Let me share with you three quick stories. First, the campus radicals are at it again. Yesterday a coalition of students at Brown University published an open letter objecting to the university’s decision to host Townhall’s Guy Benson for a discussion about “The Millennial Conservative.” These students researched Guy and concluded that he would likely “make arguments in support of the freedom of any person to make hateful, oppressive, or damaging remarks based on their constitutionally protected right to free speech.”
They weren’t claiming that Guy would make such terrible remarks. Instead they were arguing that his position in support of free speech was just too toxic to be heard. Here’s the key paragraph:
So often, popular conversations around free speech focus on the right of people with power or who hold privileged identities (i.e. who are white, or cisgender men, or wealthy, or able bodied, etc.) to espouse hateful rhetoric which actively makes others less safe. Rarely do these mainstream conversations on free speech consider the urgent need for people of color and other marginalized people to speak back against systems of oppression for their own self-preservation.
That’s a long, academic way of saying “Free speech for me, but not for thee.” By now, it’s the common cry of the campus activist and their faculty allies. We’ve heard it at colleges and universities from coast to coast.
The next story comes from Hamilton County, Ohio. There a judge is deciding whether a family can retain custody of their own daughter after the parents refused to facilitate her female-to-male transition. They refused to call the 17-year-old by her “chosen” male name and refused hormone treatments. She threatened suicide, and now a court is trying to determine whether the mother and father have rights to their own child.
The third story is a tad dated, at least by the absurd speeds of modern news cycles. I’d like to bring you back to the ancient days of last month, when James Damore filed a comprehensive lawsuit against Google, arguably the most powerful corporation in the world, alleging the existence of a social-justice culture that a Brown student would envy. According to Damore, Google was a place where its managers would punish mainstream conservative thought at the same time that it hosted a talk on “living as a plural being” by a person who identified as a “yellow-scale wingless dragonkin.”
So to those who say that extremism is confined to campus, Google itself replies: Dragonkin, yes; conservatives, no.
I’ve written about this before, but one of the most useful frameworks for understanding the culture war is the “Overton window.” Developed by the late Joseph Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, it simply refers to the acceptable range of political discourse on any given topic. It’s perhaps the ultimate expression of the triumph of culture over politics. If you can move the range of acceptable discourse to the left or right, you can “win” even if your party loses.
Let’s take two different examples — one on the left, the other on the right. It’s beyond dispute that the Left has decisively moved the Overton window on gay marriage. Consider the fact that a mere 22 years ago, a Democratic president signed the Defense of Marriage Act, designed specifically to blunt the newly emerging gay-marriage movement. The bill passed the House 342–67 and passed the Senate 85–14.
By 2015, the Obama administration was openly questioning whether religious colleges could keep their tax exemptions if they declined to sanction gay couples. In 2018, the Supreme Court is considering whether a baker can be legally compelled to use his artistic talent to help celebrate a gay wedding.
But lest anyone think that the Left always wins cultural battles, let’s consider gun rights. This chart, from David Kopel, shows the change in gun laws from 1986 to 2014. In 1986, less than 10 percent of the American population had “shall issue” access to concealed-carry permits. By 2014? The change was staggering:
Since 2014, gun rights have only accelerated. As our own Charlie Cooke has demonstrated, “constitutional carry” — where there is no requirement of a state permit to carry a lawfully owned firearm — is on its way to becoming the law of the land in most of the geographic area of the United States and applicable to up to 41 percent of the population.
This is an astounding transformation, every bit as breathtaking in its own right as the change in marriage law. In most states, the Overton window moved to the right, and it’s still moving right.
We can do this issue by issue, but an issue-based focus obscures a larger and far more significant reality. We’re no longer fighting about “the” Overton window. Our differences have grown so profound that “the” window has broken. We’ve got two windows now. One for red. One for blue.
Since 1994 the Pew Research Center has been studying political polarization in the United States, and you can watch the two windows form right in front of your eyes. Here are two images that show the difference between the political positions of the “median Republican” and “median Democrat” in the “general public” in 1994 and in 2017:
And this brings us back to the three stories that started this piece. There is a difference, I believe, between progressives and conservatives. Given their control of the academy, legacy media, and Hollywood — along with their intense geographical concentration in large, urban enclaves — progressives are not only racing further to the left, they’re also deceiving themselves about their cultural strength.
They think they’re “winning” when they’ve really moved mainly themselves. The other window either remains unmoved or moves right in response. Arguments on the far-left side of the blue Overton window (like campus temper tantrums) are greeted with complete incredulity and open mockery on the right.
In fact, even progressive conventional wisdom (such as the notion that a man can become a woman) is at best on the far-left edge of the Republican Overton window. At best. Similarly, I’d challenge a Republican to walk into a Brooklyn coffee shop and find a single person who didn’t think you were a violent bigot for believing that Caitlyn Jenner is still a man and that the Second Amendment alone grants you the right to carry a weapon.
We may have exhausted all the “why Trump won” arguments, so I won’t go there. But I will say that the notion that one Overton community will govern the other is increasingly infuriating and even terrifying to the losers of national political contests. That’s why — even if control in narrowly divided houses of Congress changes hands — true “waves” will be hard to find. As the midterms move closer, that’s a key reason why the margin in the generic congressional ballot keeps narrowing. For Republicans, it’s one thing to express anger or contempt at either a free-spending GOP establishment or a chaotic Trump administration. It’s quite another thing to stand by and let the dragonkin rule.
— David French is a senior writer for National Review, a senior fellow at the National Review Institute, and an attorney.