Presidential Campaign

The ‘Overton window’ and how Trump won the nomination with it

Joe Overton invented the Overton window while working for a think tank in Michigan. Overton theorized that politicians can only voice opinions within a band inside the left to right political spectrum. Any politician who voices an opinion outside this range of acceptable opinions will see their career come to an abrupt end and be ostracized.

An example of this in action is the sad story of Kurt Schmoke, the first African-American mayor of Baltimore. A graduate of Yale College, a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford and graduate of Harvard Law School, Schmoke served three terms as mayor but left politics in 1999 after delivering a speech declaring the war on drugs a failure and arguing for the decriminalization of illegal drugs.

{mosads}At the time, speaking these thoughts out loud was outside the Overton window. His statements on the war on drugs were picked up by national media and the ensuing controversy ended his chance for reelection. Over time, however, the Overton window shifts with public opinion. Schmoke’s comments today would fall solidly inside the Overton window and today many states have decriminalized marijuana.

I discovered another example of how the Overton window shifts through time as a scholarship high school student at Phillips Exeter. In the library in 1982, during the Reagan-Carter election campaign, I stumbled across recordings of the Kennedy-Nixon presidential debates of 1960. While listening to the debates, I discovered that John F. Kennedy’s views and rhetoric on foreign policy were more aggressively right wing than Richard Nixon’s. The Overton window with respect to U.S. foreign policy had shifted sharply to the left during the Vietnam War era.

Donald Trump has skillfully manipulated the national media using the Overton window by discovering that the accepted boundaries of where the window lies on the right is not where the window actually is.

His statements attacking the post-WWII political consensus were outside the generally accepted understanding of the position of the Overton window on freer trade, freer immigration and the need to transfer some national sovereignty to supranational organizations such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization, which the western political elites have advocated for over 70 years as necessary to avoid a third world war, which would be fought among nuclear armed states.

The national media pounced on some of his comments attacking these pillars of globalization as being outside the realm of respectable political speech and widely publicized those controversial statements thinking that it would bury his political career. Instead we discovered that Trump gained votes and support for vocalizing those positions.

By stating positions outside the political window, which the media thought would bury his campaign, a New York Times analysis shows that Trump earned over $2 billion in free media exposure during the crucial part of the primary season, despite spending only $10 million of campaign funds. His nearest rival, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, had just $313 million of free media exposure while spending $22 million of campaign funds.

What Trump discovered is that a majority of people in the United States are against globalization: while it has kept the peace and avoided the horror of global nuclear war, free trade and free immigration have lowered the wages of the working class and middle class across all the developing nations.

In the U.S., for example, inflation adjusted per capita income has not risen since 1978. Nominal per capita income has not risen since 1998. A similar phenomenon was behind the recent rejection of globalization by the voters in the United Kingdom, who voted for Brexit from the European Union. The Brexit vote is the first time that a major country’s population has voted against the post-WWII consensus in support of globalization. This dissatisfaction with wage stagnation is the main reason why 65.3 percent of those U.S. voters polled in the RealClearPolitics poll averages believe that the U.S. is “on the wrong track.”

This also accounts for the surprising success of Bernie Sanders on the left of the Overton window; his critique of globalization, which leads to large profits for multinational corporations because of this wage suppression, was much more popular among U.S. voters than anticipated. It also explains why Hillary Clinton, who supports the post-WWII political consensus in favor of globalization, is polling at just 42.9 percent according to the poll averages.

Trump won the nomination by discovering topics of acceptable political speech outside the Overton window on the right side of the political spectrum that were thought to be taboo. He shifted the Overton window.

Stephen Lange Ranzini, president and CEO of University Bank, Ann Arbor, Mich., was a delegate to the 2016 Democratic National Convention.


The views of Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.

Tags 2016 presidential election Bernie Sanders Democratic Party Donald Trump Hillary Clinton Republican Party Ted Cruz United States
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