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Saturday, 04 July 2020 10:04

The Overton Window

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There is a theory of politics called the "Overton Window".  It explains a lot about modern politics in the age of madness and badness.  It does not explain everything, but it offers fresh insights into the way our modern, diminished politcs function.

Observers of the world of podcasts, especially those emanating from the UK, may have heard pundits using the term “the Overton Window”.  It was new to me so I decided to investigate.  It sounds a little like the title of a pacy, racy John Buchan style adventure or spy story.  In fact, it is a more prosaic concept of political science and a lens through which to see and perhaps explain political phenomena.  It might also be the basic for political strategy. 

(Actually, there was a book named The Overton Window written by that peculiar, one might even say unique, American media commentator Glenn Beck and “a team of writers” in 2010.  “A team of writers” doesn’t sound too good.  It brings to mind Joseph Stalin’s speech writers – assuming he killed them off one by one as they disappointed him – or Peter  FitzSimons or the Get Pell twitterer Lyndsay Farlow).

The notion of the Overton Window came from a sociologist, Joseph P Overton, who died at the very young age of forty-three in 2003 – in a plane crash – having been involved in a think tank called the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan.

https://www.mackinac.org/

The Window has been described by at least one fan as “the most important discovery of your life”.  Certainly, then, it bears investigation.

Joseph Overton came up with his theory in the early 1990s as a means of explaining how “out there” political ideas come to be thought mainstream and acceptable to the voter.  Overton called this “ the window of political possibility”.  Simply explained:

The Overton window is the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time.

Overton had a “slider” which considered issues, say education, on a scale or continuum representing points on the continuum that relate to the degree of government intervention required and liberty denied for the implementation of policies related to the issue concerned.

In Overton’s schema, whether you are starting from the extreme interventionist end or the extreme libertarian end, you move from “unthinkable”, through “radical” to “acceptable” then “sensible”, finally to reach the extreme policy comfort zone – “popular”.  This is the prized centre, where all politicians like to be located.

Here is Joseph Lehman of the Mackinac Center outlining “the Window”:

https://www.mackinac.org/OvertonWindow

What Joseph Overton thought he was doing was convincing potential clients of his think tank of the utility of organisations like his.  And the aim of these think tanks is, generally, to help move public opinion towards acceptance of initially out-there ideas that the client favours.  It was not to lobby politicians to enact outlandish policies.

Here is Wikipedia:

The Overton Window is an approach to identifying the ideas that define the spectrum of acceptability of governmental policies. Politicians can only act within the acceptable range. Shifting the Overton Window involves proponents of policies outside the window persuading the public to expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones within the window, seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable. According to [Joseph] Lehman, who coined the term, "The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it."

Can one find examples of policies that show the utility of the Overton Window as an explanatory device?  Yes, but it is complicated.

Perhaps the greatest example of the most astonishing and an astonishingly successful campaign to get an issue into the Overton Window in recent times – perhaps in my lifetime – has been the “making gay ok” campaign which culminated in the previously unthinkable notion of same sex marriage.  Until the 1990s, not even homosexuals wanted it.  Homosexual rights campaigners and associated progressivist fellow travellers succeeded in achieving a complete one hundred and eighty degree turn in public opinion in around two decades.  They got a previously “unthinkable” policy into the Window.

Another, not unrelated, recent example of extremist policies being implemented is the case of one jurisdiction after another implementing radical abortion laws, those in New South Wales being characterised by Tony Abbott as “infanticide on demand”, that, on the evidence of polls, did not meet voters’ approval.  Yet they were passed in the parliament.  The NSW Government simply didn’t tell the voters at the previous election what it was up to.  It didn’t need the process of the Overton Window.  It entirely circumvented it.

Some might say that this is contempt for the public, and a mark against the democratic process as it was traditionally practised.  But it also suggests that the modern politician-in-government, imbued with bravura beyond belief and, perhaps, recognition that in the current age of woeful oppositions which no longer do their jobs, governments are often safe in the knowledge that, whatever their bungles, their deals and their lies, voters will see the “other mob” as being even worse.  In such a race to the bottom, the losers are those who find themselves “on the wrong side of history” on key moral and social questions and who have views that the ruling elites hold in contempt.  Or those whose influence is neither numerically significant nor sufficiently powerful to move politicians to enact their (the voters’) preferences.

Another way of contemplating the Overton Window is to consider policies that once were “unthinkable”, that is, beyond “radical”, which then move to near, but not quite in, the Window.  Consider Bernie Sanders’ run for office in 2016 in the USA.  He was the leftist equivalent of the populist Trump, on the outer of the establishment.  And he very nearly got the Democrat nomination, despite his policies being Marxist and previously considered way out of bounds.  One might, of course, suggest that the Democrat National Committee took the view that voters can take only so much leftism, and that politicians like Clinton and Biden present to the electorate as being much closer to the Window.

Indeed, there seem to be nowadays much bigger and faster jumps from “unthinkable” to at least “acceptable”, if not quite implementable.  Perhaps this reflects generational change, the greater willingness of young voters to go radical, or the faster speed of communications that allows ideas to circulate more rapidly than previously, and so gain traction.  Or perhaps it is simply a reflection of the postmodernist “all bets are on” approach to philosophy, politics and society since the ideas of the class of ’68 emerged, fully formed, from Paris and Haight-Ashbury and moved to the political mainstream.

A very different way of seeing the Overton Window is not to open minds to new, perhaps previously unthinkable ideas, thus widening the range of ideas considered acceptable and so enlarging the Window, but rather to narrow the ideas that can be considered debatable, up for discussion. 

This is precisely the method of the “cancel culture” now in the news, of shutting down debates and denying a voice to opponents, and it seems to be working. Think of the pressure brought to bear on climate sceptics like Peter Ridd of James Cook “University”, or the efforts of regulators in the UK and elsewhere to silence opposition to Covid lockdown policies.  This is an attempt to move things OUT OF the Window rather than into it.  It is a reverse Overton Window manouevre, in effect.  And it a favourite tactic of governments, the ABC, universities, the fascist corporate culture driven by woke HR departments, the lawfare brigade, the social justice warriors who attack cultural appropriation – “stay in your lane” – and, of course, the social media lynch mob who undertake “offence archaeology” to dig up embarrassing statements made by an opponent in the past, in order to have him or her sacked or worse. 

As the freedom fighter Toby Young has argued, all these groups want a tiny Overton Window, and are working assiduously, around the clock, to get it.  They have succeeded in shifting “the centre” way leftwards.  Understand this critical development will become the key to a thought-through conservative revival and push-back.

These different examples suggest a number of questions.

What is the utility of the Overton Window?  Does it explain anything/everything?  Does it have implications for political strategy?  Is there a manual for getting your preferred policy idea into the window?  Is the Window a better way of explaining politics, than, say, public choice theory?

All good questions.

Joseph Lehman, a colleague of Overton’s (referred to above), was himself not one to regard the Window as earth shattering:

It just explains how ideas come in and out of fashion, the same way that gravity explains why something falls to the earth.

Indeed, politicians already knew that they need to have policy proposals that are acceptable to the public in order to get elected and get these policies implemented. 

Or do they?  There is evidence both ways.

A certain Bill Shorten as recently as 2019 blew an unlosable election by trying too hard to get policies into the Window that did not belong there – like uncosted (and probably uncostable) climate change policies. 

On the other hand, as I have explored elsewhere, the current Victorian Premier that people to his right characterise as “mad, “a lunatic”, “extremist”, “despotic” and “evil” has consistently implemented leftist policies that many people would regard as outside the Window, only to be elected and re-elected with stunning majorities.

https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/qed/2020/01/how-daniel-andrews-gets-away-with-it/

The leftist New Republic critiqued the Overton Window as a “libertarian” idea that it said peaked in 2016 and operated as (yet another) explanation of the rise of Trump.

https://newrepublic.com/article/138003/flaws-overton-window-theory

Is the Overton Window merely the Trump era’s “go-to nerd phrase”, as one observer has suggested?

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2018/02/25/overton-window-explained-definition-meaning-217010

It is, absolutely, more than this. 

It might be thought that the Window is merely a description – one among many – of how politics work, and therefore not a guide to action.  That it doesn’t provide acute strategic insight.  It IS a framework for first-stage thinking about the core political tasks.  Moreover, Overton himself suggested that those wishing to shift the needle on public attitudes on particular topics should be bold.  They should state the “unthinkable”, perhaps in new ways, and get out and make the case.  It might be surprising what can be achieved.  Look at the same sex marriage debate.  Perhaps the right should take note.

Take the case of those SJWs and others who are endlessly playing the game of narrowing the Window.  A demonic trick, to be sure, but one that is hitherto successful beyond their dreams.  They just keep winning!  Using an Overton Window framework, those on the right-of-centre who normally lose all the battles – and the war – might re-consider their political task as that of re-opening the Window.  By insisting that the things that the woke class has stopped us talking about, say the endless rewards of mass immigration, or the sheer beauty of Islam, through epithets and lies, are indeed allowed to be talked about, and even acted upon politically.

The Overton Window seems to have something to say, then.  Lehman sums the argument up thus:

The Overton Window doesn't describe everything about how politics works, but it does describe one key thing: Politicians will not support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will only espouse policies that they believe do not hurt their electoral chances. 

Against this, it might be argued that politics are about much more than policy change, and that the Window theory is therefore, by its focus on policy, too restricted, too narrow.  Politics also involve – among other things – management of “events, dear boy, events”, as Harold Macmillan once said, about competence, about doing what you say you will do, about high level philosophies and about ensuring that in doing the inevitable deals to get your program through, you don’t offend too many people.  And, the evidence outlined above suggests, politicians will NOT always (now) espouse only policies that they believe will hurt their electoral chances.  They have multiple tricks up their sleeves to get away with imposing elite endorsed policies that would NEVER meet the approval of the punters, if they knew what was being proposed.  Like mass immigration, to suggest but one example.

Writing in 2006, Mackinac Center scholar Nathan Russell stated:

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish … is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents—the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far.

True enough, but such a conclusion is a little underwhelming, and stating the obvious while missing much, such as the political leader’s role in leading, not just following, debates.  It also assumes much on the part of voters.  The ideas of voters may well be ignorant, unthinking, only part-formed, or possibly they don’t even have ideas and political preferences.  It is a rational actor model, and the participants at all levels are often far from rational.

In summary, we all see ourselves as “centrist”, sensible, not extreme.  We appeal to the notion of the middle of the road, where we comfortably sit, not like “extremists”.  Both the political left and the right seek to claim the sensible centre as their own, thereby consigning their opponents to the political fringe.  A place where you do not want to be.  This is the endless play of politics.  Appeal to the centre, and a claim to be centrist, are the basic rules of Politics 101.

The Corridor of Certainty, as cricket “bowlologist” Damian Fleming might say.  Or an Overton Window of Opportunity, you might say.  In the interests of both vigorous democratic debate and of “club sensible” push back against the insanities and evils of the age, we must all be self-consciously in the business of window expansion.

Read 175 times Last modified on Saturday, 04 July 2020 10:46
Paul Collits

Paul Collits is a freelance writer and independent researcher who lives in Lismore New South Wales.  
 
He has worked in government, industry and the university sector, and has taught at tertiary level in three different disciplines - politics, geography and planning and business studies.  He spent over 25 years working in economic development and has published widely in Australian and international peer reviewed and other journals.  He has been a keynote speaker internationally on topics such as rural development, regional policy, entrepreneurship and innovation.  Much of his academic writing is available at https://independent.academia.edu/PaulCollits
 
His recent writings on ideology, conservatism, politics, religion, culture, education and police corruption have been published in such journals as Quadrant, News Weekly and The Spectator Australia.
 
He has BA Hons and MA degrees in political science from the Australian National University and a PhD in geography and planning from the University of New England.  He currently has an adjunct Associate Professor position at a New Zealand Polytechnic.