One of the defining characteristics of our current moment is the unbelievably wide aperture of plausible political possibilities that seem to spread out before us. No matter your political persuasion, the range of potential “outcomes” that one can imagine over some middle-term horizon—say, five to ten years—seems fantastically broad in range. And this is equally true on both domestic and international fronts.
To better get a handle on how wide open the future seems today, it’s useful to draw on the concept that the futurist Peter Schwartz once dubbed “The Official Future.” For any human group, be it a family, a corporation, or country, there exists a set of (usually unstated) shared assumptions about what is going to happen in the future. For a corporation or nonprofit organization, for example, this Official Future might entail a sense of what lines of business one plans to be in, how much growth to expect, or where the business will be conducted. For a country, the Official Future typically consists of assumptions, for example, about peace (or enmity) with certain neighbors, about the durability of the constitutional order (or lack thereof), or about how the economy will be organized (and to whose benefit). If national identity describes how a people looks backward together, the Official Future defines how a people looks forward together.
In the United States for much of the last quarter century, the Official Future might be described this way: Domestically, the United States was destined to remain what it had always been: a two-party multicultural federalist democracy, dedicated to capitalism, technological optimism, and creating better lives for our children; likewise, internationally, the United States would remain the center of the global order as well as the world’s greatest military power, what Madeline Albright called “the indispensable nation,” dedicated to promoting economic growth, democracy, and human rights the world over.
As Schwartz pointed out, the Official Future always entails a certain degree of wishful thinking, and arguably self-delusion. When the assumptions embedded in the Official Future are named explicitly, we can readily recognize that they may not, in fact, be entirely reliable. The future, after all, is inherently uncertain, especially over the medium to long run. An unwillingness to challenge the assumptions of the Official Future can lead to strategic blindnesses. At the same time, however, the Official Future is a necessary form of delusion. It represents a kind of ideological glue that holds a collectivity together by defining a shared horizon of expectations. It makes social and political peace possible, and creates a basis for collective action.
Today in the United States, a year after Donald Trump’s improbable election, an event that the Official Future had declared was categorically impossible, the post-Cold War Official Future has collapsed. For better or worse, the aura of inevitability associated with old Official Future has evaporated.
In its place have emerged a bewildering array of plausibly possible futures. Today in Washington and across the country it is not uncommon to hear even “reasonable people” articulate political possibilities that a couple of years ago would have been confined to science fiction novelists and the tinfoil milliners of Reddit or 4chan. Mainstream TV channels and prestige publications give an earnest hearing to theories of how U.S. democracy could be abrogated into some sort of quasi-fascistic dictatorship, perhaps in the wake of a major terrorist strike on the homeland, subtended by some sort of race war. Others envisage the possibility of the wholesale dismantling of the Federal government, or even the collapse and breakup of the United States. And yet others are discussing an explicit embrace of “socialism,” focused on major wealth redistribution and state-managed delivery of universal basic income and services.
Now, it’s true that many of these possible futures seem to be imagined and discussed less by advocates (though there certainly are advocates) than by people who fervently oppose such outcomes. But the significant point is that all of these possible futures no longer seem like mere political pornography, but instead have come to be perceived by even “reasonable folks” as live possibilities. Indeed, a central reason that politics today arouses such passionate intensity is that the gaping range of plausible outcomes makes the stakes seem enormous.
It’s not just on the domestic front that politics are wildly unsettled and the range of possible futures vastly expanded. Internationally, fears of nuclear apocalypse are higher than at any time since the depths of the Cold War, at least according the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which since the dawn of the nuclear era has been maintaining a “doomsday clock.” The United States’s seventy-year run as global hegemon seems in doubt, not least because the President seems intent on ripping up as many as possible of the international agreements which have institutionalized that hegemony since the end of World War II. The future of the European Union seems more uncertain than ever. But what will fill these voids seems entirely uncertain: A rising China? “A world of chaos”?
In short, as the old Official Future has collapsed, the range of credibly possible futures has exploded. For political insurgents, the meagre, stale, forbidding ways of custom, law, and statute have fallen away and the budding rose of possibility is abloom. For veteran political observers, by contrast, the sensation is something more akin to intellectual vertigo.
One way to try to understand the uncanniness of our political moment is by analogy to the Overton Window, a policy concept developed by the late Joseph Overton, a lawyer at the public choice economics-oriented Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan. The Overton Window refers to the fact that for any given policy debate, there are usually limits on the range of “acceptable” possibilities, with ideas outside those boundaries dismissed as “fringe” or “radical” or “unthinkable.”
Overton’s central point was that what’s considered “reasonable” can and does shift over time. Ideas that were once considered too radical for serious consideration can, as a result of sudden events or concerted public relations campaigns, come to seem acceptable; conversely, ideas that were once considered sensible can come to seem unconscionable. In other words, as political norms shift, the window of so-called reasonable policy positions can open and close.
Now, if we combine the concepts of the Official Future and Overton Window, what we get is a way to think about the range of “plausible” potential futures, that is, futures that supposedly sober and judicious people believe can actually take place. And my thesis here is that this window of plausible futures—what I will call the “Schwartz Window”—has since November 2016 been blown wide open, with the winds of Hurricane Trump threatening to tear it right out of the wall.
How should we make sense of this wide-open moment? The last time the Schwartz Window was anywhere near as open as it is today was during the 1970s. Between political and economic upheavals at home and military and diplomatic failures abroad, the 1970s resembled our own time in the sense that many of the old verities about politics no longer seemed credible, which in turn generated a sense that many possible political futures could plausibly unfold.
Domestically, in addition to those dedicated to defending the postwar Official Future that the Keynesian/New Deal consensus would last forever, all sorts of dramatic alternatives were in the air. There were proposals for new sorts of communal living and economic organization, from the back-to-the-land movement to urban communes. Leftists debated without irony about what life would be like “after the revolution,” and domestic terrorist movements of various persuasions were committing acts of violence on a near daily basis, sincere in the belief that their political objectives were within reach. On the other side of the political spectrum, the 1970s also saw the glimmering beginnings of the rightist militia movements, as well as full-throated libertarian dreams of achieving the “night watchman state.”
In international affairs, the Schwartz Window also stood wide open during the 1970s. Détente heralded the West’s grudging acknowledgement of the supposed institutional permanency of the European Communist alternative, even as Maoist and Castroite movements from Cambodia to Angola to Nicaragua seized power. Where violent overthrow of governments was not in the cards, the newly independent states of the so-called G-77 were given polite hearings in many Western capitals while proposing a New International Economic Order based on a broad-based redistribution of resources from the Global North to the Global South. At the same time, pointing in the opposite direction, as the term “globalization” first began to be whispered in obscure political science journals, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) pushed for integration of global commerce and capital markets. In other words, Americans in the 1970s could imagine possible futures encompassing anything from global capitalism to global collectivism.
Of course, the Schwartz Window of the 1970s didn’t stay open forever. The key events that began to close that window were the elections of Margaret Thatcher in the United Kingdom in 1979 and Ronald Reagan in the United States 1980. Reagan’s straightforward rejection of North-South transfers and unabashed celebration of the invigorating power of capitalism signaled that more radical alternatives being considered during the 1970s were being taken off the table. Thatcher’s central party slogan—“There is No Alternative”—can be read as a militant demand to close the Schwartz Window. Throughout the 1980s, as what today is often referred to as “neoliberalism” consolidated, the Schwartz Window kept narrowing.
The definitive closing of the 1970s Schwartz Window was famously announced in 1989 by Francis Fukuyama with his essay on “The End of History”: “The triumph of the West, of the Western idea,” Fukuyama declared, “is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism” and conversely, in “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
While Fukuyama’s idea has perhaps been the most derided concept in political science over the past three decades, much of the mockery has been rooted in a misunderstanding. In fact, Fukuyama was not making a normative argument, but rather an empirical claim about the openness of the Schwartz Window, one that in hindsight seems accurate: for the next twenty years, the Schwartz Window would only be open a crack, with liberal-democratic capitalism under the sign of U.S. hegemony as the only credible future in the West. Despite impeachments and terrorist attacks and failed wars and bursting bubbles, the Official Future of neoliberalism forever seemed to hold, and the Schwartz Window stayed tightly shut.
What Trump heralds—and in this respect he is arguably more symptom than cause—is that the Schwartz Window has once again swung open. Trump’s election in 2016 was precisely the sort of event that was outside the post-Cold War Schwartz Window, that is, outside the realm of plausible futures. The Official Future held that no candidate like Trump could ever be elected. “The party would decide” to prevent such a nomination, and if nominated, the good sense of the American people would make it impossible for a pathological liar and traducer of every political tradition to actually get elected. All the sensible people knew this. All the sensible people were wrong.
Virtually every day since it become apparent that Trump was likely to secure the GOP nomination, and with increasing velocity since he actually entered the White House, political events have taken place in the United States that would have strained credibility prior to 2016. This unending train of unbelievable events is precisely what has shaken the complacency of the establishment, the blithe confidence in the Official Future that marked the decades after the end of the Cold War. What was formerly unthinkable now most definitely must be thought.
But the real question we should ask is: how will this moment of radical openness end? In other words, which of the many widely divergent possible futures that seem splayed out before us will actually arrive? One way to think about this is by asking what lessons can we draw from the open “Schwartz Window” moment of 1970s. The most important of these lessons is that the Schwartz Window rarely stays this wide open for long. This is true first and foremost because living with a radically open future is cognitively exhausting—people crave a sense of certainty about the future, which is precisely what the Official Future is meant to provide. This means there is unmet demand for political leadership that has the confidence and charisma to impose a compelling new vision for the future. It is in the nature of complex social systems that if incumbent elites fail to reassert control, they will be replaced by new elites who are willing and able to do so. This is precisely the role that Thatcher and Reagan played when they came to power in United Kingdom and the United States at the start of the 1980s.
Who will be the Thatcher and Reagan of our unsettled, Schwartzian moment? In other words, who will have the political vision and strength to establish a new Official Future? Well, what we know is this: in revolutionary situations, it’s usually the Leninists who win.