“Fringe” parties and the Overton Window

This is the latest in an ongoing (and soon-to-be-concluded) weekly series on the question of voting and whether it’s worthwhile. You can read the first, second, third, fourth, and fifth entries if yer interested.

Over the past several weeks, we’ve looked at several reasons why voting is not a meaningful or useful activity most of the time. A lot of these reasons have boiled down to one of a few issues: namely, our dysfunctional party system and the strong influence of capital over our governments.

At the outset, I considered the fact that none of the parties likely to win this fall’s election intend to address the fundamental issues and injustices of our time, from climate change to systemic racism to imperial warmongering, and I posed the question, “Does it really matter who wins?” If all we’re going to get is different shades of bad (from not-completely-terrible orange to holy-hell-this-is-awful blue to a-kinder-gentler-but-not-meaningfully-differently-awful red), then what’s the purpose in engaging in the whole exercise?

From there, I explored the dynamics of lesser-evil-ism, and how strategic voting consistently plays to the interests of capital by helping to elect parties which are willing to sell out their principles for votes (and which demonstrate when in power that they’re also willing to sell out their principles for dollars).

I then turned to the question of voting reform, an issue which is sure to feature prominently in the upcoming election, and examined the track record of countries with far more fair and equitable electoral systems than Canada’s has. In each case, there was no clear evidence that changing the voting system meaningfully changed the results, and I flagged one major reason for that as being the tendency towards extreme concentration of media ownership in most Western democracies. Our perception of which parties are viable and which proposed policies are serious and worthy of consideration is fundamentally (but not exclusively) shaped by a few massive media corporations, and their outsized influence constrains democratic debate within parameters that are acceptable to extremely wealthy media tycoons.

The role played by party discipline is also considerable. Backbench MPs of all the major parties have extremely limited scope to voice dissent with the policies and views of party leadership, and as a result every single political issue is reduced to the talking points of a few major parties, effectively putting control over the political process in the hands of a few party leaders and their unelected advisors. In other words, no matter how closely your views align with your local MP’s, it won’t matter at all if their party leader tells them to vote the opposite way.

Finally, last week I took up the issue of Hope and Change – how ordinary candidates can tap into people’s genuine desire for transformative change with carefully vague rhetoric about a Different Way of Doing Politics. The inevitable disappointment that follows can be disenchanting for many – and indeed, it’s part of the reason why I’m so cynical about politicians. The tactics of marketing, used in the context of important political decisions about people’s actual well-being and livelihoods, deployed in the service of tricking people into thinking they’re voting for their interests when in fact they’re voting against them, is reprehensible. And, sadly, it’s effective as well.

Overall, it’s a sad and sorry tale, about the stranglehold that party machines and the nation’s wealthy elite have on both the electoral process and the machinery of government. The system is democratic to the extent that people are allowed to choose from among options pre-selected by the party leadership and endorsed by the media, but those options are by definition narrowly constrained, and no major party’s platform is anything close to sufficient for dealing with the multiple crises our nation faces in a way that is fair, equitable, sustainable and just.

There’s been one constant to all of this discussion, however – so far I’ve only looked at the role played by the Big Three parties, the ones that have a legitimate shot at forming government.

People who vote for so-called “fringe” parties are routinely derided for wasting their vote, and supposedly for helping boogeyman Conservative trolls get elected. Elizabeth May, leader of Canada’s preeminent “fringe” party, fired back at this line of argument last month in The Tyee. After breaking down the actual numerical results in close races across the country which led to both Green wins and losses, May concludes:

The truth is that the Green Party does not ”split the vote.” In every one of the above examples, the strong Green race also resulted in very high voter turnout. In 2011, Saanich-Gulf Islands had 75 per cent voter turnout. When Andrew Weaver won his seat, Oak-Bay-Gordon Head had the highest voter turnout in B.C. In New Brunswick, David Coon won in a riding with 70 per cent voter turnout and Peter Bevan Baker’s riding had an astonishing 90 per cent voter turnout…

So, before deciding Greens are bad people for wanting to give Canadians an alternative that is positive, pragmatic and committed to a healthy economy and meaningful climate action, think it through. Look at the candidates in your own riding and decide who you think is best equipped to represent you. With candidates like SFU professor and scientist Lynne Quarmby who has put everything on the line to stop Kinder Morgan, running in a new riding with no incumbent, or former national CBC meteorologist Claire Martin running in North Vancouver against incumbent Conservative Andrew Saxton, or First Nations leader Brenda Sayers who led the charge against the Canada-China investment treaty in a riding with no incumbent, North Island Powell-River, ask yourself: what would be the best outcome for Canada — a parliament with those voices or one without them that is dominated by the nastiness of hyper-partisanship?

Vote for what you want. In riding after riding across Canada, Greens have proven that if you vote (in large numbers) for what you want, you actually get it.

Aside from the not-so-subtle tells that the Greens’ election strategy is going to focus heavily on BC ridings (pipelines are a recurring theme in May’s piece, for instance), what I gleaned from this article is that the Greens succeed when they get people (like me) who have opted out and given up to turn out and vote. The kind of massive voter turnout May cites is only possible by an engaged and excited electorate, which is not exactly typical of Canadians for the past several decades.

Now, there’s a risk here: the risk of, as I put it, getting Obama’d – getting pulled in by the Hope-y Change-y Transformative rhetoric and then getting let down.

But a lot of the other dynamics we looked at earlier just aren’t present when we talk about “fringe” or non-mainstream parties.

For one thing, they don’t necessarily have the type of tight connections to capital that, for instance, the Liberal Party does. And relying as they do on a massive upswell of popular support outside of major media channels, their platforms do have to be crafted to have actual widespread appeal to cynics, the disillusioned, and the relatively apathetic.

The result is that their programs and platforms are quite often full of great ideas.

For instance, see the fantastic satirical piece from the Syrup Trap, “Justin Trudeau announces 2008 Green Party Platform“:

Justin Trudeau announced on Tuesday that his government will eliminate the first-past-the-post electoral system if elected, quoting a Green Party announcement from 2008. The Liberals will instead bring in a system of proportional representation, an idea that was brand new to Canadian politics when it was first proposed nearly a decade ago.

This revelation follows hot on the heels of other seven-year-old Green Party plans, including marijuana legalization, the development of green industry jobs, a national energy-efficiency renovations program and the appointment of Elizabeth May as prime minister.

“We are committed to an innovative platform, looking forward from where we stand today with a fresh perspective on Canada’s future,” Justin Trudeau said, reading aloud from the 2008 Green Party document, “Looking Forward: A Fresh Perspective on Canada’s Future.”

“Canada cannot bear a second term of a Harper government.”

The article goes on, in devastating fashion, to show how the formerly “fringe” positions of the Greens have now become so thoroughly mainstream that Trudeau feels they’re his best chance for success in this fall’s election.

And speaking of marijuana legalization, let’s not forget the Marijuana Party! Much maligned in their heyday, the party has largely disappeared from the scene – maybe because what the hell is the point of having a Marijuana Party when one of the Big Three leaders is in favour of legalization? All of a sudden their “fringe-y” position looks like not such a “pipe dream” after all. (Sorry.)

One wonders if the fresh-on-the-scene Pirate Party will have a similar long-term effect with their platform of a guaranteed minimum income, an idea long proposed by academics and policy wonks which has yet to find a mainstream champion.

There is a technical poli-sci reason for all of this and it’s called the Overton Window. Named after the guy who came up with it, the Overton Window describes the range of publicly acceptable positions on major issues. This range is not fixed, but instead is incredibly malleable. From Alex Himelfarb:

We seem to have many “no go”areas in Canadian politics – taxes certainly, but Constitutional change, energy policy, maybe even health care reform seem also to be taboo. More than one pundit has worried about our failure to face these issues and wondered what it is about us that limits what we are willing to debate publicly. How can we hope to shift direction or begin to meet the great challenges if this particular brand of political correctness takes the most difficult issues off the table? But Canada is clearly not alone here. In fact, this question of how to expand the range of permissible political ideas was a preoccupation of the late Joseph Overton in the nineties when he was with the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank in the U.S.

Overton’s concern was why some of the libertarian policies he and his colleagues subscribed to were regarded as on the fringe or over the top. The question, “why are good ideas (good to him, that is) sometimes treated as just plain crazy” inspired his theory of “the window of political possibility”, renamed after his death, “the Overton Window“. People, the theory goes, are typically open to only a very limited range or window of issues and options, and they don’t just disagree with ideas outside this frame, they find them outlandish, radical, foolish or “unthinkable”. And of course any politician pursuing such ideas is likely to pay a heavy price — so mostly they don’t.

Overton’s interest was how the window is opened or moved, how “crazy” ideas become acceptable. His theory sets out the degrees of acceptability as moving from “unthinkable” to “policy” through the following hierarchy:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

Of course, what’s in the window isn’t static. The competition of ideas and interests is ongoing, often in the background, and what is acceptable – or crazy – shifts over time, but within limits and slowly. And in this competition, the wealthy and powerful always have advantage – though just how much varies. As well, the government of the day always has an advantage as they can move the window through concrete actions. But, again, such change is inevitably slow especially if it seeks to go against the tide.

For examples, think of equal marriage – unthinkable in the eighties when I was born, but firmly our national policy now.

But note that the influence of the wealthy and the already-powerful over the range of the discussion is profound and well-entrenched. That’s why we need to keep having the same stupid argument about “free trade”, for instance. A big part of the reason equal marriage was able to win so decisively and so quickly is that it didn’t threaten business or capital interests in any way whatsoever. You can contrast that fight with the struggle for fair wages, which has been going in since roughly time immemorial and which never seems to be able to make much progress.

Non-mainstream parties, especially left or radical ones, play a vital role in the process of shifting the Overton Window, or the range of acceptable discourse, away from the solidly pro-capital position it occupies today. They act as pioneers, taking the heat for ideals currently considered radical or unthinkable.

And that by itself may be a good enough reason to vote for one.

Might it not be better, though, to spoil your ballot, or to stay away altogether? This is a super-valid and important question, which I’m going to look at in detail next week, in the final entry in this thankfully-not-literally-interminable series.

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