Amanda Marcotte, in an absolutely terrific post at Pandagon:
The great myth of American politics is that we’re all just soberly analyzing the facts and opinions and “deciding for ourselves”, which would mean that we don’t lose out a whole lot if the field of available opinion is limited by Beltway wisdom. Unfortunately, human nature just isn’t like that. In reality, people tend to use the opinions they’re hearing as a gauge of what is possible and then reject the “extremes” of the available range of opinion and put themselves in the middle. There’s simply not a lot of thought that goes into it. Conservatives grasp this fact very well, which is why Fox News puts a bunch of conservatives on and characterizes them as left-wing Democrats. Slowly but surely, they create the impression that very middle-of-the-road, boring liberal ideas are raving socialism—thus how I managed to hear this weekend from my dad how attempts to reduce carbon emissions through conservation and carbon offsets is actually a socialist plot to destroy life as we know it.I’ve been trying to make this point for years. For a lot of reasons, not all of them bad, most people don’t like feeling like they’re disconnecting themselves from the majority of their fellow human beings. Yes, you are a profile in courage and a paragon of intellectual integrity, but for most people, being perceived as an eccentric outlier is something to be feared. This isn’t fundamentally because most people are corrupt, it’s fundamentally because most people are social animals, and feeling connected with the pack is critical to our sense of well-being. This is why “moving the goalposts” works, even when those doing so barely bother to conceal it. Nancy Pelosi is a left-wing extremist. Joe Lieberman is a centrist. The mass of Americans don’t want us to withdraw from Iraq. Most Americans favor replacing Social Security with private accounts. There’s a serious scientific dispute over human-created climate change, and Michael Crichton is a moderate in that dispute. None of these things are true, and you know non-crazy people who believe them all. This is why. And it underlines a more important point: the truly damaging propagandists aren’t the frothing demagogues, the Sean Hannitys, the Rush Limbaughs, or the Glenn Becks. The real damage, the real work of maintaining the catastrophic status quo of our headlong rush toward the cliff, is done by the fake liberals, the Alan Colmeses, the Chris Matthewses, the Joe Kleins. Those are the ones who do the truly important work of defining what opinions—and most importantly, whose opinions—are and aren’t inside the legitimate, respectable range.
You can read more about this theory, which is called the Overton window theory, at Wikipedia. When Joe Klein went apeshit on Atrios, what was making him angry was the very idea that anyone with an opinion left of Pat Buchanan could have access to a public forum, which could inadvertantly reveal that hawkish, socially conservative advocates of unfettered capitalism were hardly liberals. Atrios and other bloggers are getting in the way of characterizing anyone who would tentatively agree with FDR’s politics as a Stalinist.
Why the Overton window works the way it does is that humans are stubbornly human creatures, and therefore pack animals. Humanizing a political stance is absolutely critical to helping warm people up to it.