Into the Vortex: Unraveling the Fabric of American Extremism

Published March 26, 2024

The Shoval Perspective

This observation highlights a fascinating shift in American politics. Figures like Musk, previously consistent liberal voters, now see the ascension of conservative values as essential for restoring the country’s balance. His remarks underscore a trend many have observed with growing concern—the relentless progression of progressive ideology from the mainstream to the radical fringes.

The following chart, starkly illustrates this migration:

The “Overton Window,” a concept developed by policy analyst Joseph Overton, delineates a narrow spectrum of ideas and policies deemed acceptable by the public at any given time. Ideas outside this window are considered radical, extreme, or unthinkable by the majority.

According to Overton’s theory, politicians must operate within this window to avoid being marginalized as extremists. The political spectrum includes:

  • Unthinkable – Dismissed outright as radical
  • Radical – Seen as extremist and controversial
  • Acceptable – Entering the realm of tolerability
  • Sensible – Regarded as a legitimate, inoffensive proposition
  • Popular – Widely accepted and considered conventional wisdom
  • Policy – Implemented as official law or government action

Shifting the Overton Window involves convincing the public to broaden its acceptance until previously marginal ideas gradually become mainstream. Conversely, proponents of the current window work to discredit external ideas as radical or unacceptable. The Overton Window maps the expansion and contraction of socially acceptable thought over time, explaining progressive political successes. Dedicated advocacy can move ideas from the fringes toward the mainstream.

Ideas and policies that would have been unthinkable a decade or two ago are now tenets of modern liberal orthodoxy. For example, in 2008, Barack Obama expressed opposition to gay marriage.1

Rapid evolutions in theories around gender that challenge biological definitions of sex, the push for DEI initiatives, and the restriction of longstanding free speech protections under the guise of combating “hate” and “disinformation” exemplify how yesterday’s fringe has become today’s norm.

A particularly alarming recent event underscored the leftward shift’s impact on the Democratic Party’s traditional support for Israel. In March 2024, the UN Security Council voted on a resolution concerning the Gaza war.

The U.S.’s failure to veto a resolution that did not explicitly affirm Israel’s right to self-defense sent shockwaves through the U.S.-Israel alliance. As John Fetterman, a Democrat Senator from Pennsylvania, remarked:

“It’s appalling the U.S. allowed passage of a resolution that fails to condemn Hamas…”

From the perspective of the Overton Window, the U.S.’s abstention marked a significant departure from the mainstream consensus supporting Israel’s right to defend itself. More critically, it reflected the influence of the Democratic Party’s progressive wing in shifting the Overton Window on Israeli-Palestinian issues.

Where support for the U.S.-Israeli strategic partnership was once a bipartisan principle, the left’s drift has pulled this notion from accepted mainstream thought to the fringes. By prioritizing Palestinian grievances over Israeli security, the Biden administration followed the party’s Overton shift.

Following Overton’s logic, this could be just the beginning. The left’s continued pull could soon redefine U.S. policy in the region entirely. Previously unthinkable actions, such as an arms embargo against Israel or dissolving strategic cooperation, could become legitimate under continued Democratic rule.

While support for Israel was once a unifying aspect of American foreign policy, it has now become another battleground in the domestic culture war, with opposing Overton Windows drifting apart. As the left shifts further leftward, even symbolic support for Israel is increasingly seen as an “extreme” right-wing stance.

Internal Ideological Shifts: A Case Study of Human Rights Watch

The dynamics of ideological shifts, as observed through the Overton Window theory, extend beyond national politics, permeating even the internal structures of global organizations. A poignant illustration of this phenomenon is the case of Human Rights Watch (HRW), an organization founded on the principles of defending human rights worldwide. This organization, established by Robert Bernstein, has faced internal controversies, mirroring the broader political and ideological debates discussed earlier.

In October 2009, Bernstein himself took an unprecedented step by publicly criticizing HRW in The New York Times for its stance towards Israel.3 This highlighted a significant ideological divergence within the organization he founded. This internal discord reflects the broader societal shifts and the challenges organizations face in navigating the increasingly polarized landscape of global politics.

The situation within HRW further escalated following the tragic events of October 7, 2023, when Danielle Haas, a veteran of the organization, issued a scathing critique of its responses to the Hamas attacks in Israel. Haas’s departure and her condemnation of HRW’s perceived bias against Israel underscore the complexities organizations face as they grapple with internal ideological shifts.4 Her criticism, stating that HRW ‘abandoned principles of accuracy and fairness,’ points to the deeper issues of how organizations respond to the pressures of the shifting Overton Window and the struggle to maintain objectivity in a polarized world.

The progressive shift within America, as defined by the Overton Window, has had a significant impact, sparking backlash and igniting culture wars. The reclassification of established policies and values as ‘extreme’ due to vigorous left-wing advocacy has fundamentally destabilized the political landscape. Should this trend spread internationally, the consequences could be far-reaching and irreversible. Given America’s influence in global politics, such shifts have the potential to create instability worldwide.

Dr. Ronen Shoval is a Visiting Fellow in Jewish and Political Thought at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. His work focuses on the deep interplay between theology, politics, and society.

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