Democrats' reactions to Democrat Bill Owens' win in New York's 23rd District - the first time a Democrat has won that seat since the Civil War - have ranged from "What are they doing?" to "Throw them an anchor!" Owens' win was made possible by a split in the Republican Party. Dede Scozzafava, the GOP nominee, was deemed too moderate by movement conservatives who now dominate the party. She was opposed by Conservative Party nominee Doug Hoffman, who was supported by national figures like Sarah Palin and Tim Pawlenty, and right wing pundits. When Scozzafava realized she could not afford to fight off their attacks, she withdrew and endorsed Owens. That plus a push from labor unions brought Owens a narrow 49-45 victory.
Are movement conservatives crazy ... or crazy like foxes?
More below the fold....
Crazy Like a Fox?
Conservative Party candidate Doug Hoffman seemed an odd choice all along. He doesn't live in New York's 23rd District. He was famously unfamiliar with local issues, so much so that when unable to answer questions in an interview with the local newspaper, he scolded the paper for not providing the questions in advance. The newspaper's editorial board noted that they had listed the questions in their editorial page before the interview, thus cementing the impression that Hoffman was out of touch with the locals, a candidate more interested in Washington than Watertown. As his party name implies, he is a movement conservative whose speeches invoked not the Saint Lawrence Seaway but the Saint Ronald Legacy. A majority of voters were not impressed; Hoffman garnered only 45% of the vote, with 49% choosing Owens and 6% still voting for the withdrawn Scozzafava.
While Republican Party leaders like Newt Gingrich see this as a defeat, conservative movement voices see it as an ironic victory: they drove a moderate Republican out of the race and thus helped purify the party. Do they not believe Gingrich's warning that a party can't govern with only 20%, his estimate of movement conservatives nationwide? Do they disagree with that estimate, perhaps gulled by the numbers they saw at corporate-sponsored protest events in April, July, August, and September? Is this a harbinger of political seppuku, a willingness to disembowel their party and perhaps even the nation rather than see us governed by anyone to the left of Sarah Palin?
You can speculate for any of those possibilities, and others have. But since we're speculating, I think they're playing a different game, one built on a conservative meme known as the Overton Window and their not unreasonable assessment of the mainstream political media.
Pushing the fringe.
The Overton Window is a public relations concept developed by Joe Overton, former vice president of the conservative Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. The concept suggests that policy debates are usually limited by the boundaries of public acceptance, and ideas outside those boundaries are usually rejected without much examination. If your preferred policy solutions don't fall within those boundaries, they won't even be heard in the mainstream public debate. Overton described those boundaries as a window, thus the concept's name.
But Overton went beyond that, arguing that the window could be moved by intentionally arguing for "fringe" ideas. He proposed a range of public responses to an idea, from Unthinkable through Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, and Popular, to Policy. In Overton's thesis, if you want the Radical to be deemed Acceptable, advocate for the Unthinkable. Pushing the boundaries of the fringe makes less extreme ideas seem moderate by comparison, bringing them into the Overton Window so they are included in the mainstream debate.
For example, if you believe public schools should be contracted to for-profit education businesses, propose closing down public schools entirely. As compared to the Unthinkable idea of no public schools, the heretofore Radical idea of taxpayer-funded for-profit schools seems moderate and thus Acceptable. This was among the Mackinac Center's early projects in using the Overton Window, and by 1988 the idea of charter schools had become Acceptable. In many states, taxpayer-funded for-profit schools are now Policy.
What is the fringe?
Making the Overton Window work requires the cooperation of the mainstream political media. If Radical ideas are casually dismissed as "fringe" and Unthinkable ideas are ignored altogether, the window doesn't move. Those advocating for the Unthinkable are metaphorically shouting in an empty room. Movement conservatives know this; they invented the Overton Window. If the political purge of the Republican Party is to work, conservatives need the mainstream political media to let people hear the Unthinkable, making the Radical more Acceptable.
I think they're betting on the expectation that the media will continue to conflate ideology and party affiliation, seeing "moderate" as midway between "Republican" and "Democrat." If the Republican Party purges all non-extremists, but the media still perceive the GOP as one of the two "mainstream" parties, then by implication conservative extremists pushing the Unthinkable become "mainstream Republicans" pushing the Acceptable or at most Radical.
If you think you're likely to be a minority party for a few years regardless - and that prospect seems reasonable in light of the Bush-era catastrophe - purging the party of non-extremists offers a more effective policy voice by moving the Overton Window toward conservatism, even if you're out of power. Your Unthinkable ideas are merely Radical, and your Radical ideas seem Acceptable by comparison ... so anything too far from those in the other direction becomes Radical or Unthinkable as perceived and debated in the mainstream political media.
Are these conservatives crazy? Maybe. Or maybe they're crazy like a Fox.