Sunday, January 20, 2008

The View From the Overton Window

-- by Sara

Over the past week or two, several events have occurred that show just how radically the range of acceptable political and media discourse has changed in the past eight years.

First, the New Republic finally got the Minneapolis Historical Society to cut loose its store of old Ron Paul Reports, put them online, and thus verified -- once and for all -- our repeated contention that Ron Paul's benign good-doctor pose was hiding a noxiously hateful and racist past.

Second, Bill Press called Pat Buchanan a white supremacist to his face on national TV. Of course, this isn't news to regular Orcinus readers -- but it is a first for the mainstream media. Press just put it right out there, like it was a stone cold fact -- and Tucker and Pat sat there, and took it as a fact. Even more stunningly: Nobody called him names. He didn't get his mike cut. He wasn't asked to leave. He'll probably even get asked back. Incredible.

Third, both Max Blumenthal and Joe Conason published different but similarly damaging articles on Friday pointing out the long-standing ties between Mike Huckabee and various Reconstructionist leaders. Huck hasn't said publicly that America needs to dump the Constitution and institute biblical law in its place; but it appears that some of the most influential people who do believe this are also some of Huck's very closest friends. As Joe points out, these friendships raise serious questions about his intentions as president that the voting public deserves some straight answers to.

It's tempting to view this simply as an assertive media just doing its job -- until you reflect on the fact that this is the first election in a decade that any of these of events had the remotest chance of occurring.

In 2000, a guy like Ron Paul could have billed himself as a straight Libertarian; and the supine press of the time would have accepted this self-presentation as read, without doing any further digging. But we're not only digging now -- we're seeing the the results making their way into the mainstream press.

Also: back then, any political talker who had dared to call Pat Buchanan out as a white supremacist on the air would have risked the loss of his show. In 2000, Buchanan was still dining out on having been Nixon's speechwriter and a presidential candidate in his own right; and the media still treated him with awe, genuflecting almost reflexively at the mention of his name. Press' casual but damning frankness about something we all knew long ago is a telling sign that something fundamental in the parameters of our national discourse has shifted.

Of course, the poster boy for this dangerous disinterest in material facts about the candidates is our own Little Boots -- who, like Huckabee, also enjoyed close friendships some of the Religious Right's most overtly authoritarian figures. Bush made no secret of this during his 2000 run; in fact, guys like James Dobson and James Kennedy bragged that they were on the phone with the Bush campaign all the time, a custom that has apparently continued through his presidency. He was able to get all the way to the White House with the nature and implications of those friendships largely unexamined by the press. Fortunately for the country, it's already becoming clear that Huckabee won't be getting anything like the same free ride.

What changed?

It seems to me that these developments are clear signs that the Overton Window -- the imaginary frame that defines and limits the range of what's considered acceptable and what's rejected as loony in the public discourse -- has finally begun to shift.

In 2000, guys like Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson could bloviate from Olympus unchallenged; and the New York Times and the Washington Post were still the papers of record, arrogant in their assigned role as the authors of the first drafts of history. A handful of news outlets were in sole charge of positioning the Overton Window; and the view they chose was conservative, corporatist, and not inclined to question either the status quo or its hand-picked candidates.

But reality has tugged hard on the parameters of that narrow window over the past few years. 9/11, Iraq, Katrina, Abu Ghraib, $100-a-barrel oil, and the US becoming the biggest debtor nation in history -- over the years, readers became increasingly impatient with daily papers and network news shows full of corporate-approved happy-talk that so blatantly paved over horrific truths, ignored bread-and-butter issues that affected their lives, and allowed people who committed vast and undeniable crimes against the common good to fade into obscurity unscathed. Well-paid "journalists" forgot their mandate to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable: now ensconced warmly among the comfortable themselves, they were not much inclined to afflict anyone.

And, although most editors and publishers are still struggling to make the connection, this is why both newspapers and broadcast news operations everywhere are in a world of financial hurt. Their willful inattention to the hard realities of life in 21st century America have rendered them almost totally irrelevant to the average reader or viewer. The view out of their pinched and narrow Overton window doesn't include most of the people who used to be their audience. Left out of the view, and presented with media that described a world they didn't recognize -- and resolutely refused to acknowledge anything about world they were actually living in -- the audience finally got fed up, and drifted away.

At the same time, another force -- in the form of a million sweatshirt-and-sock-clad bloggers -- rose up to provide the outside push. We were here to tell it as we saw it, from perches so far outside that window that we were simply invisible to the powers that be. Depsite our obscurity (or, more likely, because of it) it turned out that the nation we were describing, and the language we described it in, looked and sounded a hell of a lot more like the one our middle- and working-class readers were living in, too. As the blogosphere has grown over the past six years, becoming profitable and credible and even -- in a few corners, anyway, respectable -- the corporate media finally learned (with much bitching and moaning) that they couldn't keep ignoring the people who didn't live in their nice suburbs and send their kids to private schools, because they were America, too.

Gandhi told us way back in the day how this long strange trip would go. First they ignored us. Then, they made fun of us. Then, very briefly, they fought us. And now, when we see serious media outlets doing real investigations of Ron Paul's writings and Mike Huckabee's friends -- and when people are finally getting on the air and calling Pat Buchanan out, to his face, for what he is -- I don't think it's too optimistic to read that as a signal that we might just win this thing after all.

We proved to them that you could talk about the real world that real people live in, and survive to tell the tale. And, furthermore: we put them on notice that if they didn't get with the program, and they might not survive at all. So Markos writes for Newsweek and Wonkette writes for Time, and guys like Joe and Max write stuff that matters for bigger and better audiences. And one morning, you wake up and realize that a lot of topics that weren't anywhere on the media menu four or six or eight years ago are suddenly back on the table again -- and people are eating them up.

It's not over, of course. The radical conservatives have dragged that damned Overton window so far over to the right that all you can see from it anymore is the sun setting on the American Dream. It's going to take a long time for us to get it dragged back around to the left-hand side, where we can get the view of the sunrise again.

But in the middle of all the pushing and pulling and tugging and groaning, it's good to look up once in a while and realize that, yes, dammit, it's actually working. It's taken two elections so far and at least two billion words of bloggage, but we've actually managed to scoot that big heavy frame over a few feet, and the country is suddenly starting to see another view. In this new light, Paul and Buchanan and Huckabee don't look like presidential contenders. They look like two white supremacists and a theocrat. And we can call them that, straight out, in the bright light of day -- and trust, for the first time in longer than we can remember, that much of the nation will finally see the same things we see...and agree.

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