This post is part of my Anti-Abortion Tactics series. Click the link to read more.
Pro-aborts have managed to paint the pro-life position as “radical,” while presenting their baby-killing agenda as a normal, mainstream position to hold. In reality, most pro-lifers… well, are not pro-life. Most pro-lifers actually support abortion in certain situations. The challenge for anti-abortion activists is how to turn pro-lifers to our side: anti-abortion without exception.
Last time, I wrote about the Spectrum of Allies. Today, let me introduce (or, for some, reintroduce) the Overton Window.
How the Popular Becomes the Political
The term “Overton Window,” or the “window of discourse,” describes the range of socially acceptable positions a person may take on a public issue. Positions at the center of the window are normative and mainstream, while positions outside of the window are radical, fringe, or “unthinkable.”
You might notice some similarities between the Overton Window and the Spectrum of Allies. The main difference is that the Overton Window is about positions; the Spectrum of Allies is about people. The Window is broad while the Spectrum is narrow. But they are certainly similar and complementary.
The objective nature of positions do not change. Rather, the Overton Window shifts as political opinions on a topic shift. More and more people take a once-unthinkable position and, as a result, that position becomes mainstream. The evolution first happens at the popular level, and then moves upstream to the political level.
The cultural evolution on gay marriage embodies this process well. Politicians who openly opposed gay marriage (or at least said they did) came out to support it once their supporters did. As a peasant enjoying some lovely filth once said, politicians derive their power “from a mandate from the masses[.]” Successful politicians react to changes in the Overton Window and evolve their positions to match the new normal.
Successful activists, on the other hand, seek to shift the Overton Window’s center. The change at the popular level runs up the mainstream to the political level. Politicians cannot include unthinkable positions in their platform. At least, not if they actually want to be elected.
An Analogy About Car Sales
You may have heard that, in negotiations, you should not be the first person to offer a number. For instance, if you are selling your car and you set the price too low initially, you might leave money on the table because someone would have paid more for your car. On the other hand, if you are buying a car and you ask if a seller can come down by $500, when they would have come down by $1,000, you spend money you could have saved.
But offering the first number can also help you win. If you do your research and set the price of your car at the high end of market value, even if your car is worth less, you can anchor the higher value in the mind of your potential buyers. Often, a buyer will make offers toward the higher end of their acceptable range. Even as you lower the price in negotiations, because your buyer started high, you avoid losing money on the deal. The same dynamic works for buyers, too. Offer at the low end and you avoid overpaying because the low number anchors a value in the seller’s mind.
Anchor, Shift, Repeat
Activists employ the same cycle to shift the Overton Window. First, they stake out a very radical position and seek to normalize it. This sets the frame of the debate: everything short of their position begins to look mainstream. Politicians are free to enact new policies, even previously fringe policies, because the activists’ radical position is the new anchor for “unacceptable.” Less radical activists, with less radical positions, can point to the “crazies” and show how much more reasonable their position is by comparison. As the activists’ radical position becomes normalized, they are free to stake out a new, even more radical position, and repeat this anchor/shift cycle.
Public sentiment on abortion has evolved through exactly this cycle. In the 90s, the catch-phrase was “safe, legal, and rare.” Now, the mantra is “shout your abortion.” How did this happen? “Abortion should be safe and legal” was once a radical position: abortion, rather than a monstrous crime against natural law, was to be given legal protections and made “safe” for the woman who sought her child’s death. But Clinton added “rare” and took the edge off. Clinton pulled the Overton Window toward the Left on abortion. Then, pro-abortion radicals were free to take even more radical positions, like “after-birth abortion.” Compared to “after-birth abortion,” “shout your abortion” seems almost sane. Compared to “shout your abortion,” “a woman’s right” seems common sense. And almost no one denies “safe, legal, and rare” anymore. At least rare was on the table.
A Tool For Good
As anti-abortion activists, we can use the Overton Window in two ways. First, if we recognize and understand the anchor/shift cycle, we can break the cycle when our enemies use it. Second, we can use the same anchor/shift cycle to radicalize our own.
Break the Cycle
First, remember: the anchor/shift cycle works by normalizing the positions that are less than radical. To diminish the cycle’s power, we can “radicalize” less-than-radical positions. In other words, we can demonstrate that there is no difference between the radical position and the mainstream position. This introduces cognitive dissonance in our less radical enemies and in onlookers. Radicalizing the mainstream positions also means our opponents have to take even more radical positions to normalize abortion.
On abortion, this is easy to do. In fact, our enemies have done the work for us. It is difficult to take a more unthinkable position than “after-birth abortion,” or to find a more unthinkable question than “why should the baby live?” Is it hard to find a more repugnant statement than “Kill All Babies“?
As far as radicalizing the mainstream position on abortion goes, the authors of that paper show that there is no moral difference between a newborn and a fetus. They assert that “both fetuses and newborns do not have the same moral status as actual persons.” Of course, they conclude that it is permissible to kill a newborn where it is permissible to kill a fetus (i.e., always, in their view).
We make the same claim. There are no morally significant differences between a fetus and a newborn. However, we come to the opposite conclusion. It is impermissible to kill a fetus where it is impermissible to kill a newborn (i.e., always, in our view).
Of course, supporting any abortion is radical. As anti-abortion activists, we must draw connections between an infant and a fetus. By doing so, we illustrate how radical the mainstream position on abortion is. Then, we force less radical pro-aborts to either agree with or disassociate from these radicals. Divide and conquer.
Radicalize Our People
The pro-life movement already tries to shift the Overton Window to create a “Culture of Life.” I reject the idea that we can or will end abortion by creating a culture of life. I will write about this at length another time, but for now, let me give a brief explanation.
True pro-lifers have a common goal: to end abortion. We have tried for nearly 40 years to make abortion unthinkable in the broad culture. Granted: we have prevented many abortions. But our culture still accepts abortion as a solution. I rejoice over every life we have saved by preventing an individual abortion. But the goal is not to prevent abortions, because, as Mark Crutcher puts it, preventing abortions does not end abortion. Shifting the Overton Window to create a culture of life will never end abortion.
We can, however, shift the Overton Window within the pro-life community. In fact, that is one of the goals of this blog: I want to radicalize you and equip you to act. If we radicalize the pro-life community, we can turn pro-lifers into anti-abortion activists. Even if we turned them only into anti-abortion voters, we could make a massive impact.
Around 131 million people vote in the United States. 150 million people identify as pro-life. If we assume that 10 percent of those are truly anti-abortion, and we could radicalize another 10 percent, we would have roughly 30 million voters. To put that in perspective, 30 million Black voters will be eligible to vote in 2020.
Of course, the political is just one example. We can also encourage direct action like protests and picketing. I will be writing more about direct action for anti-abortion activists in my upcoming posts.
The Overton Window helps us to understand political discourse. Smart activists stake out radical positions to shift the window. We can also take advantage of this by radicalizing other pro-life people to act against abortion — both in politics and in direct action.