• 100 Influential Idahoans 2015
You can find it all here in the Pacific Northwest - much of the nation's most beautiful places, some appallingly trashed-out areas; politics running from just about as far left to just about as far right as anywhere in the country; economies of all sorts from the highly prosperous to the dying. It's all here.
 

“Words matter. Stories matter. Context matters. These three facts should be self- evident, but are increasingly blurred through lenses of political partisanship. This is not a glossary of political terms, but it is a great introduction to how our views on issues-and even certain words themselves-can lead to our own isolation from one another as Americans.” – Former ambassador and member of Congress Tony Hall

“In a world where words often do not mean what we assume, Stapilus offers us a treasure-trove of help. The hope is that even if we can’t be on the same page, perhaps we can find our way toward coherent conversation by a common vocabulary.” – Wm Paul Young, author The Shack, Cross Roads, Eve and Lies We Believe About God

We talk past each other. Often.

And the words we use often mean something different to someone else than they do to us.

The failure to consider the meaning of what we say is a problem, because if the words had been considered more carefully, some personal ideas might not have come out – or been formed – the way they were.

There’s been a great deal of talk in the last decade and more about the abuse of facts, or of purported facts: Simply lying about facts has become increasingly flagrant, to the point of mass invention of supposed quotes. (A friend has developed a website devoted to correcting fictitious attribution of often well-known quotes.) The poisoned common well of information is serious trouble for a society that purports to work together in self-government.

But the trashing of words … many of the most basic words in our political language … makes the matter much worse. We rapidly find that we speak in practice not in a common American English but, often, in separate tongues, one for the “red,” one for the “blue.”

So here’s the personal introduction: As a writer, and as writer about politics, I’m sick and tired of it. Consider what follows a call for restoring a common language and concept about our politics – not similarity of judgment, but at least a common line of communication.

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The point has been made, for many purposes, that the original draft of the United States Constitution required that every person in the country be counted in a once-every-ten-years census.

It did exempt “Indians not taxed” and provided a numerical discount – “three fifths of all other Persons,” for slaves. The point generally however was that the census was intended to count everyone, even then. It did not exempt non-citizens, and didn’t exclude people who were incarcerated.

That point underlies a Nampa story (in the Idaho Press) last week sure to interest political strategists looking a step ahead beyond 2020, when Idaho like other states redistricts its congressional and legislative districts to account for changes in population.

The census already is gearing up (have you seen the employment notices sprouting all over?) but details about the numbers and processes of the effort are moving ahead of even that. One of the most eye-catching reports concerns the Idaho prison complex in southern Ada County.

More than half of Idaho’s state prisoners, about 5,600 of them, are housed there. They are non-voters, but they are counted in the census as residents of that location rather than wherever their previous home might have been. Their location is in the bounds of legislative district 22, which takes in Kuna and most of southern and southwestern Ada County, and they make up about 12 percent of the residents of the district.

You can turn that around and look at it this way: Fewer votes are needed to elect a member of the legislature from District 22. This is not much of a partisan matter; this area long has been heavily Republican and the margins between the parties (whenever a Democrat does run here) aren’t close. But the fact that fewer voters are needed to elect here means that voters here are more powerful than in, say, a district based in Meridian or Eagle.

You can say some of the same in congressional terms. The prison complex is in Idaho’s first congressional district, meaning that voters there are incrementally more powerful than those in the second district.

The Idaho Press story added that, “the phenomenon became known as ‘prison-based gerrymandering.’ The Census Bureau has faced criticism for this, and has so far stood its ground. It announced it will not change the way it counts prisoners in 2020.”

Census doesn’t really deserve the hashing, though, even if some of the results seem a little locally odd. The idea of the census is a little like that of an opinion poll: It’s intended to be a snapshot in time rather than a three- or four-dimensional image. It’s intended to take a picture of where we are at a given moment rather than in some deeper sense. Are you and I “from” the place where we will be spending tonight? Maybe, maybe not. But we’ll never get a clear overall picture if we start making exceptions.

The census rules actually do seem to approach exceptions territory at times. As one description (by Pew Research Center) put it, people are supposed to be counted at a specific location if they, “Live or stay at the residence most of the time; OR stayed there on April 1, 2010 and had no permanent place to live; OR stay at the residence more time than any other place they might live or stay.” There’s a little room for ambiguity in this, in the case, for example, of some college students.

But the prisoners are stuck in place.

That means this is going to lead to some warping of the system in places. But we can hope that the little warps in the counting will, for the most part, cancel each other out around the country. It’s not a perfect system, but we should be able to live with it.

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A few thoughts about a couple of comments from the Idaho congressional delegation on the prospective impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Note first the fact that this delegation has said as much as it has, which though it isn’t a lot, still makes it one of the more vocal Republican state delegations around the country.

Representative Mike Simpson issued this on September 25: “Democrats have been threatening to impeach President Trump before he was sworn into office. To date, I have seen nothing that warrants impeachment, and there have certainly been ample opportunities to analyze their many accusations during their countless investigations. However, they have their constitutional right to proceed in their relentless endeavor. I, for one, believe the American people deserve more from their elected officials. Our country faces real issues including immigration reform, cyber-security, and funding the federal government for fiscal year 2020 which starts next week, and we should be focused on those things.”

We’ll come back to the substance of the charges, but for now think a second about the “real issues” – which, yes, are real issues – the representative urges Congress to focus on. What he leaves unsaid is: Why can’t Congress go ahead and do those things?

Of course it can, if it chooses. The impeachment-inquiry activity, central a topic of discussion as it may be, is preoccupying the actual work of only a small portion of the House of Representatives – mainly one committee, and peripherally a couple of others – and most of the work of the chamber can and does go on. In the last couple of weeks the Idaho congressional delegation has issued a bunch of press releases outlining its progress and activity on a variety of fronts, from rural lands payments to anti-Semitism, having nothing to do with impeachment. I just attended a town hall meeting held (in another state) by a member of Congress, and impeachment occupied no more than three or four minutes of the hour-long session. If impeachment brings congressional things to a slower grind than usual, that’s not because it has to.

Of course, you have to wonder how much progress the Congress this term would make on many really significant subjects anyway, even if the prospect of impeachment were nowhere in sight.

Simpson naturally is entitled to his read of what does or doesn’t constitute reasonable grounds for impeachment; odds are he (and Representative Russ Fulcher) will get their turn at voting and speaking on that subject sometime in the weeks ahead.

As for addressing the substance, Senator Jim Risch had an excellent suggestion.

In a recent Boise radio interview, he said, “Let me give some advice to your listeners, this is really simple. The Democrats are saying this is terrible, the president is a traitor, and we Republicans say, ‘Get outta here, there’s nothing there there.’ So, look: Don’t take my word for it, I’m a partisan. Don’t take the Democrats’ word for it, they’re partisans. Certainly don’t take the national media’s word for it, they are really partisan, they’re full of hate and vitriol for this guy. Read it yourself. … It’s online, every word. … It’s really easy to read, it’s not legalese or diplomatese. It’s just two people talking. And you can understand it crystal clear and can make up your own mind.”

Spot on. The core of what you need to see is right there in the official documents which are neither long nor hard to read and, as the senator suggested, easy to find with your nearest search engine. Such as the request from the American president saying, “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that so whatever you can do with the Attorney General would be great” – the request in essence that a foreign government conduct oppo research on one of the American president’s political opponents.

Of course, we could add to the must-read list a few must-views that also make up original source material, such as the Thursday press conference President Trump held in which he publicly asked the government of China, with which he and this country have a troubled relationship, to do the same as he asks of Ukraine, or his press event with the leader of Finland.

Checking out the original source materials on all this is my preferred approach, and I recommend it over whatever the talking heads have to say. Senator Risch was exactly right about that.

We can all multi-task. And we should.
 

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If you don’t like what a politician says, a quick response (and sometimes the only one) is to decry their statement as politically motivated. Or attach the phrase to a policy, or a criminal prosecution, or a smear, or …
The purpose of saying so is to cast a sense of distrust on the statement or action. But what does it mean?

Look first at motivation.

The site Business Jargons calls that word (in a not-unusual definition among dictionaries) “a driving force which affects the choice of alternatives in the behavior of a person.”1 I chose a business-oriented source for the word because the study of motivation is so central to modern business activity. (One book on my shelf is Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping, by Paco Underhill.) Successful and modern businesses know a lot about our motivations, sometimes a scary lot. But they keep researching, because there’s always much more to learn; they’re smart enough to know they never know all about what motivates us – and what might motivate us to buy from them.

There is, of course, the motivation to fulfill basic needs (shelter, food, water, and so on). One report suggests motivation can be split into inside and outside factors: “intrinsic motivation and extrinsic motivation.
Intrinsic motivation states that people are motivated by internal rewards like fulfillment and contentment. Conversely, extrinsic motivation states that people are motivated by external rewards like a bonus or raise as well as negative external factors like getting fired.”

In any one life, many things are going on, and for any person (even a politician) the cross-currents can run unpredictably. We may jump to a conclusion about why a person did a particular thing, but the truth is that we often don’t know perfectly clearly why we ourselves do some of the things we do. That complexity is what keeps whole economic consulting businesses in business: There’s a lot we don’t know.

Why did a politician do X? We can guess. They can proclaim. But the answer may be hard to determine conclusively.

Was something done with the motivation of gaining some advantage in a political situation? Maybe.

Prove it.

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Idaho state officials like to declare how their state is open for business, and in many respects it is. But in some areas it is fiercely stubborn — to the point of blocking interstate commerce.

Such as commerce in hemp.

Late last year a new federal farm bill passed legalizing on a national level commerce and transport of hemp, a plant product genetically similar to marijuana (both are considered forms of cannabis) but without its psychotropic capabilities. Hemp, remarkable versatile, is used in construction, for clothing and other cloth goods, paper, foods, medications and other uses. That follows legalization in states around the country, including most states around the west . . . but not Idaho. In Idaho, unlike many other states, no legal distinction is made between hemp and marijuana, which also is illegal in Idaho (though not in most of its neighboring states). There have been attempts throughout this millennium to change the hemp law in Idaho, including one in last year’s legislature, but it hasn’t happened yet.

One hemp industry website pointed out, “Hemp entrepreneurs say that hemp transportation has been an elusive promise of nationwide legalization. The Farm Bill promised protection for hemp transportation but left states with no uniform way to test THC content. So, cannabis plants that may go on a truck as legal hemp in one state can fail a THC test in another state and be seized as illegal marijuana.”

Last year, in one widely-publicized case, Idaho officials seized a truckload of industrial hemp from Oregon bound for Colorado, and criminally charged the truck driver. The case has been partly resolved, but the hemp remains seized.

The federal Department of Agriculture said in one memo, “States and Indian tribes also may not prohibit the interstate transportation or shipment of hemp lawfully produced under the 2014 Farm Bill.” But Idaho officials seem to have made clear they intend to do just that. (As the feds gradually release clarifying regulations over time, some of that trouble may ease. Then again, given the attitudes at stake, maybe not.)

Drawing your attention now to the states west of Idaho: Washington and Oregon, where the hemp industry is thriving.

In Oregon, where hemp growing has been legal since 2015, the expansion has been rapid. In year one of legalization the state had 13 growers operating on 105 acres of land; this year the growers number about 2,000, operating on about 62,000 acres. Roll down your car window in many rural parts of Oregon and you can smell the new industry. (Side note: Not everyone loves the odor.)

Since Washington and California to Oregon’s north and south also are substantial hemp growers, many Oregon producers look toward shipping east – which means through Idaho. But what they’re seeing is a big, bad road block to their commercial efforts.

That may mean a psychology is starting to develop in some places about how commercially to avoid Idaho. Like other states, Idaho pulls in substantial money, in public revenues and in the private economy, from trucking businesses. But what may be developing is a line of thinking that sends trucks south, over remote and lightly populated highways, through Nevada instead, on their way to other states.

States other than Idaho.

People in most states like to maintain their distinctiveness from others in various ways; just as there’s an Idaho Way of doing things, people in Oregon and Washington and Nevada and Montana and other states like to proclaim their own ways too. Fine.

But when some of those distinctive ways start shutting down economic and other communication with their neighbors, they might be worth reviewing.

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One of the few certainties about war is its unpredictability: You can never be sure what you’ll wind up with, and that’s if you win. Impeachment, especially of a president, is the political equivalent.

A few thoughts, then, as the U.S. House of Representatives takes its initial steps in what looks like a probable impeachment of President Donald Trump.

Uncertainty is a central consideration. It might not happen in the House; at this writing (Tuesday afternoon) there’s not a clear majority in favor. (That could change.) We don’t know what an inquiry might turn up; it might make the case against the president stronger, or it might not. The Senate widely is assumed to be a lock for acquittal, since much of the Republican caucus would have to go along with conviction for that to happen; but even that is not necessarily a certainty. Republican consultant Mike Murphy made a compelling case today for the flipping of a number of Republican votes: “My Democratic friends assume the worst, seeing most elected Republicans as little more than a corrupt cartel of Trump bitter-enders. I think they underestimate the character of many of the men and women I know well who serve the Republican Party.”

Many analysts have pointed out that polling consistently for more than a year has shown more Americans opposing than supporting impeachment (something close to 55% to 37% has been a norm). Will that remain stable? It might not if congressional Democrats unite in favor of impeachment, since up to now only about 60% of Democrats on average have favored impeachment (and somewhat under half of independents). Many may have reflected the division on the subject they’ve seen in the Democratic congressional caucuses, and the numbers could rise considerably if Democrats (and Democratic-leaning independents) coalesce around it.

The other consideration is the new Ukraine scandal: The president apparently using the threat of withholding congressionally-approved United States funds from Ukraine to pressure a Ukraine investigation of his leading political rival. This is a clear-cut situation, little of importance about it is disputed, and it implicates both American national security and the willingness of the president to use the power of the presidency – and that of foreign governments – to interfere with the 2020 elections. The case is easy enough to understand; you can put it on a bumper sticker.

The one poll I’ve seen on impeachment that factors in Ukraine asked, “If President Donald Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine in order to incentivize the country’s officials to investigate his political rival, Joe Biden, and his son, would you support or oppose impeachment?” The result: 55% favor impeachment (44% “strongly”), and just 26% were opposed. The numbers on impeachment had more than flipped.

Of course, once these trains start, they take on a life of their own. The House Democrats, and their Senate counterparts, could make a hash of things, which wouldn’t be the first time. How might they not?

Stats specialist Nate Silver had a few thoughts about this, and three merit repetition.

First, “Be narrow and specific, perhaps with a near-exclusive focus on Ukraine.” The list of possible impeachable offenses is quite long, stretching out past the horizon. Democrats may see some temptation to throw in the kitchen sink; if they do, they’d just be lowering fog into the proceedings, something Trump surely would welcome. Forget about Russia; stick to Ukraine.

Second, point out why this action has merit even only a year ahead of an election when voters can make their own decision on Trump: Because that election is only a year away. If the president did what he’s being accused of – and in large part has admitted – then he has displayed a willingness to use the vast powers of the presidency to go so far as to steal the next national election. That would put the future of the United States as a nation governed by its people at direct risk. Many Americans could get the point that this is an extreme enough situation to merit an extreme action, which impeachment is.

The other key point Silver makes: Do it quickly. The core facts are out there, and many of the rest (those available in any event in near future) should be available soon. (Take note of the prospect of congressional testimony this week of the still-unknown whistleblower who raised the whole situation.)

Even done with optimum skill, this won’t be easy for anyone to navigate. And there haven’t been a lot of impeachments through American history to draw from. But some paths toward impeachment clearly are smoother than others.

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About a century ago a bunch of cities were located in northern Bannock County, in the area of Pocatello. There was Pocatello and Chubbuck and, among others, on the northwest side of the larger community, Fairview and North Pocatello.

The Pocatello area was growing as a railroad, manufacturing and later education center, and all those small communities started bumping up against each other. In 1924 the villages of Fairview and North Pocatello decided to merge, and became the city of Alameda. The new city’s population was about 1,800 then. It continued to grow, and by 1960 it was more than 10,000. The city was then led by an ambitious political figure, George Hansen (later a U.S. representative), who did the unusual thing of arguing that his job ought to vanish: He supported a merger of Alameda with Pocatello. That merger happened, after people in the cities voted approval, in 1962.

Here’s the echo of today from all that: Alameda wasn’t the only city considering a merger with Pocatello in 1962. The municipality of Chubbuck, on the north side of Pocatello, was voting too, and its voters rejected the proposal. The two cities are separate to this day.

So far.

A group of Pocatello city officials, including long-time council member Jim Johnston, are supporting a new plan to merge the two cities. In another echo of the past, there’s sharp opposition from much of the leadership of Chubbuck. That difference in local leadership attitudes may have been one of the reasons for the 1962 vote happening as it did.

Some aspects of the current plan may draw some quick opposition around the area. There’s talk, for example, of renaming the merged jurisdiction Gate City, which probably would never fly. (Pocatello is among other things already a distinctive and reasonably well-known name; why re-brand from scratch?)

Chubbuck officials will tell you – at least they have for years told anyone listening – that the two cities really are quite different in character, and that’s more right than wrong. They also have a realistic, though possibly rebuttable, case about how finances would work (to Chubbuck’s detriment) if the cities united.

But the Pocatello advocates have some good arguments for a merger.

Johnston (who said he plans to make the case for unification as a key part of his upcoming council campaign) argued that, “If we could eliminate duplication of services, we would save huge dollars and be able to reduce the tax burden.” Maybe; merger proposals do not always deliver as clear savings as seem evident in advance.

But they usually do result in efficiencies and more cooperative work. A local area split into a number of jurisdictions has more obstacles to overcome when it tries to accomplish something region-wide. (The Ada and Canyon areas are experiencing the same thing, and while merger talk isn’t in the wind, many of the issues surrounding it are.) Pocatello and Chubbuck are distinct entities, but then parts of Pocatello (and to a lesser extent Chubbuck too) are sharply different from each other. And if the merger brought together a wider range of points of view and perspective, and forced people who think differently to interact with each other, some useful results probably would come from that.

There would even be a matter of civic pride and economic development, which could work together. If the cities were united, the urban population base would seem to increase. Pocatello’s population recently has been counted at 56,266 and Chubbuck’s 15,315; united, they would form a city of 71,581. That would make it clearly the biggest city in Idaho east of Boise or outside the Ada-Canyon area. It would gain some cachet, and also more attention as businesses consider optimal locations. The difference would be artificial, true, but first impressions do sometimes count.

Pocatello voters will get a chance to mull some of this during the council campaigns this fall. So will the residents of Chubbuck since, after all, they won’t have far to hear to the advocates over in Pocatello.

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Compromise: An agreement or settlement of a dispute that is reached by each side making concessions.
► Oxford English Dictionary

Truth is found neither in the thesis nor the antithesis, but in an emergent synthesis which reconciles the two.
► Greg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

I first heard the word “squish” used by a group of college Republicans, to refer to someone who is not an absolutist and is open to compromise. It seems to have remained much more in use on the right than on the left, though there’s no particularly good reason for that: The point it implies is applicable about the same on either side of the fence.

The point is that compromise is caving – that it amounts to giving in and giving up, and an abdication of principle.

Compromise is not that – people who engage in politics often wind up fighting fiercely because they are principled – but it does involve the mature, as opposed to childish, idea that in a society where a variety of people want different things, you can’t (to coin a phrase) always get what you want. The word comes from 14th century France (a compromis), which refers to a willingness by two or more parties to submit to a joint arbitration, as opposed to, in their case, fighting to someone’s death.

Compromise, in other words, is in the DNA of politics in non-dictatorship situations; it is absent in authoritarian states, where only one point of view is allowed ever to win out. Compromise means that two sides have to come together and try to find common ground where they can, and agree each to concede a little in return for a larger agreement – one that can be lived with, if not become beloved, by both sides. The idea of a settlement reached by an easing back of demands, a willingness to make concessions, grew from that.

Compromise may not be as unpopular as it’s sometimes made out to be. In 2017 the Pew Research Center found “In general terms, the public continues to express a preference for elected officials who seek political compromises. About six-in-ten (58%) say they like elected officials who make compromises with people with whom they disagree, while fewer (39%) say they like politicians who stick to their positions. About seven-in-ten Democrats and Democratic leaners (69%) say they like elected officials who compromise. Liberal Democrats (76%) are more likely to hold this view than conservatives and moderates (63%). Republicans and Republican leaners have much more mixed views: 52% say they like elected officials who stick to their positions, while 46% say they like elected officials who make compromises with people they disagree with. By 56% to 41%, conservative Republicans prefer elected officials who stick to their positions. By contrast, a greater share of moderate and liberal Republicans say they like officials who make compromises (55%) than say they like officials who stick to their positions (43%). Those with higher levels of education are especially likely to have a positive view of officials who make compromises.”

Compromises often are messy, incomplete and unsatisfying. The congressional compromises of 1820 and 1850, two of the leading achievements of 19th century American politics, were stopgap measures, entirely pleasing almost no one; but they did keep the nation intact, for a while. (The breakup came when fire-eaters in the South decided they would compromise no more.)

But then in politics, issues are never over, completely: They’re always subject to relitigation. Compromises are temporary fixes but then, in the larger picture, there is never any other kind – even if, at a given moment, one side or another seems to have prevailed utterly.

In a 2016 column, New York Times writer David Brooks said, “Over the past generation we have seen the rise of a group of people who are against politics. These groups – best exemplified by the Tea Party but not exclusive to the right – want to elect people who have no political experience. They want ‘outsiders.’ They delegitimize compromise and deal-making. They’re willing to trample the customs and rules that give legitimacy to legislative decision-making if it helps them gain power. Ultimately, they don’t recognize other people. They suffer from a form of political narcissism, in which they don’t accept the legitimacy of other interests and opinions. They don’t recognize restraints. They want total victories for themselves and their doctrine.”

What this leads to in politics – and in American politics notably – what a failure to compromise often leads to is trench warfare, a long-running series of battles between two dug-in sides, with no reasonable resolution in sight.

The only way out involves climbing up from the trenches and starting some serious, and honest, discussion.

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Boise’s long-time mayor, David Bieter, has faced light opposition since he first was elected to the job in 2003. This year, in contrast, he faces a crowd. And, likely, a tougher contest.

In some ways, that larger crowd might work to his advantage. But there’s a real chance the shape of this year’s contest could cost him the job in this year’s elections.

Begin with this: The criticism of and opposition to Bieter, who at this point is the longest-serving mayor in Boise’s history, is greater this time around than it has been before. That includes voting sectors that traditionally have been his base, and this is a more recent development. Across issues ranging from development to construction of a new library building, a common thread running through the complaints is that City Hall has stopped listening to the citizens, and rams its agenda through without broad enough consideration, and Bieter has been the focus of those complaints. I won’t try to litigate the pros or cons of that complaint here, but the criticism is more broadly-based than it was in earlier election years.

And it has helped generate anger at city hall, maybe enough to lead to some upsets this time around.

Bieter, who has coasted to re-elections before, drew opposition early this time. His chief opponent appears to be Lauren McLean, a member of the city council and well-connected around town; she has been campaigning hard for months, and her campaign has gotten some good reviews. But there are other contenders too: Adriel Martinez, Cortney Nielsen, Wayne Richey – and two more of note, former Mayor Brent Coles, and Rebecca Arnold, president of the Ada County Highway District. Coles resigned amid scandal, and his entry drew plenty of surprised head shakes. Both Coles and Arnold took direct shots at Bieter, and Arnold warned that McLean would be more of the same kind of administration as Bieter has run. The case for how Coles or Arnold might win the mayorly seems . . . obscure. But the two of them could add to the incoming fire Bieter has to deal with.

The usual political science 101 take on crowded campaigns is that when an incumbent is running for re-election, the campaign is mostly about that incumbent. This means the opposition tends to split the anti-incumbent vote, which tends to help the incumbent prevail.

Boise, however, is one of those cities with a runoff: If no candidate draws more than half of the overall vote in the general election, the top two contenders go into a runoff election.

This year’s election could be different. While the splitting of the opposition field among many more candidates might help Bieter to win at least a plurality of the vote, it won’t necessarily help him win a majority. While re-election contests usually are more about the incumbent than the challenger, those challengers do tend to bring in some personal support, additional votes, of their own. They also can change the content of the debate in unpredictable ways.

If Bieter’s support in town still is strong enough that he can win the first contest outright – with more than 50 percent of the vote – then that’s that. But the larger number of candidates in the field likely makes that more rather than less difficult.

And incumbents who are forced into a runoff tend to lose more often than they win, because the opposition vote, which earlier was split among many candidates, usually consolidates behind the one challenger who remains.

That 2003 contest Bieter won – which didn’t include an incumbent – was relatively simple in its dynamics. This one is much more complex, and more treacherous for an incumbent to navigate.

Mark this as a race to watch in Idaho this fall.

(note: The column was edited to remove a reference to the 2003 election.)

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What shall we discuss? Or, what shall we discuss and be taken seriously? A person can throw out almost any idea, but many of those ideas may be batted aside as nonsense. At least, they may be batted aside as nonsense today; tomorrow, the idea might be more acceptable, or even a majority opinion.

That’s the concern of the “Overton Window of Political Possibilities.”
Joseph Overton, an academic at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, developed the concept in the mid-90s. The center described it this way:

“Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time.”

This doesn’t amount to a value judgment, but it does suggest what’s realistic, as a matter of public policy, at a specific moment.
Same-sex marriage would be a useful case study of how a subject once considered out of bounds – an abomination or a joke if considered at all – could move over time into the window of political realism. Marijuana legalization may be a similar example.

Ideas move in and out of the window with some regularity, over the span of time. Judgment comes into play when we decide which ideas should or shouldn’t move, and in which direction.

Why ideas move is a question for political scientists, and many have weighed in (whether or no specifically citing Overton).

And there are other uses. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck released a novel called The Overton Window (2010), a political conspiracy potboiler about a powerful elite seeking to take over the United States by moving an unacceptable concept – “one world, ruled by the wise and the fittest and the strong, with no naive illusions of equality or the squandered promises of freedom for all” – into the Overton window.

Whatever the virtues of the novel (few, reviewers seemed to agree), it got the point of the “window” backward: It is not something that can be manipulated by a “wag the dog” strategy, but rather serves as a measure of how the public changes its mind.

Writer Maggie Astor described it this way: “The key is that shifts begin with the public. Mr. Overton argued that the role of organizations like his own was not to lobby politicians to support policies outside the window, but to convince voters that policies outside the window should be in it. If they are successful, an idea derided as unthinkable can become so inevitable that it’s hard to believe it was ever otherwise.”

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