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Since its obscure origins in a Midwestern think tank in the 1990s, the Overton window has become one of the best-known political-science concepts in the US. The idea of a mappable range of acceptable political discourse—and, more importantly, strategies for manipulating it—has entranced politicians, activists, and lobbyists for nearly 25 years. Today, it’s a go-to explanation for everything from the Trump administration’s media strategy to Brexit to Bernie Sanders’ progressive coalition-building. But how pliable the Overton window really is, and how to manipulate it, remains hotly contested.
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The Overton window is a theory designed to highlight the range of mainstream opinions on a given issue. Think about public policy as a continuum: current policy plus a narrow range of possible changes that are somewhere between popular and tolerable. That socially-acceptable span, usually somewhere in the middle of the two poles, is the Overton window. Think of it as the territory covered by the aphorism “reasonable people can disagree.” Not everyone necessarily agrees on the ideas inside the window, but the general consensus is that those concepts are normal. Things outside the window range from the radical to the unthinkable.
But the Overton window is also always shifting. Through a complex mix of advocacy, political action, and cultural change, ideas that were once unthinkable, like same-sex marriage, may eventually become the law of the land.
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“The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
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The Overton window doesn’t have a monopoly on political metaphors. Here are some other concepts that might be useful in analyzing the news, or gaining traction on your own revolutionary idea.
Hallin’s spheres: In his 1968 book The Uncensored War about Vietnam, journalism historian Daniel C. Hallin divided journalistic discourse into three spheres: consensus, legitimate controversy, and deviance. Consensus opinions don’t require debate, while deviant ones are considered so ridiculous they don’t get any airtime. But in the middle is the sphere of legitimate controversy, where journalists aim to give both sides space for debate. What exactly the media considers legitimate is always changing.
Third rail: In engineering, the third rail is the electrified portion of a metal track, which powers a subway car. But in politics, the third rail is considered an untouchable issue. Coined by Kirk O’Donnell, an aide to former House Speaker Tip O’Neill, in the 1980s, in the US it usually refers to the sacrosanct Social Security safety-net program (though other countries have their own third rails). But as O’Donnell himself once put it, “the third rail [of politics] is not like the one in the subway: if a Republican foot and a Democratic foot touch it simultaneously, nothing happens.”
Opinion corridor: Swedish political scientist Henrik Oscarsson recently developed the term åsiktskorridor, or opinion corridor. Ideas within the corridor are those that are acceptable for debate, while ideas outside the corridor are typically relegated to the margins. But according to the European news outlet The Local, Oscarsson’s concern was that “many people may still hold opinions outside the ‘corridor’, so if the åsiktskorridor is too narrow, people are losing out on the chance for constructive debate and free speech in favour of the Swedish preference for consensus.”
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Because of certain ideological parallels between Donald Trump and Brexit, their sudden rise, and their shocking wins against the polls and the experts, the campaign for Brexit is often included in examples of Overton-window shifts. But a substantial minority of Brits, and sometimes a majority, supported leaving for decades before the country up and did it, so it was arguably never radical enough to be outside the window.
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In the mid-1990s, a man named Joseph P. Overton began developing his theory of the “window of discourse.” Overton was an electrical engineer and a lawyer by training; he’d worked for Dow Chemical and was appointed to the Michigan Appellate Defender Commission by the governor. But his real passion was the free market, which he promoted as part of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a libertarian think tank in Midland, Michigan.
The “window of discourse” remained fairly obscure in Overton’s lifetime. But after his 2003 death at age 43 in an ultralight plane crash, Overton’s colleague Joseph Lehman “formalized and named the idea [after his late colleague] in a presentation meant to educate fellow think-tank warriors on the power of consistent advocacy,” according to Politico.
The Overton window quickly became conceptual bread and butter among activists, lobbyists, and politicians. But it wasn’t until Glenn Beck’s 2010 novel The Overton Window that the term went nationwide. (Even now, Google traffic for The Overton Window and the Overton window is neck and neck.)
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The original Overton window was (almost) literal: Joseph Overton conceived of it when designing a brochure with a slider that revealed a “window” of acceptability on a range of education-policy preferences.
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At its most basic, the Overton window is just a description of reality—a box drawn around an existing discourse. The real action is in moving it.
One approach: Take an extreme position in order to get people to agree to a less extreme idea by reframing what the center looks like. This is why the contemporary far right has embraced the term; they’ve adopted the tactic. (An unintentional version of this dynamic is the common belief that Malcolm X’s black nationalism made the radical politics of Martin Luther King, Jr. more acceptable.)
Another approach is to make existing norms seem extreme. Traffic deaths slowly climbed in the Netherlands after the country rebuilt from World War II until the 1970s, when one of those deaths was the child of a newspaper columnist. He began a series of articles with the headline “Stop de kindermoord,” or “Stop the child murder”—an extreme reframing of what’s often called an “accident.” The headline became an organization and a movement, and today the country is one of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly countries in the world.
The Mackinac team’s approach was more conservative, and closer to Bernie Sanders’s advocacy for universal health care, despite their very different politics: Treat your “radical” idea like it should be the norm, and that will normalize it. But the window was first built for a less heady form of persuasion. “We needed a way to explain to regular donors why they should support a think tank,” his colleague Joseph Lehman told Politico. “The Overton window began literally as a way to solve a little bit of a fundraising and communications challenge.”
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President Donald Trump has created a new normal in American politics and culture. In this 2017 video, Vox argues the resulting “middle-grounding” is particularly apparent on cable news, where Trump’s positions have given rise to “anti-Trump conservative” talking heads, whose positions would have been extreme in the Obama era, but became increasingly mainstream. Just watching two-year-old examples of the rapidly changing political landscape is an exercise in watching the Overton window shift, practically in real time.
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In a recent episode of the Ezra Klein Show, Sean McElwee, co-founder and executive director of Data for Progress, put his own spin on the Overton window—arguing for the value of incremental success rather than a radical overhaul of the system.
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