A Radically Shifting Overton Window

By John Mann

Image source: Vidar Nordli-Mathisen

“I believe that marriage is the union between a man and a woman. Now, for me as a Christian… it is also a sacred union. God’s in the mix.” If I was to ask you what politician said this quote, you would probably think it was Mike Pence or someone on the right that was trying to appeal to evangelical voters in the Midwest. In actuality, that was the opinion of Barack Obama while he was on the presidential campaign trail in 2008. A Democratic candidate ran and won on a ‘strong civil unions’ platform a little over 10 years ago – a staunch difference from the Democratic party of today which recently devoted an entire townhall to discussing LGBT issues.  

While these views appear almost archaic today, it’s important to remember that a majority of Americans agreed with his opinion in 2008: it wasn’t until 2011 that over 50% of the public believed same-sex marriages should be legally valid. As public support for gay marriage rose, policies followed. Obama repealed “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” in 2010, and in 2012, Obama became the first president to support same-sex marriage. In 2015, the Supreme Court case Obergefell v. Hodges legalized same-sex marriage throughout the United States. 

1: Public Support of Gay Marriage

Source: Gallup, 2018

In an effective democracy, enacted policies tend to follow a combination of what voters want and what is doable, and society’s opinions and preferences for certain types of policies are constantly changing. The range of policies that are politically acceptable to a mainstream population is known by political scientists as the Overton Window. Certain ideas might initially seem radical, but as they become more mainstream, political support and policies almost always follow. The Overton Window is constantly moving with public opinion, and the Democratic party has experienced extensive shifts over the past decade.    

Public opinion towards the legalization of marijuana has followed almost an identical increase to that of same-sex marriage over the past decade, and the attitudes toward marijuana reflect that. A Time article from 2012 reported that “the Obama Administration is cracking down on medical marijuana dispensaries and growers just as harshly as the Administration of George W. Bush did”. As public opinion on the issue shifted, Obama’s views did as well. In a 2016 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Obama said he believed in treating marijuana like “a public-health issue, the same way we do with cigarettes or alcohol.” Today, every major Democratic candidate (except for Joe Biden) has called for the complete legalization of marijuana

Figure 2: Public Support of Marijuana Legalization

Source: Gallup, 2019

Despite huge shifts in opinion towards LGBT rights and marijuana, the largest shift in the Overton Window over the past decade has been the rise of ‘democratic socialism’ due in large part to progressive firebrand and presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders. Rising to prominence during his first presidential run in 2016, the senator from Vermont massively outperformed expectations. His policies – such as abolishing private insurance in favor of a single-payer healthcare system, to over doubling the minimum wage, clearing student and medical debts, and promising free college – were thought to be ‘too far left’ in 2016. In 2020, many of those policies are now mainstays of the Democratic platform. Every major Democratic candidate (again except for Joe Biden) has proposed some version of a single-payer healthcare system, and this comes only nine years after the Affordable Care Act was enacted under Obama. A public healthcare option polls at 70% among the general public (90% among Democrats alone). 

Bernie Sanders’s impact on the Overton Window in 2016 paved the way for democratic socialist candidates in the 2018 midterm election with representatives Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar winning their respective races. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) had their membership increase from around 6,000 in 2016 to over 56,000 in 2019. As of December 2019, Sanders is currently polling in second place among most national polls with progressive candidate Elizabeth Warren in a close third. While Biden still leads nationally and clearly represents the moderate branch of the Democratic party, the extension of the Overton Window to the left is undeniable. 

So where does the Democratic party head in the following decade? Does support behind democratic socialists continue to grow? Will seemingly radical ideas today such as the legalization of all drugs follow in marijuana’s footsteps? Will staunch isolationism as proposed by Tulsi Gabbard or universal basic income proposed by Andrew Yang be the Medicare-for-All of tomorrow? It’s hard to tell, but if the past decade tells us anything, it is that ideas that are being embraced today could very well be abandoned tomorrow. The Overton Window isn’t done shifting yet. 

The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and may not represent the views of The St Andrews Economist. 

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