We live within a society that is highly polarized in most political issues. Straddling this left-right dichotomy is the Overton window, which represents the range of policies that are acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time. But what happens when you’ve got marketing people in the office? You might see sound bite marketing being used to pull the center of the Overton window towards their side of the spectrum. In this follow-up to the previous episode on sound bites, Bill Stierle and Tom discuss some of the ways that Donald Trump and other politicians are steering policy into a direction that favors their interests. Touching on some prominent polarizing issues such as the Louisiana abortion debate, COVID-19, and mail-in voting, Bill and Tom dissect the administration’s tactics in manipulating the truth to make extreme policies seem normal.
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Truth, The Sound Bite, And The Overton Window
Last time, we talked about soundbites and how often it’s only the soundbite that counts. We did set up that in some ways, we’ll continue that conversation. There’s a very interesting way to look at soundbites in the context of something called the Overton window. I’m excited to talk about that.
The thing about the brain and communication is that you’ve got to tap it in one direction or another and sometimes a news media is boring. The reason why it’s boring is because they’re pitching a message that’s in alignment with this window of belief. We’ve talked a lot about communication and beliefs on the show. We’ve talked about communication, values, and needs. We’ve talked about communication based on a person’s preferences. Some people prefer things that are safer. Some people prefer things that are more risky and more creative. Some people prefer things that are more social. Some people prefer things that are more logical. We do get pulled around communication-wise.
The example of the Overton window is that policy is set right in the middle of this window. The only thing is on the one side of the window is the unthinkable. From so much freedom and so much chaos, it’s unthinkable. On the other side is less freedom. The authoritarian is that’s unthinkable. We’ve got brave new world on one side of the Overton window and we’ve got 1984 on the other side of the window. This window of policy, of popular belief, gets yanked back and forth. The small little messages are the way to do it. You’ve got to master and keep playing the soundbite because you’re trying to build the listener who doesn’t have time necessarily to process it.
You want to tip the scale. You should put another little thing, little doubt, little skepticism, little belief that’s on the side. It’s making extreme things move normal one way or another. The control narrative works one way and then the freedom and justice moves another direction. You’re going like, “We’re getting polarized on this window.” It’s stretching us, hurting our brains, and hurting our government because the adults are not fully in the room. The ideologues are in the room and that makes it difficult. That’s why you’ll see court cases and things like that. It’s this pulling back and forth.
What’s interesting is in the center is policy and then the same words or on either side of the Overton window. It’s a matter to which side you want to pull. It goes from policy to things that are popular, sensible, acceptable, radical and unthinkable. If you think of a pendulum of things being in balance, equilibrium may be in the center and then swinging to either side. It gets more out of balance and chaotic. Interestingly, we are at the time in the United States where the administration who’s in charge of government is continually trying to divide people and we are very polarized. We all expect that everything is going to be viewed from this team sports perspective, “You’re either on my team or not on my team.”Sound bites are the way to yank popular back and forth the opposing sides of the Overton window. Click To Tweet
There’s not a lot of gray area, sensible conversation, and civil discourse where a lot of times, I think Americans are forgetting we’re all Americans. There are many things we agree on. This is one example. There were cases argued before the Supreme Court as there are every season. One of the cases is a very political hot potato, a polarizing one, abortion. It was about this law that Louisiana had passed that severely restricted abortion. It effectively made it so that it was not practical for anybody to get an abortion who needed or wanted one in Louisiana. You had to leave the state to go and get one. There are examples and stories that you can read.
The woman who brought this case and eventually was brought up to the Supreme Court had to leave Louisiana and go to Texas to get an abortion when her third pregnancy had some serious genetic defects. That child was going to have a hard life. She and her husband decided to terminate the pregnancy. Not to argue into the politics of it, but to understand the frame of reference where it came from. Interestingly, the Louisiana law was nearly identical to a law that was passed by Texas and made it to the Supreme Court a few years ago. At that time, Justice Anthony Kennedy was still on the Supreme Court. While some viewed a swing vote, he definitely voted with the Liberal justices more often than not. They struck down that Texas law as unconstitutional and Chief Justice John Roberts who was on the court at the time wrote the dissent.
His was one of the votes for upholding the law in Texas. In this polarized political environment we are in and this team sports narrative, the general belief among Justice Scholars was that this Louisiana law was going to be upheld. There are believed to be five more conservative justices on the court that are going to uphold this Louisiana law, including Justice John Roberts who voted to uphold the Texas law years ago. That’s going to essentially be the end of abortion in Louisiana. Using this analogy of the Overton window, Justice John Roberts was seemingly pulling the pendulum back towards center. It’s interesting what he said. He said that while he did dissent in that previous case, he personally felt that the Texas law was constitutional, even though he may still feel that way personally about the Louisiana law, the Texas decision of this Supreme Court many years ago is now legal precedent. The rule of law is that precedent is more important. That is a very adult decision, a non-team sports decision. Would you agree, Bill?
Yes, it is. We’re all getting there moving forward. One, because you have these ideas on one side of the Overton window saying, “Here’s what my advocacy is and this is what my belief is.” The thing is you’ve got this whole other group over here going like, “Our belief is this.” “Yeah, but we have the court. Even though there are more of you over there, our team is going to get it and you don’t get your way.” John Roberts is going to be like, “I’m not going to do that. The rest of society is over here. I’m going with precedent. I am not going with my personal belief of this. I am not going to prevent this from taking place.”
Is Louisiana, the legislators, the people or the courts in there going to bring cases and try to move their way up to the Supreme Court? Of course, that’s called the process. The process is nobody likes abortion. I know nobody likes the experience of having to make the worst possible decision ever and to be torn about it. It’s up to the two adults, the doctors, their spiritual beliefs and those things for that human being to make that decision. Not to come from the government to say, “No, I’m sorry. You can’t do that. You don’t have control over your decisions.” It’s not the strongest. That’s why Roe v. Wade has been in place for such a long time because of that thing. We don’t want the government to overreach.
The other interesting thing is you hear a lot of political rhetoric all the time from both sides. This is not a political statement, but from the very right wing Conservative side and the very left wing Liberal side, you hear all discussion of, “We need to win the White House because we need to continue making the court more Conservative. We need to continue to appoint more Conservative judges so that decisions go our way.” It’s the same thing from the left and the Liberals is that, “We need to have them put on the White House so that if Ruth Bader Ginsburg dies, we’re going be able to put another Democratic judge back on the court and maintain the balance. Not have a tip more the other way. In fact, we want it to tip more to the left.”
What John Roberts said as the Chief Justice, and I would think he has this awesome responsibility as the biggest adult in the legal room, at least in this one major branch of our entire government institution, the justice system. What he’s saying is, “I am not going to be responsible for this court devolving into politics. This court is to uphold the rule of law. I may not have liked it, but that decision years ago is law. We are not here to turn over a law and make it the way we want it to be. We’re going to uphold the rule of law, whatever that is determined to be.” That type of adult thinking, not flat earth thinking is on the court. I think that precedents like Roe versus Wade are secure.
For people who have the need for choice to be in the front of the list ahead of government advocating or preventing a person from choice, this is a toughie because there are a lot of things that adults don’t like in the world. They have to be able to mourn the loss of something I don’t like. It doesn’t mean you can’t advocate for the things that you like. It doesn’t mean you’re going to step into this, but you’ve also got to think about, “How do we balance the needs of the individual, the needs of the unborn child or the need for choice in the entire process of things is tough.” It’s not an easy head nod one way or another.
If we slow down to get it, it’s not easy for me to say, “Tom, I’m going to vote for something. I’m going to take your choice away because I’m doing that.” It’s like, “I don’t know about that. Just because my team happens to have the legal vote, meanwhile the rest of the population is sitting on the other side going, ‘You guys got to cut it out.’” The Overton window on the other side of it is like, “That’s why the upheaval takes place. We don’t get a sense that anything is moving. We aren’t going to move it over to the unthinkable, the radical, the unacceptable. We’re going to move it over to that space because you’re not quite listening to this.” Putting on a timeline the 1,944 black Americans that have been killed by police is like, “No wonder why they’ve had it.”
It’s not a good thing. Why is it not a good thing? Because they are citizens. They are human beings. You don’t execute somebody. You can arrest them, but executing them? I don’t think so. That’s the thing to get ahold of. We’ve got to do a much better job of looking at what is inside the window, as well as staring down the craziness. What does the craziness mean? When somebody tries to move the Overton window, when they put something out on one of the fringes, it drags the center right to them. This is why comedians and all the late night talk shows have so much fun. They’re doing much better than the regular media does because they’re pointing out, “This is crazy. Stop this over here. This is an unthinkable thing. You need to look about it.”
It creates the wonderful feeling of skeptical. Skeptical tells us that our need for truth isn’t met. It tells us our need for trust isn’t met. Skeptical and doubt are one of the best emotions ever. We talk a lot about truth and trust on this show, about how do you language it and get it to move in your direction. It’s going to be interesting to see what the next way that our brain is going to be tapped by the next event. There’s been, “What’s going to tip it? What is going to make people say, ‘This is exhausting.’” Americans are getting hit on both sides of their head with a stick with this messaging. It’s hard and that’s the thing to experience being unsettled. That part of it is unsettling.We are so polarized that we expect that everything is going to be viewed from a team sport perspective. Click To Tweet
What’s interesting to see is that not all Republicans anyway are in lockstep together with the President and advocating for those messages, hitting with the stick. Many Republicans are very unhappy with what’s happening to the point where they don’t think it’s good for the country, and that’s how you get an organization like The Lincoln Project. We need to add them to this conversation because the President is moving the Overton window close further away from the center to the radical. What many of us think is unthinkable or would have thought was unthinkable before ends up happening. The Lincoln Project is trying to pull the window back to the center through their messaging because they don’t believe what the administration is doing is right for the country. They’re being very vocal about it in quite an ineffective way. At least, it appears that way to me.
They’re doing a better job of the small messages that are getting out of there. It’s another tap on that side of the brain. It’s like, “You’ve been tapped on the side of the brain this way. We’ve got to tap it on the other side of the brain.” It’s like, “I see that point of view. Now, I’m able to get there.” It’s the people that call themselves undecided. Undecided about what? Why are they undecided? Because a part of them sees one thing one way or a part of them sees things in another way. Is it emotionally unsafe to pick a side? “I don’t want to play the game anymore,” which is literally a strategy. If I make it emotionally unsafe to vote, emotionally unsafe to talk about politics, I get somebody that’s a non-voter, which is on my side. I want the non-voter on my side. Regrettably, Donald Trump’s Republicans are interested in that equation. It’s scary. That’s a little bit more of where the truth gets pulled on both sides. Even you and I are pulling it.
What’s interesting to me is The Lincoln Project thinks a lot of the President’s assault on truth is so radical and unthinkable. They don’t like that the Republican brand has been hijacked by President Donald Trump’s brand of authoritarianism.
That’s authoritarian capitalism.
What they’re doing is putting out messages that to me, since the Overton window’s language used there, but I keep thinking to myself, “These Republicans are being sensible.” They’re putting country over party. I respect that and it makes me think, “If one of these guys would speak this truth and run for office, I might consider to vote for them.” It’s a perspective meter in some ways.
It’s like this person looks sensibility, but it’s moved them as being more in the center. Meanwhile, the people on the other end are going like, “We’re trying to be reasonable over here, but you’re doing slash and burn politics over there.” There was even a talk that even if Hillary Clinton would have been elected, the Republicans would have blocked her filling the other justice seat. They would have locked her for another four years. I would have sat there and go, “No, we’re not voting on this. We’re waiting until our guy gets in.” That is the thing that’s unsettling. It’s not live with, work with, and trying to make a good point. It’s, “We want it our way, and our way is at the expense of anything, truth, honesty, information, facts. We’re not interested in that. We’re interested in our way through the people that are funding our campaign, through the voters that believe in our way, and they’re going to vote for us.
We can’t even do a small little version of truth. We’re going to get hammered. We can’t advocate for truth. We have to advocate for beliefs.” It comes out of my mouth and I feel the most unsettled by it. John McCain stands on stage and says to a woman, “I’m sorry, he’s not Muslim. Vote on me for my values and my ideas about how to run the country.” The rest of the country or the people that see him on that side are going like, “He’s advocated for truth.” They don’t say, “He’s a man of integrity. I’m going to vote for him.” They go, “We’ve been calling him a Muslim for years. He’s not on our side anymore because he’s not believing what we’re believing.” All of a sudden, they get mad at him.
To me, you’ve got to respect the man for speaking truth. It would have been easy for him to have fan those flames of racism or religious. You’ve got to respect him for it. To me, he put America over party in that instance. There are two other examples that we can talk about with the Overton window. One of them is mask wearing and it’s changing. It’s interesting why it’s changing. You saw at Donald Trump’s rally in Tulsa, almost nobody was wearing a mask. Wearing masks has become politicized. People that tend to be on the side of the Overton scale, wanting more freedom would say, “I don’t want to wear a mask. If you make me wear a mask, you’re being oppressive and you’re infringing on my freedom.”
That tended to have been a Conservative mantra or a position, and then wearing a mask in terms of thinking more about protecting everyone, the needs of the man, over the needs of my individual rights has been more of a view on the left side of the political spectrum. I think that’s unfortunate that that has happened. It’s obvious that that has been happening, but what do you see happening is that there is such an increase in cases of Coronavirus and in hospitalizations in this country. There’s a concern that this has gotten out of control. Every state opened up too soon and people start gathering. They all spread the virus and they’re getting sick. We may get to the point where there’s an executive order given by Donald Trump out of necessity to mandate mask wearing nationwide. Many states are already doing it. It’s interesting that the virus itself, that’s not political, is maybe pulling the Overton window back toward a policy in the center.
That’s a great way to think about it. The virus is going like, “You guys can argue all you want. I’m personalizing the virus. I appreciate the opportunity to spread, carry throughout the world and have my time on the planet. Thank you so much for allowing me to move from China to this country.” It’s disheartening to think about Texas and Florida going over 5,000 and 6,000 new cases. That’s a toughie because we’re looking at the numbers in such a way that somebody can argue this as political or as against freedom. They can even argue the dangers of this experience, but lives are at stake. It’s not until my uncle dies in a nursing home from COVID. That doesn’t feel good on my side of the fence. Flat world is only what I see. My flat world is that my uncle died from COVID in a nursing home. Am I believing it now? I believed it before, but now I’ve had four people. I’m one person away from that person dying from COVID. That doesn’t feel very good. That’s my world.
You’re right, there is still a flat earth mindset though. I had the opportunity to be at a very small gathering, but a gathering nonetheless of people not related from different areas and don’t live together. For two days, the way that gathering was initially everybody had masks on. Over the course of the two days, by the end of it, nobody had a mask on. One of the people there was a woman who was pregnant. There became this false sense of security that we all know each other and nobody appears to be sick. Nobody was wearing masks and thinking back on it, that was probably irresponsible. Talking about the Overton window and things that can pull it back to the center, I think there are a lot of people in the flat earth mindset.Skepticism is one of the best emotions ever. It tells us that our need for truth and trust isn't met. Click To Tweet
I heard a lot of people say, “I don’t know anybody. Do you know anybody?” I said, “My friend Bill has an uncle.” It’s like many steps away from you. When you have countries like the European Union about to issue a travel ban and not allow people from the United States to travel to Europe, there is a huge reality check, which is pulling that Overton window back from the radical and unthinkable that we’re making too much of this virus. It’s not real and it’s only affecting people that are immunocompromised. It brings it back to the reality of, “This is a serious situation that we’ve got to deal with and here’s where truth lies.”
Your freedom is being lost. You’re gaining freedom inside your country. The rest of the world is going to wait until you get your act together and until you handle your own business. It’s going to wait for you to do the adult thing and protect yourselves. It’s going to wait for you to deescalate this. Think about no travel at the United States. I’m escalating it all the way to the unthinkable because it’s not unthinkable.
The interesting thing is during the whole lockdown pandemic, I was planning to go to China and that didn’t happen. I didn’t think it was safe. I didn’t want to go to China but for some of my business, at some point, I need to go to China. I’m thinking, “China is not going to let me go there.” They’re not going to let Americans go over to China with the state of things here. It’s going to be a lot longer. I’ll be lucky if I get to go over there at all in 2020. It may not be until sometime in 2021. This is going to be forced upon us.
There’s one more good topic that we could look at through the lens of the Overton window and maybe that’s a good one to wrap up this episode on. It’s a big one though and that’s mail-in voting. It’s a good one, especially because there’s been some news here. You’ve seen President Donald Trump move toward the radical and unthinkable when it comes to mail-in voting and labeling it as fraud. He’s been speaking out against it. It’s not been in alignment with truth. When you go in and analyze states that have a significant amount of mail-in voting, there are some states that are entirely mail-in voting like the State of Washington.
Utah is pretty close too.
There are a number of states that do it in this way. I’m not saying there’s no fraud, but there’s not enough fraud.
That little thing that you said there, “I’m not saying that there’s no.” It’s giving credit to the minuscule, which then raise the scale from the minuscule to be 5% or 10%. That’s small but it’s 0.000 because of the diligence of people counting this and the double-checking that takes place to have certainty that this is associated with this. The level of detail at the voting level is so high that the people in charge of that are so loyal to the United States. They are so detail-oriented. They match the name with the vote and it is with the address or all the different things that they do to match it. It’s not saying that their sum is a casual way to say, “What is it? 1%, 5%, 10%?” It’s none of those things. It’s, “Look at how I’m pulling the window back,” which is exactly what we’re supposed to be doing on this show. Don’t even make it wrong. It’s like, “Our language is set up to allow the possibility instead of going, ‘What’s the reality?’”
I was trying to make sure that what I said remained in alignment with truth, not to an extreme position that there is no fraud in mail-in voting.
It’s crazy how little there is from how diligent these people that are in the counting place. Your sentence is okay from an absolute. It’s not absolute, but it’s also not anywhere near 1%.
Truth be told, there is fraud in in-person voting. I don’t think either system is immune from that. The systems of voting in the United States of America are already pretty darn detailed. The amount of voter fraud that exists should not be our biggest concern in this country. It tends to be a good partisan talking point when you don’t win an election to question the vote, how much fraud was there, and to try to shine a light on that. I wasn’t trying to open that can of worms to get into that long discussion right now, but it does move the window away from center for sure. The thing is Donald Trump’s trying to paint the picture that mail-in votes can’t be trusted. He personally fears losing an election and is trying to cast doubt on election results before they even happen if mail-in voting is a predominant way that people vote, especially with Coronavirus. Interestingly, he’s been throwing all kinds of shade on that and dragging the window to the extreme on that one.
He is good at marketing, selling, and branding. He messages things that are so not true. One of the qualities of getting a sale is to create uncertainty, “You might not get this unless you buy it now. This thing is going away and if you don’t get on my side, I’m going to go away.” He’s literally selling himself. Even the window of whether or not he’s going to drop out in the race which is something that’s been leaked out into the environment by his party is like, “If he gets too far behind, he won’t even run because he doesn’t want to lose.” All that does is create uncertainty that, “I am going to get this other guy that is not on my team.” Instead of, “I’m going to get arrest from the barrage of untruth that I’m getting from this other character,” and yanked around.People will die for their need for freedom. Click To Tweet
Our brains have been conditioned through capitalism and through purchasing things. “Buy now, it’s going to go away. You don’t want to feel regret. You’ll feel regret if Donald Trump goes away. You already voted for Donald Trump. Remember how he makes you feel and you laugh at how he picks funds that are Liberals and how he does to X, Y, Z?” It’s like, “I don’t want it to go away because what else am I going to get?” Now I got to complain about this other guy who’s way worse. Why is he way worse? For many years, this guy has been telling us that, “It’s the Democrats that are preventing me from doing things.”
Instead of going, “They’re trying to hold the fort down through the hurricane so that there’s a little bit of the house left to rebuild,” but that’s my bias and my belief structure. Their belief structures go like, “No, I believe him. Democrats are crazy. They riot. Republicans don’t riot. We never riot. We never go out in public with guns and sit on a State House in Michigan. We never do that.” I’m putting a truth of, “Yeah, but we didn’t break anything down. We peacefully protested with our guns.” It’s like, “Are you kidding me? I’m liking your reality shift here. I don’t think I like the way you paint this because that could have went south quickly,” but it didn’t luckily. It’s a difficult conversation, but I appreciate this voting thing because it’s pulling the window in the direction that you’re talking about here.
I’m not done yet because there’s an irony here and a parallel to the whole mass squaring discussion. Certain states like Washington have entirely mail-in voting. There are senators and congressmen at the national level from Washington that both agree that mail-in voting is safe. They were proponents of this for years and letting the country know that the truth is mail-in voting is the best way to preserve everyone’s vote and not have it be hijacked. There’s evidence of that. Even in California, we all have the option to vote by mail. We have to request a ballot. I get a mail-in ballot every time and I can mail it in if I want or I can go and vote in-person and turn in that ballot.
I can surrender that mail-in ballot and vote in-person. There are systems in place to deal with this. There was an interesting report on NBC news where the person in charge of mail-in voting in Washington State is a woman. She’s a Republican. She is one of the first to say that the mail-in voting system is real. It is not a fraud. It is reliable. However, she also was the first to say that it is too late now to get any other states up to speed with the proper systems, equipment, and processes to be able to have all those citizens vote by mail and it still would take a lot of support from the federal government in terms of funding for the National Election States.
It would need tens of millions of dollars to buy the equipment and put the people in place and the systems to be able to vote by mail. Here comes the European Union saying, “Americans, you may not be able to travel to Europe,” pulling them over back to the center. What I’m saying is the very practical reality of the logistics, infrastructure and funding because Donald Trump’s administration has had no interest whatsoever in funding mail-in voting. The reality is pulling us back to the center here from the extreme. It can’t happen for this National Election in November 2020, as much as it would be nice to allow everybody to vote by mail. Whatever systems are in place in every state to vote are the systems that are in place. You’re going to have to stick with them. You can’t redo it at this late juncture. That’s the reality check.
I’m enjoying this conversation because what truth looks like is you can run out the clock and that’s another way to get your truth to not be acted upon. I feel more confident about Americans and voting because if Americans are going to go out and protest in the streets, be in public and wear masks mostly, but not the way it goes, they’re going to go out and risk their lives to get their need for being heard met. I’m feeling a great deal of confidence that they’re going to stand in line at a voting booth with a mask on or thereabouts. They’re going to go in there and vote because this is one of the fallacies of the Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, pyramid, safety and security down here. This on top of this, the series of needs, and then higher functioning up here. That’s not the way human beings work. We will die for our need for freedom. We will sacrifice life. We are not interested in safety when it comes to things. We’ll die for a medal and to meet our need for recognition. I’m not particularly one of them but there are people who do that.
I know people that would crawl over a football field of broken glass to vote against Donald Trump in November 2020. I know people that would do the same to vote for Donald Trump.
The voting is going to go the way the voting goes. The sadness of it is that the economy’s going to be setback again because the need for physical safety and physical health won’t be met. We’re going to look at December and January as another time for another spike. Is that what we’re doing here? Just take a breath because I’m shaking my head and it’s coming out of my mouth and I’m going like, “Not another one of these things,” but we’re literally heading towards the end of the summer going like, “What the heck happened to our summer? We’re stuck inside again.”
The window is pulled again. You and I are going to have some Overton window experience. You’ll hear it on the news media, they’re going to do the, “Yeah, but you can’t prove that 100%.” It’s like, “I don’t need to. I’ve got to get it to 80% or 90% or 99%. I don’t need to get it all the way to cover everything to make your small truth the same as my large truth. I have this evidence over here.” This is the small truth and this is the large truth. We’ve got to continue to scale things to its proportionality because otherwise what winds up happening is that we’re getting pulled around with those various different beliefs and people want to believe it. It’s very unsettling.
What do you think next time? Shall we take a look at how the economy is going to function? How does an economy in a political world function with a perception of truth that has multiple facets to it? There are people that are out there in the world going around like, “I’m trying to live my life the way it is.” Meanwhile, the rest of the people are not participating in that. They’re going like, “I’m staying home to be safe. Sorry. Good luck. Too bad for you.” It’s very unsettling. Truth in the messages.
It’s a mind-boggling world. Thank you for helping us understand it and make a little more sense of it, Bill. I appreciate that.
Thanks, Tom. Thanks, everybody, for reading.