The illusion of the reasonable centre

Republican strategist Karl Rove in 2002 notoriously disparaged “the reality-based community [who] believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality”. He continued: “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality—judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors…and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

That quote has become a symbol for the Republican Party’s detachment from empirical reality, like Mitt Romney’s recent declaration “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact checkers”. I’m a proud member of the “reality-based community”, in that I try to base my views as much as possible on observed facts rather than instinct or ideology. Yet Rove understood something his political opponents don’t: “political reality” is an illusion.

Campaigners who pride themselves on being “political realists”, and voters who pride themselves on being “centrists”, make the fundamental mistake of assuming the political centre is a real thing fixed in one position. Although political scholars talk about an objective centre halfway between the most extreme possible ideological orientations, it has no influence on political debate. In practice, the political centre is a perception that can be manipulated by various political forces. Thus it is possible to shift the political centre, or “political reality”, without deluding as the Republicans do – you only need to change the perception of where the centre is.

Here’s another way of looking at it. The “Overton window” is the range of political positions considered to be the scope of reasonable debate. The perceived political centre is in the middle of the Overton window. Positions toward the edges of the Overton window are considered radical, and positions beyond the edges are considered unthinkable.

A third way of conceptualizing this is “Hallin’s spheres”, three nested ideological spheres illustrating the implicit bias of ostensibly objective media coverage. In the centre is the “sphere of consensus”, consisting of propositions considered by the journalist (or other observer) to be self-evident to all reasonable people. The intermediate shell is the “sphere of legitimate controversy”, matters considered suitable to be debated among reasonable people; journalists generally strive for balanced coverage of the views in this shell. The outer shell is the “sphere of deviance”, positions considered to be outside the range of mainstream debate. In this metaphor it is journalists who (consciously or otherwise) decide which ideas belong in which sphere, and they tend to make those decisions based on the thinking of the political establishment.

Why am I writing about all this? Because I am constantly frustrated that too many of my opinions, most importantly on climate change, fall far from the perceived Australian political centre, outside the Australian Overton window, and within the Australian media’s sphere of deviance. Overwhelming scientific evidence and expert agreement should place the existence of anthropogenic global warming in the sphere of consensus and denial thereof in the sphere of deviance, yet the media places the issue in the sphere of legitimate controversy. Phasing out fossil fuel burning, which should be globally recognized as urgently necessary to protect our future, is exiled to the sphere of deviance. Even Australia’s pathetically weak carbon price is entrenched in the sphere of legitimate controversy. I think the Greens are the most reasonable political party, but the media places them at the outer edge of the sphere of legitimate controversy if not in the sphere of deviance. I have spent plenty of time looking for ways in which I could be wrong, but I cannot avoid concluding it is the supposedly “reasonable people” who are wrong, and I am trying to understand the reasons why they are considered reasonable and I am not.

I also want to demonstrate why the tactic of appeasing the opponents of climate action to win support for incremental policies is unlikely to succeed, and why voters who gravitate towards the middle of the range of available opinions are allowing themselves to be manipulated. “Political realism” and “centrism” play into the hands of psychological manipulation techniques designed to move the perceived location of the political centre, which the Rove quote shows the right-wing understands all too well.

Why conservatives succeed

To begin with, defenders of the status quo have an inherent advantage in influencing the perceived political centre because they are more powerful.

Let me explain some of the gambits I believe the opponents of climate action employ to move the perceived political centre in their direction:

  • Persistent opposition to all policies proposed by your opponent. This will make your opponent appear unwilling to compromise. The Republicans have used this tactic against Obama to great effect (not that I’m a fan of Obama either). In Australia, the Rudd Labor government used it against the Greens.
  • Foot-in-the-door (or wedge strategy): Make a small initial demand, then if your opponent agrees because they want to be seen as willing to compromise, move on to a more extreme demand.
  • Door-in-the-face (or ambit claim): Demand far more than you would settle for. When your opponent refuses, attempt to reach an agreement consisting of what you really want. Your opponent and observers will think both sides have converged on a compromise. I suspect business lobby groups do this all the time, and governments fall for it.
  • Accusation of bias: Accuse journalists of being biased against you. If this message is loud enough it causes journalists to err on the side of being charitable to you. Media companies who give little credence to climate change deniers are constantly bombarded with claims that it is “censorship” or “left-wing bias” rather than just reporting the facts; in this way climate change deniers have bullied journalists into including their point of view in the sphere of legitimate controversy. Even scientists can be cowed by this tactic: a recent study shows climate scientists systematically underestimate the impacts of global warming, suggesting they are overcorrecting in response to accusations of alarmism.
  • Asserting thatboth sides of politics agree”: If you can get the major political parties in a two-party system to agree with you, it creates the impression of a consensus among all reasonable people, leading journalists to place your opponents in the sphere of deviance.
  • Branding your opponents “extremist”/“radical”/“militant”: By doing this you are not outright challenging your opponent’s values, merely claiming your opponent takes those values too far. This is how the Republicans cast Obama, how both Australian major parties cast the Greens, and how industries cast activists who oppose them. It has been shown to make people less inclined to support your opponent’s policies and values. It can also be useful to intimidate your opponent into backing down or moderating their position. Bonus points if you also cast yourself as “getting the balance right” between competing demands.
  • Reasonable-sounding language: Speak in a measured tone to make yourself appear moderate in contrast to a passionate opponent, distracting observers from the substance of your arguments. This is often used by Christian apologists against atheists, for instance on this episode of Q&A. Bonus points if you accuse your opponent of being “strident”.
  • Good cop, bad cop: Coordinate with hardliners in your movement so you can present yourself or your organization as moderate by contrast. It is impossible to tell when there is deliberate behinds-the-scenes coordination, but it probably does go on: for example the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, who officially accepts climate science and negotiates with government to sabotage climate policy, looks moderate when contrasted with radical libertarian think tank the Institute of Public Affairs, who outright denies anthropogenic global warming.
  • Astroturfing: Funding apparently grassroots front groups and creating fake online identities to promote your message. Fossil fuel companies have combined this with the above tactic to great effect.
  • Cosmetic change (in an environmental context greenwash): Publicly take small or token steps to appear as if you have internalized your opponent’s concerns. Most actions that governments and corporations are currently taking on climate change fall into this category. This tactic is incredibly seductive to people like me who are desperate for real climate action.
  • Co-option: Persuade your opponents to join you by offering them joint ownership of policies you can live with, effectively neutralizing the threat they pose to you. Then your former opponents will help sell your policies to any remaining opponents. One of my earliest memories is of my Grade Prep teacher using this trick to make we students believe we had designed a list of classroom rules by consensus. I worry Labor has co-opted the Greens by agreeing on a carbon price.
  • Bait-and-switch: Get your opponent to commit themselves to an agreement then change the agreement to what you really want. In Australian politics, Labor and Rob Oakeshott appear to have used this tactic to get the Greens to agree to a carbon price, by promising several concessions on which they later backflipped. I suspect a similar tactic has also been used at climate talks to bully poor countries into signing up to terrible agreements.
  • Under-promise and over-deliver: Downplay the likelihood of any achievement, then welcome what little is achieved as exceeding expectations. This is used by governments to stave off cynicism about global climate talks.
  • Starve the beast: Defund your opponents, or change the rules to restrict what they can legally do. This strategy can be seen in right-wing attempts to restrict the activities of organizations that are either left-wing (eg. trade unions) or perceived as being so (eg. scientists).
  • Justifying ideology: Manipulate the ideology of a society to justify your interests. This is similar to the Marxist concept of “cultural hegemony” (though I am not a Marxist). I believe the fossil fuel industry operates in this way, making a series of self-promotional arguments to governments which have become embedded in the sphere of consensus. The precise arguments vary from country to country, and within countries they vary between administrations and between lobby groups. However, there are certain fundamental components such as the beliefs that fossil fuels are integral to the economy and that unilateral climate policies will damage competitiveness.
  • Echo chamber: Create your own media universe insulated from reality. In the US, conservatives have built what Rachel Maddow calls “the alternate self-contained right-wing media universe”, in which there is no global warming, the world is less than ten thousand years old, and Obama is a socialist with a fake birth certificate. They are also constantly fighting to have schools indoctrinate children in the same propaganda.
  • Sabotage and blame: Sabotage your opponent and blame them for the fallout. The Republicans have done this to Obama by opposing all his attempts to address the global financial crisis.
  • Psychological warfare: Fossil fuel mining companies have been caught discussing the use of counterinsurgency tactics against their critics. These tactics include generally fostering the view that the corporation is legitimate, securing control of all government agencies, limiting discontent by managing expectations, spying on opponents, turning locals against each other to isolate dissenters, taking legal action against protesters, and even using force where necessary.

Most of the tactics in the above list are not ones I would suggest copying as many are unethical, but it is important to understand and expose the strategy of your opponents. Effective and consistent application of such tactics can shift the political centre in the desired direction over time. Many people may not even notice, due to “boiling frog syndrome”.

Why progressives fail

The most common and least successful strategies of progressive politicians and campaigners are advocating policies that are currently popular according to focus-group research, and compromising in the hope that your opponent will recognize you as a reasonable person. These strategies usually fail because they move the political centre toward your opponent and make them look more reasonable.

What does all this mean for climate change activists? Because climate change mitigation is urgent and the fossil fuel industry is a powerful unmovable opponent, the climate change movement must not give in to the present political centre. Instead it needs to change the balance of power by moving the political centre toward it. Those who support climate action must take a strong stand so the public have a reason to support them and not their opponents.

Clive Hamilton says it better than I can:

[T]here were plenty of timid people telling the leaders of the civil rights movement and the suffragettes that they must not push too hard or demand too much because society was not ready for change. But it was only by pushing hard that the civil rights radicals and the suffragettes made society ready for change…

That must be our strategy. In the case of climate change, gradualism is fatal. For women’s suffrage and civil rights the price of gradualism was perhaps two, three or four more decades of discrimination. In the case of climate change the price of gradualism is the battle lost, because a delay to doing what we must for another one or two decades will lock in our fate for a thousand years.



  1. Great post, James. I had not heard the term “Overton window” before, although the idea was familiar. It does help to have terminology to describe a concept.

    The current Australian Overton window with regards to action on climate change sure is in the wrong place. It’s even wrong with respect to recent reports from conservative organizations such as the International Energy Agency and the World Bank. I’ll outline below a possible strategy for moving the window; I would be interested in your comments.

    The strategy is to take a single line or thought and keep injecting it into as many discussions as possible in order to force the window to move to accommodate it. My suggestion for the line is the International Energy Agency’s advice (from their 2012 World Energy Outlook Executive Summary) that if we are to stay within the internationally agreed 2 deg C warming we must leave two thirds of known oil, gas and coal reserves in the ground. The idea can be used to criticise new oil gas and projects, to criticise new oil gas and coal exploration activities and/or to point out financial risks associated with all current oil, gas and coal projects and operations. The idea can also be used to criticise new road developments.

    Australia is, of course a member of the International Energy Agency. The 2012 World Energy Outlook summary can be found at The relevant quotes are on page 3 of the Summary.

    I agree that the political centre on an issue is moved by moving the edge in the desired direction. The opponents of climate action have used that tactic very successfully, at least in the English speaking world.

      • on 11 April 2013 at 22:40
      • Reply

      Yes, repetition of a single or few key points is clearly effective and used to good effect by the opponents of climate action (*cough*Tony Abbott*cough*). The difficulty is figuring out what are the key points on a very complex and many-layered topic. The need to leave most fossil fuels in the ground is certainly a key point and one that I try to refer to as often as possible.

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