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Originally Published: 10/8/2008


By The Issue Wonk


The Overton Window is a concept developed by Joseph P. Overton, the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, meant to develop political possibilities. The concept is that there is a “window” of a range of opinions about public issues. Overton posited a way to move the window in such a way as to exclude certain ideas and emphasize certain other ideas. This is done by having people promote ideas that are even less acceptable than prior ideas, making the prior ideas look less extreme and, therefore, more acceptable. According to Joe1 at the Rockridge Institute:


This is visualized by the idea that “moving to the right” will result in the mainstream public finding positions on the “left” to be less acceptable. At the same time, the more extreme positions on the “right” become more acceptable.


A Description


In essence, the process is started by setting out the possible opinions on an issue, including those that are unthinkable. Then you figure out the range of opinions that people consider reasonable. This range is the Overton Window. The goal then is to move the Overton Window so that ideas once unthinkable become acceptable to discuss and, eventually, become popular or even become public policy.


The Overton Window is a way to visualize where an idea falls in the range of acceptance. Adding new, more extreme, ideas can push the former unacceptable ideas into a “window” of acceptability. Here is the range of movement:


  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy 

In other words, the first step is to promote an idea that is “unthinkable,” completely extreme. Then, you promote an idea that is even more extreme, making the first idea seem only “radical.” Moving right along, the next idea gets even more extreme, making the first seem “acceptable.” You keep doing this until the first, unthinkable idea becomes “popular” and eventually becomes public policy.


According to the Mackinac Center:


The example Joe Overton often used to illustrate his window theory was the Michigan school choice issue during the 1980s and ‛90s. The political spectrum for education ranges from full parental choice on the high end to a complete government monopoly without private schools, home schooling, charter schools or any other school choice on the low end. On this spectrum the politically possible range of options was very limited during the 1980s. Politicians could advocate minor, incremental changes for home schooling, and private schools were part of the status quo, but charter schools were definitely out of bounds for a politician to seriously contemplate.


As citizens became aware of education options and their success in other places, the political climate became more favorable and the window of political possibilities in Michigan began to expand to where politicians could advocate home schooling, school choice and even charter schools without losing at the polls. Not only was the upper limit of the window expanded, but the lower boundary has also moved upwards as well – making it politically unwise to push for restrictions on the education freedoms that have been gained.


Home schooling is here to stay, charter schools are well established, and school choice continues to gain ground. In fact in some parts of Michigan it is now even possible to run for office on a platform that includes the Universal Tuition Tax Credit – another Overton innovation – a situation that was unthinkable just 10 years ago.


The Mackinac Center says that the Window Theory is summed up best by Milton Friedman’s preface in the 1982 edition of Capitalism and Freedom.


That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.


In other words, you take what had once been considered an impossible, radical idea and, piece by piece, step by step, make it worthy of consideration just by talking about it. Eventually it becomes truly possible.


Corrente has an interesting chart of how the system works. It says: “The current location of the Overton Window is so far to the right of any objective political spectrum, that what are now considered Extreme Left Positions are really not extreme at all.”


By implementing the Overton Window in any policy debate, any extreme idea can be maneuvered into an acceptable, mainstream idea. The concept “moves” the middle of the spectrum from the far right or the far left to the center. By hammering on an issue long enough, you can alter how the public perceives it. By radicalizing those ideas more and more, the original “unthinkable” idea looks just fine.


The crux of the Overton Window is that to move an issue away from its current, acceptable position, one must move public opinion toward the far ends of the spectrum. Over time, ideas once believed to be unthinkable, or extreme, get moved to the mainstream. As a Migra Matters blogger says: “The rants of Ann Coulter, Rush Limbaugh, or FOX play heavily into this concept as far as general politics go.”


Use of the Overton Window


Other than the education issue as described above, we can find many instances of the use of the Overton Window in shifting public policy.


Immigration.  The same Migra Matters blogger cited above believes that the Overton Window has been extremely effective in the immigration debate.


By continually introducing fringe elements and concepts, like the white supremacist rants of Pat Buchanan, into the debate, things like the elimination of birthright citizenship, English Only, and deportation through starvation, seem more reasonable and eventually have become acceptable aspects of the greater debate.


At the same time legalization of the undocumented, which actually has the support of the majority of the public, begins to move out of the Overton Window and becomes a more far-left concept.


Climate Change.  A blogger on One City posits that the Overton Window has been used to change public thought on climate change. He/she said:


One brilliant way to do this is to have a credible voice set a high and visionary bar (such as, say, no more fossil fuels by 2018). That specific view may remain extreme, outside the window, but proclaiming the view has the effect of pulling the range of accepted views closer to yours. In other words, you move the Overton Window. . . Simply put, moving the Overton Window means that if you fearlesslessly [sic] speak as a visionary, you transform the idea of what is seen as practical and achievable, even if your idea remains out of the accepted realm. So maybe the public discourse starts thinking about 50% reduction in fossil fuel usage by 2018.


Animal Testing.  Rebecca at Rebecca Blood believes that the Overton Window has been used in moving the opinions on animal testing:


People may reject PETA’s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) premise, for example, that animals should never be used in testing of any kind. But in doing so, those same people may decide that – while medical testing on animals is acceptable – certain forms of testing on animals in the manufacture of cosmetics should be eliminated.


The Iraq Invasion.  A blogger at Balloon-Juice finds a connection between the Overton Window and the march to invading Iraq.


You can hardly find a better modern example of gaming the Window than the Iraq war. As a start-to-finish opponent of invasion I remember well how war boosters painted my ideas, which were utterly and totally borne out by reality, as pathologically pacifistic. I directly supported Saddam. I didn’t care about the suffering of the Iraqi people (mull that one over a bit). Of course like everybody else whom conservatives disliked I harbored a deep and abiding hatred for America. The only real effort that anybody made to answer my (and as it happened, Brent Scrowcroft’s [sic]) arguments came in the form of flippant dismissals by brainiacs by Wolfowitz and Rumsfeld, who breezily declare that what actually did happen could never possibly happen so there’s no point in worrying about it. Neocons and allies simply declare contrary ideas outside of the Window and therefore not worth considering. If you look at media treatment of Iraq contrarians like Howard Dean it is hard to come to any other conclusion than that the neocons had it absolutely right. Not that contrary ideas did not deserve to be considered, but rather that they sat outside the Window and therefore wouldn’t be.


I imagine you can come up with lots of examples of your own. If not immediately, watch the political rhetoric and think about the application of the Overton Window. It certainly explains a lot.




1  Information on the Overton Window is scarce. Other than the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, the only information on found came from bloggers, some of whom appear to be quite knowledgeable.


© The Issue Wonk, 2008





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