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  • Dan Connors

Moving the goalposts- how to survive the loud, confusing, ever-changing world of political babble.

The lines have been drawn, and both sides now squares off in a political fight to the death. Ideas, ideologies, and belief systems are defended on social media and in person as if our very existence depended upon it. But how solid are these lines? How likely is it that the goalposts that we swear by today won't be totally different a decade from now? Things are changing rapidly, so maybe its time to zoom out and look at things from a bigger perspective.

The Democratic Party, considered to be the party of the left, is now a champion of minorities. But 100 years ago, especially in the South, Democrats were fine with segregation, Jim Crow laws, and voter suppression that kept black Americans out of the mainstream of economic and political power. Only with the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 did the segregationists begin leaving the party.

The Republican party, the party of the right, has changed its views many times. Before 1976, they had no position on abortion, but since opposition to abortion has been a linchpin of their identity. In 1970, Republican president Richard Nixon established the Environmental Protection Agency to help regulate industrial damage to the environment. 50 years later, the party of Nixon is fine with gutting the EPA and rolling back many of the safeguards it enacted. And perhaps most famously, in the 1980's the Republican Heritage Foundation came up with the idea for an individually mandated health care system that inspired Republican governor Mitt Romney to establish the first government system in Massachusetts. This new system then morphed into the Affordable Care Act under Democratic president Barack Obama, which was vehemently opposed for a decade by the party that first came up with it.

What are we to make of all this as we try to judge the two political parties and their positions? Ronald Reagan, the father of modern conservatism, was a liberal Democratic labor organizer during his acting career. Elizabeth Warren, the champion of progressive ideals in 2020, was once a Republican who voted for Richard Nixon. Obviously, individuals are capable of changing their beliefs and some do. But there is something grander at work here- the entire playing field is shifting beneath our feet.

Imagine if you will, a football field with a large stadium around it. At one end zone is the progressive socialists, with the most extreme leftist views out there. At the other end zone are the reactionary conservatives, with the most extreme-right opinions on every issue. And at each of the yard markers are most of the people, constantly shifting between the yard markers, but generally staying in the same area of the field. In today's environment, the 50-yard line would be deserted, and most people would be huddled around the 10 or 20 yard lines.

Now imagine if a group of zealous and smart partisans could lift the entire stadium and shift everything in one direction or another. What was once considered middle-of-the-road is now outdated and extreme, and people have to realign their beliefs according to the new norms. Extremists couch their rhetoric with buzzwords to separate the world into "us" versus "them". Want to demonize a liberal- call them a "socialist", (Even though most of our popular programs like the military, national parks, Medicare and Social Security are socialist programs). Want to trigger a conservative- call them a "racist", (Even though all of us use racial stereotypes and shortcuts at one level or another.)

By doing battle at the extremes and repeating their talking points often enough, partisans make the unthinkable become merely extreme, and make the extreme become mainstream. No more meeting at the 50 yard line for compromise, blow up the stadium.

There's a term for this phenomenon, and it's called the Overton Window. Politics isn't a simple battle of two extremes, but rather a wide spectrum of varying ideas and beliefs that blend and battle in interesting ways. The Overton Window is a range of policies that are currently politically acceptable to the mainstream of voters. Ideas outside of the window are deemed either radical or unthinkable, and don't enter into serious discussions. Only the positions thought of as acceptable or sensible are inside of the Overton Window- with the problem being that the window is always moving, widening, or narrowing.

The idea of slavery was clearly mainstream if you lived in the Confederacy, as was the idea of arresting and deporting Jews in Nazi Germany. That doesn't mean they were right- just popular. What worries me is what we now think of as normal might be deemed monstrous by future generations. In order to judge the window of acceptability ,you need to be able to step outside and challenge it once in a while.

For instance, let's look at one of my favorite subjects from my CPA alter-ego- taxes. How much taxation is fair? The answer to that question varies a lot depending on what decade you asked it. During the 1950s and 1960s corporate rates ran nearly 50% and are now at 21%. Individual rates at that time were averaging 25% and topping out at 90%, and now the top rate is 37% and average rate is around 14%. The tax rate spectrum has shifted dramatically lower in the last 50 years, at the same time that government deficits have skyrocketed. While at one time have a $1 trillion dollar annual deficit would have been unthinkable, now most politicians and their supporters are fine with it.

How can it be that the idea of "fair" tax rates, the subject of intense debate, could be so different from one generation to another? There have been many other shifts of the Overton window and society's end zones in the past few decades. LGBT rights and women's rights have evolved in the past 25 years to become a much bigger deal than they used to be. With the Black Lives Matter movement, systemic racism is coming under more intense scrutiny that would have been unthinkable a generation ago. And environmentalism was in, then out, then in again with the debate over climate change, and now a subject of intense disagreement in political circles.

Moving the boundaries of debate is what politicians and pundits are best at, but as a society we allow our boundaries to bend and break at our own peril. Consider the following changes to what had been considered unthinkable in just the last few years:

  • Accepting help during elections from foreign countries is now sometimes okay.

  • Putting young children of illegal immigrants in cages separated from their parents is reasonable to stem the flood of illegal immigration.

  • $1 Trillion federal deficits are now acceptable in government financing.

  • Telling verifiable lies is more normal in the pursuit of political gains. (Politicians have always lied but the practice is much more flagrant and expected now)

  • Science is now suspect and can be contested if data points to conclusions you don't like.

Big changes require gradual change, which explains the constant, periodic adjustments to the Overton Window. But not all changes are desirable in the long run. Loud voices can shatter the window temporarily by invoking fear and darker emotions. By passively accepting any and all shifts to the spectrum of acceptability, we risk falling victim to the boiling frog syndrome, where a frog in a pot stays put while the temperature gradually rises, getting to the point it kills him. Only the perspective of history and distance can save the frogs if they want to get out of the rapidly heating water before it's too late.

Coming up with beliefs on everything is hard. It's much easier to use the shortcuts provided by society and pick a tribe to tell you what to believe. I am a white, straight, American male, so my "tribe" tells me to lean to the right. On the right you believe that everybody is responsible for their own survival and social solutions are bad. But I've also been exposed to a lot of folks on the other side, and their "tribes" are on the left. On the left you believe that society has a responsibility to help individuals up to a point, and that private markets aren't always the best solutions to everything.

I've always had a more moderate sensibility, and have come to believe that left and right in politics is a lot like Yin and Yang- both necessary and unavoidable - two different ways of seeing the world. Neither side is always right and neither is always wrong. They are always in flux, and have a huge influence on what we consider extreme or mainstream. While I try to remain a moderate in this age of polarization, I also recognize that what passes for mainstream today would have been considered conservative 50 years ago- because the window has shifted.

We are constantly evolving as a society and a planet, which always involves moving the goalposts and changing the playing field. Once you achieve something, (or fail too many times), you move on and set new goals. Today's debates focus too much on temporary all-or-nothing extremes, without looking at the big picture of who we are and what we want to become. Global warming is real and complicated, but in the end we want to live in harmony with our planet's systems. Race relations have evolved for centuries and involve dozens of races of humans, but in the end we all want to be able to live together in a mutually agreeable environment. No one likes paying taxes, but we all want a sustainable system that works.

The Dunning-Kruger effect says that people who don't know their own weaknesses are more likely to wrongly believe in their own mastery of life. But none of us knows what we don't know, so for goodness sake a little humility is in order as we guide ourselves and others through this great unknown. Read a few history, science, or psychology books. Talk to some older, wiser people. Move your own goalposts and you will discover all sorts of interesting things that make life richer and more mysterious.

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