2017 is the year when every unthinkable idea became thinkable again

The Overton window has been smashed. What's next?

The 2017 smash.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Image courtesy REUTERS/Carlos Barria)

Most Americans thought 2017 would be the year this country finally smashed the glass ceiling. Few suspected we'd smash the Overton window instead.

If you aren't familiar with it, the Overton window refers to the range of ideas that are reasonably well "tolerated in public discourse." It's basically a measure of what you can say in polite company. One of the alt-right's objectives has long been to "shift" this window so that — by dint of repetition in public (through venues like Breitbart and InfoWars) — white supremacist ideas can work their way back into the mainstream. This is considered a first step toward destigmatizing undisguised racism and eugenics so that far-right politicians like Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) can openly espouse ideas that — for a few short decades, anyway — constituted a third rail in our political landscape.

On this front, the alt-right has succeeded. They have a weak president whose ego-defining need for approval has him regularly bowing to his extremist base. President Trump's reluctance to unequivocally condemn the white nationalists who murdered Heather Heyer in Charlottesville was a victory for them, and they knew it. He's embraced their hatred of brown-skinned immigrants, condemning both those with connections to this country for suspicious "chain migration" and immigrants without any such connections — who come in through a lottery system instead — as suspicious characters. He has inflamed every sheltered white American's fear to the screaming point. His message is simple: Everyone who looks different than you is scary and out to take things that you think are yours. Build walls! Hide in your house! Keep them out and jail them! He's not a person who can cope with truth, so instead he feeds the fear and the anger. "Whether the video is real, the threat is real," White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said after Trump tweeted a video whose claims were proved to be untrue, and that's really this administration's motto.

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I'm not telling you anything you don't know. But I want to clarify this side of the equation because one interesting (and less understood) consequence of the right's narrowing of its commitments — to hysterical suspicion of brown skin and uncritical worship of the super rich — has been that people from the center- to far-left have expanded the discourse of the sayable too.

As the GOP has embraced Russia on the right, socialism is something even sometime centrists are seriously considering. As the stock market stops bearing any true relation to how people on the ground are living, capitalism is no longer seen as the only principle of governance. Consequently, the equation of corporations with "job creators" is fading. Trickle-down economics has finally become the joke many always knew it to be. The idea that corporate needs are a good proxy for human needs is being re-examined — not just by the far left, but by people who might never have reached similar conclusions under a Clinton presidency.

Universal health care used to be a pipe dream. It's becoming a standard Democratic talking point. Sexism used to evince eye-rolls and charges over oversensitivity; now men are — to no one's surprise more than my own — seeing actual consequences for decades of abusing the women in their professions. As the scope of the professional challenges women have spent decades facing down becomes legible to those who never bothered to look, the very people who used to minimize women's claims are quietly wondering how on Earth they managed for so long.

I don't think we've reached that tipping point into a broader understanding of racism, but anyone who thought racism was "over" because America elected a black president certainly understands just how wrong they were. The rise of American Nazis has demonstrated that white supremacy is so fragile that its response to a single president of a different race was to fall in love with the Confederacy and elect a know-nothing without even rudimentary competence. Their solution was to burn it all down.

This is instructive. The alt-right's best efforts have yielded an unexpected result: The Overton window hasn't shifted; it's smashed. The frame is gone, and every idea that used to be unthinkable is on the table again. Our most basic assumptions of what a society should be and do are being renegotiated.

As we look to 2018, I hope that we can see the possibilities.

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