Saturday, May 07, 2016

Politics through the window (please, just not Windows 10...)

Politics, as an art, a practice, and discipline and a commitment has one real purpose: to make good policies for the peace, welfare, and just ordering of the polity. Politics aims to find solutions that allow us, as disparate, imperfect people, to live good lives together in a functioning community.

It also makes for terrific theatre.

The entertainment value of politics corrupts the process by making it about the viewer rather than the results, and then by making those viewers who fill the role of critics, the commentators and pundits, the central participants. From there we get to a truly destructive shorthand in political discourse: the idea that a single, linear range of opinions and solutions, as determined primarily by "respectable" opinion, constitutes the sole acceptable source for policy.

By Marc Nozell,
Merrimack, NH,
 modified by Mike.lifeguard CC BY 2.0
This idea has a name: the co-called "Overton window". It has apparently persisted past the end of the age of print media and into the Internet era. Some people apparently see it as sustainable in the era of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. But in the end, it simply obscures the goal of politics: the construction of a framework for a way of life that everyone involved can at least tolerate. It invites the worst possible distortions: according to  the logic of the so-called "Overton window", deliberately taking an extreme position can somehow make a particular solution acceptable. That process involves three completely unverifiable and often irrational assumptions: that political choices lie on a linear and proportional continuum, that some arbiter of acceptable decisions exists, and that, based on those two assumptions, the extremes somehow justify the middle. Despite the inherent absurdity of the principles, politicians frequently engage in the practice of taking positions they themselves view as extreme for precisely this purpose: making the policies they actually favour appear moderate, and thus acceptable by comparison.

Donald Trump By Michael Vadon CC BY-SA 2.0
By Michael Vadon CC BY-SA 2.0
The idea of choices as a line with a window in it makes so many irrational assumptions as to constitute a particularly bad example of magical thinking. That does not mean politics must consist of "rational" choices. Pascal's aphorism that "Le cœur a ses raisons, que la raison ne connaît point." points the way for us. Politics frequently involves so many complex and connected matters that often, we seek to understand it as purely linear logic at our peril. I cannot always justify my convictions by simple step by step reasoning. Much of my political thought and all of my political passions stem from a process I cannot fully understand or describe. In that sense, political practice will always have to accept the limits of what we can know. The so-called "Overton window" provides no help with this: rather than a tool to cope with the limits of our knowledge, it offers magical thinking, and ritual centered around false knowledge and an effort to control the process.

The linear view of politics and policy does its worst mischief by replacing the only measure of success that ultimately matters, the difference a policy makes in the lives of actual people, with acceptance, approbation, and compromise. Where a middle way actually leads depends on its merits as a solution, and nothing else: certainly, not its status as the middle of an artificial and too easily manipulated imaginary line.

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