In every country at all times, there is a range of views which are considered politically acceptable and ones which are beyond that range. American analyst Joseph P. Overton called the first the Overton Window and argued that political figures straying too far from these are doomed to fail.
But some leaders are able to break the Overton Window and change the range of positions which are acceptable to include something that earlier were unthinkable. That, St. Petersburg commentator Mikhail Komin argues, is exactly what Vladimir Putin and his propaganda machine have accomplished in the last six months.
Indeed, he argues, the sophisticated new political technology Putin has employed has “attacked the defenseless [Russian] television viewer and gradually led him to the thought that freedom is slavery and black is white,” a technology that goes beyond that of the totalitarian past.
Most analysts have focused on what Russians now believe and asked themselves whether the country has “gone mad,” but a more useful investigation, Komin argues, focuses on “how this is being done.”
He begins with rational choice theory which assumes that individuals are clever and egocentric and that their “basic interest” is to maximize that which is useful to them while minimizing the amount of effort they have to exert in order to achieve that. That affects their consumption of information as well.
“The less time” people have to spend searching for information, the more pleased they are with what they receive, he argues. That in turn leads to two conclusions. On the one hand, people will seek to obtain as little information as they can and process it as little as possible. And on the other, they will “not diversify their sources” or will do so only to reinforce what they already believe.
Sociologist Irving Goffman calls this “flaming,” and his work suggests that a massive information attack by the most easily accessible media “leads to the domination in society of a single point of view,” Komin says. That in turn allows the formation of “an administered majority,” but it creates certain problems when the elite wants to move in new directions.
That constitutes “the drama of authoritarianism,” he continues, and he gives as an example of an elite’s need for change the formation by Moscow of what was in the past not an idea widely accepted by the population, “the conception of ‘fascist Ukraine.’” Getting Russians who have relatives in Ukraine and who have been told Ukrainians are a fraternal people is not something that could be done in one day.
According to Overton’s theory, Komin says, “it is possible to broaden the limits of the permissible and normal for a given society during a crisis or threat.” But “this threat must not be direct … we must not really suffer from it or otherwise for the reduction of risks our need for analysis will grow,” something authoritarian elites do not want populations to do.
According to Komin, “any absurd idea must pass through four stages in order to become generally accepted.” In the first, media people begin talking about things that they had never talked about before. In the second, experts or “pseudo-experts” are brought in to suggest that the idea is not as absurd as it may appear.
In the third, the media offers what it says are precedents for concluding that the absurd idea was always true but unrecognized. And in the fourth, Komin continues, political leaders take up the issue and raise it to the level of state policy. In the Ukrainian case, that occurred when Putin and Lavrov began talking about fascism in Ukraine.
By breaking open the Overton Window, the St. Petersburg analyst continues, it is possible to transform almost any idea from the absurd to a commonplace and unquestioned one be it “the eternal Third Rome, the return of Alaska, or the anti-Russian conspiracy of the Anglo-Saxons and Atlanticists,” and to distract and divert attention as needed.
But there is a problem here too for those who shatter the window, Komin says. “In order to maintain control over the situation, they face a growing need” to come up with various “enemies” and thus they unintentionally unleash “activists of a new type,” people like Col. Strelkov, “for whom the only acceptable form of civic life is the unleashing of World War III.”