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The Overton Window

By Paul Collits - posted Thursday, 9 July 2020


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).

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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.

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.

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Here is Joseph Lehman of the Mackinac Center outlining "the Window":

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:

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This article was first published on The Freedoms Project.



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About the Author

Paul Collits is an Associate Professor at the University of Southern Queensland and is Research Director of the Economic Development and Enterprise Collaboration at the University’s Fraser Coast Campus.

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