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.”