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Overton, Warren, and Re-Making the Middle

Why Obama's selection of Rick Warren to give an opening prayer at the inauguration is a lesson for environmental activists -- and poses a troubling question about the future.

If you follow political news in the US, you're probably aware that President-Elect Barack Obama has asked conservative Pastor Rick Warren to give the opening invocation for the inauguration ceremony (Joseph Lowery, co-founder of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and open supporter of gay marriage, will give the closing benediction). Given that Warren is known for some fairly un-Obama-like statements (explicitly comparing gay marriage to pedophilia, calling for the assassination of Iran's leaders), this selection has been a smidge controversial, with quite a few liberals seeing this as Obama having "peed in the ol' cornflakes" of gay and progressive supporters. The uproar about this choice, however, has in turn been met with dismissive or angry replies from other Obama supporters, who say that having Warren speak for two minutes is pretty close to meaningless, and it's a good move by Obama to be willing to reach out to communities that didn't vote for him in November. Some even argue that it's smart politics for Obama to attack liberals to show his independence.

It struck me, reading the debate online (and having a mild debate of my own over Twitter with Howard Rheingold), that not only are both sides right in this, it's actually very useful to have this kind of debate be so public, even if it gets caricatured as "the Left vs Obama."

To begin to see why, imagine this: John McCain won, asked Warren to give the closing benediction, and asked Joseph Lowery to give the opening invocation as a way of reaching out to the communities that didn't vote for McCain in November. How would the conservative "base" respond to that choice? With anger. And it would certainly be seen as a problem for McCain to have so upset his supporters, not as a sign of strength.

This is a well-known process: radical positions become commonplace, shifting the "center" towards the fringe. This is known as the Overton Window, and as I noted back in January, it has the potential for being a decisive tool for shifting perspectives about the environment.

If the selection of Warren had been met only with "ho hum, it doesn't matter much, and it's useful politics for Obama," the conventional wisdom that Warren represents some kind of moderate position would be further solidified -- "see, even the crazy lefties think he's a moderate!" -- and might even give a subtle push to the idea that Warren is actually kind of liberal.

But with this immediate and loud turmoil over the choice, the conventional wisdom that Warren is a moderate gets eroded, and a new mainstream notion starts to emerge: Warren's views are actually pretty conservative, and Obama is being nice to the right wing in this, not simply embracing the center.

It's a quiet game, and not one that will be shifted by a single event. But what the reaction to the Warren choice helps to demonstrate -- and here's where this becomes useful for people thinking about changing the politics around global warming -- is that loud, angry voices can reshape the nature of the mainstream. These voices don't become the mainstream, at least not initially, but push what's considered to be the "moderate center" a bit more towards the desired position. We can see that now with gay marriage, as the "civil unions with the same rights" concept has become something of the cautious, centrist view, not something seen as radical and weird.

The question all of this raises, however, is what happens when countervailing groups both decide to operate as Overton Window drivers?

Remember, the basic concept is that by vocally espousing a truly radical position, what gets considered to be moderate shifts towards you by looking like a reasonable contrast. So when differing sides of an argument both start to use this process, do we simply remain at the status quo "center"? Or do we have a bifurcated center, and further fragmentation? Or does it become an opening for an entirely new position to take hold?

I'm also curious about what happens when you can identify an Overton process starting up. Take nanotech -- if the reasonable center was somewhere between "go fast, but pay close attention to problems" and "go slow," one could imagine that strident calls for (say) the arrest of anyone working on nanotechnology (as people engaged in crimes against the planet/humanity) to be considered on the unacceptable fringe. But as those calls persisted, even from a small minority, the reasonable center might start to shift to become something between "go slow" and "stop research," with more encouraging positions increasingly seen as radical.

So if we saw something like that, and didn't want to see the reasonable center shift, what could we do?

There's one of your Jobs of Tomorrow: Overton Window Engineer.


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