Overton Window

Joseph P Overton

third rail

The Overton window is the range of ideas the public will accept. It is used by media pundits and particularly favored in conservative and libertarian discourse.

The term derives from its originator, Joseph P. Overton (1960–2003), of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a free market think tank. Overton described six degrees acceptance of an idea: Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, and Policy.

Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or 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. Contemporary neoconservative scholars claim that radical groups attempt to adjust the window by the deliberate promotion of their ‘outer fringe’ ideas, with the intention of making less fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. They liken this approach to the ‘door-in-the-face’ technique of persuasion: making an outlandish opening demand, makes individuals more likely to accede to a second, more reasonable request.

An idea similar to the Overton window was expressed by Victorian writer Anthony Trollope in 1868 in his novel ‘Phineas Finn’: ”Many who before regarded legislation on the subject as chimerical, will now fancy that it is only dangerous, or perhaps not more than difficult. And so in time it will come to be looked on as among the things possible, then among the things probable;–and so at last it will be ranged in the list of those few measures which the country requires as being absolutely needed. That is the way in which public opinion is made.’ ‘It is no loss of time,’ said Phineas, ‘to have taken the first great step in making it.’ ‘The first great step was taken long ago,’ said Mr. Monk,–’taken by men who were looked upon as revolutionary demagogues, almost as traitors, because they took it. But it is a great thing to take any step that leads us onwards.”

In his ‘West India Emancipation’ speech at Canandaigua, New York, in 1857, abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass described how public opinion limits the ability of those in power to act with impunity: ‘Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.’

Political satirist Christopher Buckley, son of conservative author William F. Buckley, applied the Overton window to the subject of Social Security reform in his 2008 novel ‘Boomsday.’ The book describes a rivalry between squandering Baby Boomers and younger generations of Americans who do not want to pay high taxes for their elders’ retirement. In the novel, the ‘unthinkable’ idea that Millennials are trying to normalize is ‘voluntary transitioning,’ that is, suicide at a certain age in exchange for benefits, as a method of reducing the cost of Social Security.

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