At least eight far-right extremists from across United States are running for seats in its Congress in 2018. Among them are Illinois’ Arthur Jones (a neo-Nazi), California’s John Fitzgerald (a Holocaust denier), and Wisconsin’s Paul Nehlen (a white nationalist).
The best-known candidate, Steve King of Iowa, is an incumbent who was first elected to Congress in 2002. Since then he has claimed that white people have contributed more to civilization than any other “subgroup,” recommended a racist and anti-immigrant novel in a radio interview, and tweeted, “we can’t restore our civilization with somebody else’s babies” – mimicking the extremist “white genocide” conspiracy theory. Notorious leaders of hate groups are delighted to hear their views coming from a member of Congress – the Daily Stormer’s Andrew Anglin called King a “hero” for “[calling] for white racial supremacy,” while former KKK leader David Duke tweeted, “GOD BLESS STEVE KING!!!”
Other right-wing extremists have run for office as recently as the last three U.S. Congressional elections. What is remarkable about this one is that so many are running at the same time, citing inspiration from President Donald Trump, and enjoying wide media coverage, especially online. American politics seems to have opened up space for them.
The extremist candidates will almost certainly not win the elections (several have already lost their party primaries). Still, even if they lose, the far-right extremist movements they have championed represent serious threats to U.S. democracy and to extremists’ target groups. The same radicalization process which drives these campaigns also inspires violent hate crimes, discrimination – even terrorism.
It is worth investigating the process by which such ideas have taken increasing hold. The so-called Overton Window is useful for explaining such shifts. Proposed by social scientists Joseph Overton and Joseph Lehman in the 1990s, the Overton Window is way of describing the range of discourse and policies that a majority of policymakers or political leaders consider acceptable, in a given society at a particular time. Policies outside the window are considered unacceptable. Lehman and Overton argue that advocates can move the window so that previously unthinkable ideas become palatable, by gradually influencing public opinion. Similarly, as the window shifts, ideas that were very far outside its boundaries remain outside, but are no longer as far from being acceptable.
Political changes in recent years have shown how once-unthinkable ideas can be be normalized by influential voices in media and politics, through mediums like Twitter, YouTube, network TV, and talk radio. Donald Trump’s presidential campaign is, of course, the most prominent example. By capitalizing on shifts in public discourse, Trump normalized political ideas and discourse which in previous elections would have ended a candidate’s career. Not only have some of Trump’s proposals, such as the Muslim ban, been enacted, but ideas farther from the previous Overton Window (like white nationalism) are now closer to the window’s edge. Many far-right activists are aware of this process, celebrating mainstream figures like Trump for moving those boundaries far enough for them to ride his momentum. For example, Paul Nehlen has cited the Overton Window in interviews and as he describes his plans for the future.
Just as these ideas can explain how political norms shift, they can also guide those who seek to undermine shifts like rise of the far-right. While legal measures to restrict ideas are incompatible with American First Amendment law, it is also undeniable that some political views – like neo-Nazism – are by their nature threatening to U.S. constitutional order and the fundamental rights it guarantees. Instead, institutions in civil society, the media, and politics could use their influence to establish safeguarding norms which protect against such threats.
In electoral contexts, there are several possibilities. A political party could pledge to support another party’s candidate if (or when) anyone runs unopposed on their party’s ticket as a neo-Nazi or an avowed white supremacist. Informally, some Republicans have done so during this election cycle: Senator Ted Cruz encouraged Illinois voters to choose Arthur Jones’ Democratic opponent (or write in another candidate). Media outlets, on the other hand, could choose to deny extremist candidates of notoriety, like some do in cases of mass shootings when they refuse to focus on perpetrators.
When neo-Nazis and racist authoritarians challenge equal rights and democracy by vying for a seat at the wheel, such safeguards may serve to protect against the possibility that their once-unthinkable ideas become normalized or enacted.
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