The “Overton Window” and how to apply it

With Glen Beck having discovered the “Overton Window” more than 2 years after I did, I thought this would be a great time to re-post my essay/post from Jan. 2008.

Being new here, I thought this might be an nice place to repost it.
Note that this was posted pre-Obama and pre-tea party. I think it is still wholly relevant, but I luxuriate in the fact that the “hand is on the other foot now.”

I found a good post over at a pretty good lefty blog. Apparently, some Champaign-Urbana blogger named “The Squire” started blogging again, and he posted something pretty significant here. (clicking the link will get you an interesting and polite discussion)

The poli-sci concept is called “the Overton Window,” and if you want the very short version of it, I can boil it down to five words.

“The Limits Define the Center”

Interestingly, I’ve used this on the air as one of my tidbits of “Extreme Wisdom” that I often use at the end of my shows (back when I had a radio show). I attributed it to Ronald Reagan, but if you Google the exact words above in quotes, the only reference that shows up is one of my comments on my favorite blog.


This post on another lefty blog highlights the main point.

This is old hat to a lot of folks in the blogosphere, but defining terms is a good thing. Wikipedia:

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joe Overton, who developed the model. It describes a “window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue.

Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable.

Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

Again, this isn’t rocket science, but people who actually care about policy should be conscious of this phenomena. Regular visitors to my blog should know that my aggressive (and accurate) attacks on the corrupt “Education Industry”, along with my (so-called) extreme plan to reform Illinois’ Tax and Education system, provides plenty of room to my left for expansion of charter schools, tuition tax credits, and incremental increases in parental choice.

If there is one thing in the Wikepedia entry that isn’t covered effectively, it is that even if an idea is ‘extreme’, it may be a good idea nonetheless. (like my school reform plan) Remember that at one point in time, ending slavery was considered so extreme that we had to allow it if we wanted to found this nation.

You could (or I could anyway) write an entire poli-sci course on the effective application of “The Overton Window.” One segment could cover the relation of “negative campaigning” to moving the “window” one direction or another – only faster. Another segment could be about the political cowardice of politicians and how the new technologies allow partisans of good ideas the ability to circumvent the politician, and go right to his constituents.

If you read the Mackinac Center piece on The Overton Window (and it should surprise no one that a right wing think tank articulated this first) you will still see the overbearing focus on persuading politicians directly.

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), 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. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

If you read this in context, you see instantly why the right is being taken to the cleaners by the left at the grass roots level. These denizens of liberty are still focussing on the sclerotic, corrupt, and generally brain-dead “political class” while the left is both paying kids to go door-to-door and putting policy and issue ads on TV.

The Heritage, Heartland, and CATO axis better wake up. Politicians react to people in their districts, not to the flood of mail from think tanks. The investments in mailings to legislators offer a tiny rate of return compared to billboards, TV ads, Facebook posts and tweets that go directly to the people.

The investment in 20 kids paid $10.50 an hour for 20 hours a week ($4200/wk and $218,000/yr) is a far better investment than 1, 2, 3 or 4 pasty white kids becoming part of the right-wing think-tank bureaucracy (which is starting to look an awful lot like the wasteful education bureaucracy that they rightfully criticize).

In closing, I keep trying to tell people it is much less about left or right, and much more about the quality of the idea(s). I’m open to the possibility that our friends on the left have one or two good ideas that might be worth considering. That said, it is my view that the “center-libertarian-right” coalition – to the extent that it still exists, has had superior policy ideas for about the last 20-30 years.

If the left is starting to post on “The Overton Window” while cleaning our clocks in organizing and dissemination, we on the “right” had better take notice. I’m of the belief that with equal resources, our ideas will prevail because they are more in tune with the American psyche / worldview. The sad thing is that we don’t have “equal resources”, and worse yet, the resources we have are being misapplied by the “leaders” – who are becoming increasingly timid and bureaucratic. (Hence the “Only a ‘moderate’ can win” nonsense spewing forth from Illinois’ so-called Republicans)

Back to 2010 and applying the Overton Window concept…

I like to make the case that someone should be pushing envelope, not just on policy, but on rhetoric that sells that policy as well. Rather than politely debate how much of a raise the teachers union can squeeze out of you, why not simply call for end of public unionization?

It’s good policy. It can be defended. Once articulated and defended, the debate never goes back to the same shape. It’s now out there as an option.

You may find that view “extreme”, but as I’ve stated “the limits define the center.”

21 thoughts on “The “Overton Window” and how to apply it”

  1. The policy choices for the Republican Party are coming up from the bottom and not down from the top. The tea parties will remake the GOP or it will remain stuck in the present cycle, in power only when the Democrats screw up badly enough that the voters will elect “the other” no matter how stupid.

  2. Outlaw government employee unions. Dismantle 80% of the departments on this list: , starting with the Department of Energy, the ATF, HHS, DEA, and the Department of Education. Repeal the 17th Amendment. Limit days Congress is in session to 100 days per year. Require mandatory 10-year sunset provisions in all laws passed by Congress. Move tax day (April 15) to the first Wednesday in November, or election day to April 16; End all restrictions on campaign finance, but make public disclosure mandatory and transparent.

    For starters.

  3. This concept should be studied in the context of the entertainment and news-media industries. The entertainment industry thrives on pushing the limits of societal acceptability. “Shock Value” is a common term used to gauge the successful potential of a media project. Whether it’s News Media or Entertainment, the extremes are constantly being exceeded. This will not end up well.

  4. This is merely a restatement of Hegel’s thesis, antithesis, synthesis triad. And it has been used successfully by the political Left for a very long time. Stasis cannot be reached so long as the holders of the thesis agree to move to the synthesis.

    The window could be moved in the opposite direction except for one thing: the Left now has moved the cultural concept of morality in its own direction. So they have the moral upperhand by the use of Social Justice, replacing traditional justice, and creating a huge set of co-dependent voters to cinch the entrenchment.

  5. I wonder if any connection is being implied between gay pride weekend and the Overton window? The smiley faces on television news programs all convey a message at odds with the mainstream, or a fear of real diversity of opinion. Funny how our overlords seem to come from those with the smaller number of supporters.

  6. Politicians react to people in their districts

    Um, is that why the Democrats shoved health care down the throats of America?

    Or is reality much more complicated than The Overton Anus

  7. “Funny how our overlords seem to come from those with the smaller number of supporters.”

    That’s just it, the left follows the Alinsky creed of making as much “noise” as possible. The whole idea is to make your movement look big and powerful even if it is not.

  8. Isn’t this Overton Window really another way of phrasing “Take two steps forward, take one step back, repeat”? Result’s the same, looks to me.

  9. When I was in grad school I think I understood this better through the work of Derrida and Deconstructivism. He explored the order of structure and was a required read for architecture. I thought some of his work on grammer and writing touched a cord with me in how it is the margin on a page, the absence of words, which defines or gives structure.
    Basically, it is the margins that defines something .

  10. I hadn’t thought about it before, but it now seems clear that an independent and ongoing tea party movement is just what this nation needs. Push the fringes back on the right side by re-adopting the positions of our founders.

    The only “problem” with this is that your movement needs to provide support, popular and financial, to “fringe” groups, to somewhat legitimize them. Leftists have always been willing to co-opt charitable foundations and use them to support their fringe, but the right has no such support infrastructure in place.

    Are conservative Republicans ready to put their money a little further right than they are, to help move this concept along? I wonder.

  11. I coined a phrase “The ends define the middle” in the mid-eighties in email and other discussions relating to space policy, and I was indeed thinking of how our ‘radical’ space policy friends were helping us to pull the spectrum of ‘reasonable debate’ more to where we wanted to see it.

  12. Obama is the Messiah
    Obama is a Christian
    Obama has a Muslim father
    Obama has a Muslim name
    Obama had a Muslim education
    Obama is a Muslim
    Obama is anti Semitic
    Obama is anti Christian
    Obama is the AntiChrist

    This is a construction of Overton’s window around Barack Hussein Obama. It is difficult to expand the extremes. Obama is God? Obama is Satan? These are hard for anyone to believe.
    In this case the center must be redirected. “Mohamed is the Antichrist” is one possibility. Where does that lead? An interesting thought from a Buddhist.


  13. In practice, the Overton Window works like this: Democrats always nominate the farthest Left candidates that any particular voting district will tolerate.

    In “safe” heavily Democratic districts you get Barney Frank, Henry Waxman, Nancy Pelosi. In more conservative districts you get the so-called “Blue Dogs”. The job of the far Left representative is to promote the most ideologically progressive legislation and policy as possible. The moderates and Blue Dogs then tailor those ideas to fit their particular constituencies. Their job is to sell voters on as much of the program as they can get across.

    As the Overton Window shifts we end up with far-left Greens and eco-warriors drifting closer to the center of the picture, but the Boy Scouts or people who have built investment portfolios pushed to the fringe.

  14. If the limits define the center, then an extremist who advocate government murder of unneeded teachers creates space for merely firing them.

    I find such notions abhorrent. Some notions are wrong, and are always wrong. Theft is always wrong. Lying is always wrong. Enslavement is always wrong. Torture is always wrong. Murder is always wrong. Perversion is always wrong. Socialists always begin with lies, then move on to theft, enslavement, torture (when the slaves are less productive than desired) and murder. The next generation (such as Putin) trained in the coercive policies of enslavement, torture, and murder, moves on to perversion.

  15. The result of the “Overton Window” is to open the promotion of mass murder to political discussion. What a shameful practice! We know where such practices led. Never again!

    Anyone who advocates mass murder should be shunned, not debated.

  16. All,

    I’m gratified by all the comments. I guess I should have been blogging here instead of at my own site. Some comments on your comments…

    1. If the limits define the center, then an extremist who advocate government murder of unneeded teachers creates space for merely firing them.

    This merely tests the validity of the Overton theory. Theoretically, the statement may be correct, but in practice, it probably is so extreme that it engenders sympathy for unneeded teachers and undermines support for laying them off.

    (which raises the issue of ‘false flag’ Overton Operations)

    2. As the Overton Window shifts we end up with far-left Greens and eco-warriors drifting closer to the center of the picture, but the Boy Scouts or people who have built investment portfolios pushed to the fringe.

    This is only because ‘boy scouts’ and people ‘with portfolios’ sit out 3-4 election cycles or listen to their 2nd (trophy) wives and move left “with the times.” The right abdicates far more than they are defeated, as our massive victories (1980, 1994, 2010) every once in while points out.

    Maybe we should remain engaged or (HEAVEN FORBID!) run for office.

    Not that I’m a Randroid, but her best advice (in one of her essays) “What should one do?” is to “pronounce judgement”. Sometimes, simply saying “I disagree” or “that’s wrong” has Overton implications. When at a BBQ of suburban squishs drifting left, even saying “you’re wrong” is a microcosmic Overton moment.

    3. Um, is that why the Democrats shoved health care down the throats of America? Or is reality much more complicated than The Overton Anus

    I don’t think the application of the theory is simple. It merely adds to a way of looking at things.

    Regarding your point that the politicians shoved Obamacare down our throats instead of listening to constituents, this doesn’t disprove or negate the point that politicians are susceptible to constituent contact.

    Obamacare was an act of raw political power, and even Pelosi said passing it was worth losing the house (in so many words).

    Lastly, I don’t know if there is a place for the development of an “Overton Anus” theory. I would have take in all your thoughts on the matter as a hole.

  17. This concept was also observed in the 1960s, where, IIRC, commentators opined that Malcolm X was useful for making the demands of M. L. King etc. seem more reasonable. (Note that I am not positing that M.L. King was actually unreasonable!)

  18. How does the relatively sudden awakening of a previously silent or disengaged group of people affect the theory? Hopefully the window jumps multiple spaces rather than slides right or left. If not we are in for a couple rough decades.

  19. maybe the public “mood” shifts on its own, giving the appearance that some “force” has caused the change. various ideas are always floating around (like bacteria and viri) waiting for conditions to appear that allow them to “bloom”. you might as well call this the “Lucy Syndrome” as a good number of episodes of that show used this technique.

Comments are closed.