The Overton Case for Gary Johnson

Photo Credit: Gage Skidmore

“The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas the public will accept.”


The 2016 election cycle has been somewhat of a dystopian roller coaster ride, at its best. Dubbed “the most interesting man in politics” by Time magazine, libertarianish GOP senator Rand Paul was slated by MSNBC’s Chris Matthews to become the future President of the United States. His policies were ones that most Americans could identify with, those of checking special interests, balancing the budget, ending senseless war, criminal justice reform and enacting intelligent tax and entitlement reform: deemed sensible on the Overton window. I too, saw great hope in the humble ophthalmologist changing the vision of America, and turning the tide on conservatism and the American political climate, bringing it more in line with libertarianism. His poll numbers showed him easily defeating Hillary Clinton. What no one expected was the rise of populist anger of unexpected proportions, having seen the rise of the “anti-establishment” candidates in Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders.

overton windowDonald Trump successfully captured the GOP nomination, riding on the disenfranchised blue collar voter, by using a mix of unrealistic mercantilist and nativist ideas, having earned more media than any presidential candidate, by using bombast and controversy, and self-funding campaign, utilizing an “I’ve got nothing to loose” attitude and message. Bernie, on the other hand successfully captured portions of disaffected middle and upper middle class youth by using a similar pattern of unrealistic demagoguery, by promoting an unsustainable system of promised entitlements, coupled with careful rebrandings of Ron Paul’s campaign planks. With his eventual endorsement of a highly disliked and perceived corrupt Hillary Clinton, Bernie lost a large number of independent supporters that he was supposed to bring into the Democratic Party, because of his perceived honesty and perceived concern of the voter.

Ignoring the Overton window seems to have caused huge problems for Donald Trump, coupled with his general unfavorability among youth, Republican voters and independents, and lack of campaign organization. Hillary alienated a large number of independent voters with her history of promoting cronyism and war, coupled with never ending troubles concerning confidential material being leaked or mishandled.

Due to such drastic circumstances, the media could no longer ignore the Libertarian candidacy of a successful two term Governor of New Mexico, who had little exposure before. Having reached 12% in a lot of polls, pole position in polls with active duty troops and youth under 25, and possibility of entering the debate stage, Gary Johnson has come under flak by libertarians of all stripes for supposedly having abandoned libertarian principles. But has he?

An important way to look at Gary’s candidacy and possible success would be through the Overton window, and the historical examples of the Goldwater and Reagan campaigns. In 1964, Goldwater ran on a highly hawkish-libertarian platform, that ended up in the worst drubbing ever faced by a Republican presidential candidate. He was tagged a warmonger (some credence to the claim exists) and a racist (he was anything but, rather a bulwark of societal integration he had championed for decades, however opposed to forced federal integration). His views and movement was much akin to Trump’s today, and seemed radical on the Overton window. Someone who smartly took note of the reasons for this drubbing, was a yet-to-be California governor, who had just delivered the famous “A Time for Choosing” speech at the 64 GOP convention. Ronald Reagan took the perceived radical views of Goldwater conservatism and diluted it just enough to be deemed acceptable by the public, with viewpoints ranging between sensible and acceptable in the Overton windows, for a nation that was losing hope in itself and its leadership, after numerous humiliating experiences in the 1970s. Timing was key.

A more recent, yet largely forgotten (by the general public) revolution was led by Ron Paul, whose libertarian-conservative views ignited a limited government Tea Party revolution, that lost its identity (having been hijacked by far right elements, whose often nativist views were often antithetical to Paul’s), leading to Trumpism. The story of the Ron Paul revolution was a rather tragic one, having earned massive grassroots support, but lacked popular support due to his views being deemed radical (when viewed through the Overton window). However, with similar, yet slightly different circumstances to the Reagan revolution, Gary Johnson stands today as heir to the Ron Paul revolution, sharing a majority of Paul’s views, the same way the Gipper inherited Goldwater conservatism. His emphasis on “America is socially tolerant and fiscally responsible” plays directly into the acceptable and sensible categories of the Overton window, with a large number of mainstream American voters sharing his concerns over reckless war mongering, crony capitalism, criminal justice reform and personal success.

A popular and valid concern about Gary Johnson for a lot of social conservatives and libertarians is over his perceived stance on religious liberty. Often misunderstood, Gary has chosen to abandon the traditional opposition of the Civil Rights Act by libertarians (viewed as radical), and instead fit into the Overton window, by taking a acceptable stance in compliance with the Civil Rights Act, by allowing for business owners to not sell products they normally wouldn’t offer, such as a custom decorated product, but allowing for civil rights discrimination protection by not allowing denial of sale of goods normally on their portfolio.

If Gary manages to get on the debate stage (having gotten significant messaging and public speaking polishing), and attacks Hillary and Trump with libertarian principles, adapting Ron Paul-esque, but largely libertarian viewpoints within the Overton window, the same way the Gipper did with Goldwater conservatism in 1979 with Carter, one can’t really tell where Gary would end up with a demoralized, disenfranchised, largely politically independent America, with newly found momentum. Maybe he might just find himself climbing into the highest elected office in the free world, and promote ideas of responsible, limited government for decades to come.

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