Libertarian Realism: Shifting Overton’s Window

Mitt Romney has a problem – a libertarian problem.

It’s not because the libertarian Republicans were poorly treated by the GOP establishment over the last 4 years. It’s not that Ron Paul supporters were called “Paulbots”, “Paultards”, “Psychos”, “Crazies”, and basic “domestic terrorists” by fellow Republicans and conservative pundits. It’s not because the RNC and the Romney campaign did everything possible to keep Ron Paul delegates out of the National Convention (1). It’s not because the RNC broke its own rules. It’s not because the RNC performed blatant scripted rule changes that constituted a massive and unprecedented power-grab (1).

These issues are annoying for libertarian Republicans to deal with among fellow Republicans, but the reasons why we will not vote for Romney are far more principled – and far less conventional – than Romney supporters realize.

Today’s conventional political system consists of a main two-party establishment. It is human nature to see things in black and white, but this is hardly ever the case – especially where politics are concerned. So why do we only have two parties? This question is, of course, rhetorical. There are various Parties beyond the Republican / Democrat false dichotomy that fight for entirely different outcomes based on entirely different arguments and premises. To say that the scope of all political thought is housed within two Parties and that these two candidates represent all necessary political thought is ridiculous. We need greater infusion and representation of ideas in our government, if our government is to succeed. Our political DNA has cross-mixed so much that we have ended up with ideologically inbred candidates. What we need are new ideological alleles in our political gene pool to realistically dominate the mutated options that are Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

Libertarian blogger, Connor Boyack, recently argued for several reasons why a Ron Paul supporter would not vote for Romney.

Let’s be clear—this isn’t just about campaign strategy and thuggish convention practices. The real reason why Ron Paul supporters aren’t lining up to help “defeat Obama” by voting for Romney is that they see little substantive difference between the two. There are myriad superficial differences, to be sure, but on foreign policy, civil liberties, the war on drugs, and a litany of domestic issues, there is no distinguishable contrast between candidates. Ron Paul’s crowd doesn’t get very excited over trading lots of big government for a little less big government (emphasis added).

As Boyack has indicated, there are far more substantive reasons why libertarian-Republicans will not vote for Romney than the conventional political constipation that plagues each election cycle.

But what are the effects of not voting for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama? What realistic outcome can we expect from voting third-party?

“A Third-Party Vote is a Vote for Obama”

If the Romney campaign isn’t concerned about its failure to unite the Party before and during the RNC, it should be. As Barbara Shoff explained on October 5, 2012,

With the most current poll showing Obama 48% and Romney 46% according the continuous poll by the Rasmussen polling agency, those Paulians (many of whom have pledged support to libertarian candidate Gary Johnson and other third party candidates) and their vote are becoming ever-more critical for Romney.

With Gary Johnson reaching double digits in Ohio polling and possibly pulling key voting blocs in Maine, Johnson is doing relatively well nationally in polling 6% … a number that could even climb between now and November 6.

Romney supporters are often left dumb-struck, asking why, if the election is so close between Mitt Romney and President Obama, are libertarian Republicans seemingly handing the election to Obama? Can’t they see that Romney, even if he’s not the best possible “libertarian” choice, is at least the best realistic choice that we have at beating Obama? In the very least, libertarian Republicans must share more commonalities with Romney than with Obama. After all, the most important point is to beat Obama, isn’t it? Why can libertarian Republicans not understand this?

Many Republicans believe that libertarian Republicans are far too idealistic, and that such idealism is going to destroy our country. It is time, they say, to be realistic. This is what one self-professed libertarian said, as he conventionally argued why he was supporting Mitt Romney,

There is a time for idealism and a time for realism, and for me, the time is for realism is now… On Tuesday November 6th, however, I will not be casting my vote for Gary Johnson – instead I will be casting it for Mitt Romney.

The truth of the matter is that the libertarian Republican’s voting third-party is not an idealistic protest. It has very little, if anything, to do with idealism at all. Abstaining from a Romney or Obama vote is a realistic action that, in the long-term, will do far more good for this country than voting for either Romney or Obama.

Shifting Overton’s Window

The Overton Window is a theory in political science developed by Joseph Overton, former vice president, of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy.

Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area… only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This “window” of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them.

The shifting “window” deals with ideas pertaining to “more freedom” and “less freedom”. The window – i.e. the realm of politically acceptable options – shifts along a spectrum of social acceptances. Along this spectrum are 6-degrees of acceptances:

  1. Unthinkable
  2. Radical
  3. Acceptable
  4. Sensible
  5. Popular
  6. Policy

There are two realistic ways in which a new idea can become a desired idea within this theory. In other words, there are two ways of shifting or expanding Overton’s Window.

First, as the picture above illustrates, a new idea itself can shift, change, and amend itself toward what is socially perceived as “sensible”. In doing so, the idea itself shifts towards becoming a desired idea within the window of social acceptance. This method of proposing new ideas implies vast amounts of concessions and compromise, as the new idea must go through radical changes to become socially and conventionally accepted as a desired idea. This is the method that Republicans en masse (e.g. Senator Rand Paul, and other seeming ‘libertarians’ who justify their support of / voting for Mitt Romney) see as the practical and realistic way of getting things done in a two-party system.

The second method, not illustrated in the graphic, is the course that uncompromising libertarian Republicans are taking. This second method is as realistic – if not more so – as the first, yet its application and adherence are confusing to those who are ingrained in only following the first method. Instead of the new idea shifting, the second method’s realistic aim is to shift social perception and convention itself to the new idea. Whereas the first method seeks to shift and amend ideas to fit into the window of social and conventional acceptance, the second method seeks to pull what is conventional towards the idea itself.

This shifting the window back towards the principled idea happens when drifting Parties realize that their support base will, in essence, “jump ship” unless they align (or, in this case, realign) with the “new idea”. As the growing number of libertarian Republicans continue to vote 3rd Party, the Republican Party will become more and more obsolete in the marketplace of ideas until it (1) either dies out entirely and is replaced by something more current that reflects the uncompromising new idea within society, or (2) it realigns itself back to its fundamental ideas and ideals that better reflect society’s ideal.

For libertarian Republicans these “new ideas” are not new at all. They are axiomatic concepts pertaining to life, liberty, freedom, and the rule of law as established under a Constitutional Republic. These “new ideas” promoted by the libertarian Republicans are the Republican Party’s “old ideas” of individualism, liberty, personal responsibility, freedom, individual accountability, and the rule of law under a Constitutional Republic that it has since abandoned for alternative collectivist-based policies. It does no good for libertarian Republicans to shift their principles to fit within the window of conventional acceptance, when by following the first method of concession and compromise the very bedrock and claim to these principles is mortally compromised.

Libertarian Realism: Voting Third-Party, Shifting Overton’s Window

Today, only conventional thought within a certain window is seen as realistic, as everything else outside the window is socially and politically perceived as idealistic. There comes a time, every-so-often, when idealistic concepts become realistic achievements. Reintroduced principles of liberty, freedom, and Constitutional rule of law are only new ideas to our generation, and the time for these ideas has come again. We are on the precipice of a revolution – a revolution of social acceptance of these principles. It will take time to fully implement these ideas by pulling back Overton’s Window – decades even – but power, strength, integrity, and legitimacy are found in consistency to uncompromising principles.

Deliverance from the tyranny of conventionalism is not gained by compromising principles, because principles are uncompromising. In reality, we can only compromise ourselves against principle in a conventional world.

By refusing to vote for Romney, the libertarian Republicans may lose a short-term and temporary battle with Obama’s reelection – and we are okay with that. We are okay with “splitting the vote”, because ours are long-term principled goals that are realistically pulling Overton’s Window back to these new ideas. In addition, libertarian Republicans realize that an executive officer — under the Constitution — is not a dictator or despot, and that people who socially ascribe more power to the office of the presidency than what the Constitution allows are those same people who will undoubtedly support “their guy” in office as he abuses Constitutional power.

We will not compromise on the principles of liberty, freedom, and the rule of law to expand the window of social convention. We will stand firm on principle, rocking the conventional system already in place by pulling it back towards the idea of these principles. We will take the short-term ridicule, and we will bear the inaccurate comparison between Ron Paul supporters and those who supported the third-party candidate, Ross Perot, two decades ago.

The difference between Ross Perot and Ron Paul is that Perot did not awaken, start, and unite an ongoing, uncompromising, realist, and living social movement of political and economic philosophers that will affect elections for decades to come. When Perot left the lime-light, so did his entire support base. The libertarian soul of the GOP, however, is strong, alive, and well. It here to stay – it is not going anywhere. I am not going anywhere.

Mitt Romney has intentionally driven a wedge in his own potential support base, and he has failed to unite the Party at almost every turn. This is his own fault and may likely prove his undoing. If Romney loses, his name will be lost to history as another relative nobody, because his ideas and vision for America are as nearly conventional and changing as the demographic from which he is eliciting votes.

However, the names and ideas of Ludwig von Mises, Friedrich Hayek, Frederic Bastiat, Murray Rothbard, and Ron Paul – while their ideas do not currently fall within society’s “window” and do not win the vote of social acceptance today – will be increasingly discussed for generations to come, because they were bold enough to proclaim an uncompromising principle of human integrity, liberty, dignity, and individual empowerment that transcends conventionalism.

Romney supporters who argue for their support of Romney under the guise of realism do not understand that the libertarian revolution is not an idealistic one – it is a realistic revolution of ideas that seeks to shake the foundation of conventional politics itself. Principles are not conventional – they are axiomatic, and therefore immutable.

When you hear a libertarian Republican say that they will not vote for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, you can most assuredly know that they are realistically working towards a brighter future for America than anything Mitt Romney or Barack Obama can promise, or even fathom.