The Overton window is a political theory that describes the range of ideas the public will accept as a narrow "window". According to the theory, an idea's political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within that window rather than on politicians' individual preferences. It is named for its originator, Joseph P. Overton (1960–2003), a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. At any given moment, the "window" includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.
Overton described a spectrum from "more free" to "less free" with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. His degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
The Overton Window is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democratic republic's possible governmental policies. 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.
After Overton's death, others have examined the concept of adjusting the window by the deliberate promotion of ideas outside of it, or "outer fringe" ideas, with the intention of making less fringe ideas acceptable by comparison. The "door-in-the-face" technique of persuasion is similar.
In popular culture
The novel Boomsday applies the Overton window to the subject of Social Security reform in the United States. The technique used was to agitate for "voluntary transitioning," that is, suicide at a certain age in exchange for benefits, as a method of reducing the cost of Social Security. Ultimately, the goal was a more modest form of reducing the burden on younger people for the costs of Social Security.
In episode 139 (September 4, 2014) of his YouTube series "The Trews," comedian and activist Russell Brand said, "What the media does is constrict the conversational space into a very narrow window. It's called Overton's Window. The knowledge that it's okay to discuss is within a very limited range… The information that we receive is in very narrow parameters and the opportunities that we receive are within very, very narrow parameters."
An idea similar to the Overton window was expressed in 1868 in the 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."
— Anthony Trollope, Phineas Finn
In his "West India Emancipation" speech at Canandaigua, New York, in 1857, anti-slavery 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..”
— Frederick Douglass
- Ambit claim
- Argument to moderation
- Slippery slope
- Door-in-the-face technique
- Framing (social sciences)
- Creeping normality
- Political suicide
- Spiral of silence
- Third rail of politics
- Cultural hegemony
- Joseph Lehman. "A Brief Explanation of the Overton Window". Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Retrieved 7 July 2012.
- NNDB "intelligence aggregator" Web site, "Joseph P. Overton"
- "Joseph Overton biography and article index". Mackinac. Retrieved 2013-08-30.
- Daily Kos story, "Why the Right-Wing Gets It--and Why Dems Don't"
- Daily Kos diary, "Morning Feature: Crazy Like a Fox?"
- Glenn Beck Web site, Books, "The Overton Window"
- BlackPast.org website "(1857) Frederick Douglass, 'If There Is No Struggle, There Is No Progress'"
- Pilgrim, Mark (23 August 2006). "W3C and the Overton window - includes a clear explanation". Dive into Mark. Archived from the original on 18 July 2011.
- Diagram of the Overton Window as described by Joseph Overton