Tuesday, February 16, 2021

The Concept of the Overton Window Does Not Mean It's OK to Advocate Nutty Ideas

Does the concept of the Overton Window mean that progressives should feel free to advocate pretty much any lefty idea, no matter how unfeasible, on the grounds that putting it into play, even it is currently very unpopular, will move the Overton Window in a progressive direction?
No it does not. The idea still has to be a good and plausible one that you could convince people would work. Otherwise, you will do more harm that good. Plus it is lazy, lazy political thinking. Matt Yglesias has a useful discussion of this.
"Coming up with new ideas that make sense and developing persuasive arguments in favor of those ideas is hard. Many people aren’t up to the challenge. So there’s naturally a robust market for meta-theories as to why it’s okay to not do that and just spew nonsense instead. Consequently, an idea developed by Joseph Overton to help fundraise for a libertarian think tank in Michigan has ended up going viral in policy circles because it offers a license to spew nonsense. Yet tellingly, the viral version of the Overton Window is a mutant strain expressing an idea that’s actually very different from Overton’s idea as described by the think tank he worked for before he died.
That’s because his original point, while absolutely a useful metaphor, is also a bit banal and simply ends up emphasizing the importance of having arguments that are persuasive. The mutant strain, by contrast, is inauthentic and has no evidence behind it, but it does serve as a useful ad hoc rationalization for sloppy advocacy while also offering a ready excuse for not picking fights with dumb ideas “on your side” on the grounds that they are doing useful Overton Window work.
But this is dumb and wrong. People should not make bad arguments in favor of indefensible positions.
More importantly, since nobody thinks of themselves as being the person with bad arguments and indefensible positions, donors making funding decisions should raise the rigor bar for what they’re willing to support and the ideas are signed onto by the groups they back. The original spirit of the Overton Window — that it’s fine to advocate in civil society for ideas that are currently unpopular — is totally fine and correct. But the Mutant Overton Window which holds that it’s fine to back unsound extreme ideas for tactical reasons is wrong. You should back good ideas, not bad ones.....
At their best, I think Mutant Overton Window acolytes are confusing advocacy with strategic bargaining dynamics in a legislature. A real thing that you see all the time in housing reform politics is that the champion of a YIMBY bill introduces it and then people have various objections and whatever ends up being enacted is somewhat more modest than what was initially proposed. But that’s the slow boring of hard boards, not an arbitrary framing effect. If people are convinced that the underlying case for more housing supply makes sense but they have various specific concerns, then you can make a compromise with them. If they think your underlying idea is stupid, then they’re not going to come to the table — nobody wants to bargain with people whose ideas don’t make sense....
Now in an ideal world, the only way to sincerely persuade someone of something would be to be correct. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and bad ideas can be persuasive.
But the fact remains that if you have an idea that you think is good, far and away the best way to make progress on its behalf is to try to persuade people that you are correct. That means trying to pay attention to detail, answer obvious objections people have, and choose language that is clear and friendly.
And that means that if you’re in a position to fund advocacy efforts, you should try to fund people who are smart and persuasive and hard-working, not people who throw bombs or hop on viral fads. The idea that there’s some political science magic that makes it okay or even good to put out bad ideas is very appealing to people who want to avoid fights or who lack the capacity to develop good ideas. But those are the people you should avoid! Political change is too hard to leave in the hands of people who don’t make sense."

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