because the real effectiveness of protest is not measured by the extent of nihilistic anger but by the long-term change it forces. It is hard, though, to argue with nihilistic anger when reasonable methods achieve nothing, as was evident in 2016.
I have real hope that the US will emerge from its current disaster as a better society as a result of Trump’s unintentional awakening of the fundamental human decency that should reject white supremacy, gender-based violence and authoritarian policing. What makes me sad is that it is so hard to awaken this impulse in society.
We have hard problems to fix right here and we ought to be able to mend them without provoking the sort of protest that ends in nihilistic violence. This is the real lesson South Africa should learn from Trump’s chaotic presidency.
Moral outrage against gender-based violence, structural racism and white supremacy are not enough: it takes a real commitment across a broad swath of society as well as significant structural adjustments in how power is exercised to eliminate these outrages against human and civil rights.
We do not need a disaster in South Africa to shift the window. Our constitutional order is premised on rights. It is time we started behaving in the manner required by our Constitution.
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University