What shall we discuss? Or, what shall we discuss and be taken seriously? A person can throw out almost any idea, but many of those ideas may be batted aside as nonsense. At least, they may be batted aside as nonsense today; tomorrow, the idea might be more acceptable, or even a majority opinion.
That’s the concern of the “Overton Window of Political Possibilities.”
Joseph Overton, an academic at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Michigan, developed the concept in the mid-90s. The center described it this way:
“Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time.”
This doesn’t amount to a value judgment, but it does suggest what’s realistic, as a matter of public policy, at a specific moment.
Same-sex marriage would be a useful case study of how a subject once considered out of bounds – an abomination or a joke if considered at all – could move over time into the window of political realism. Marijuana legalization may be a similar example.
Ideas move in and out of the window with some regularity, over the span of time. Judgment comes into play when we decide which ideas should or shouldn’t move, and in which direction.
Why ideas move is a question for political scientists, and many have weighed in (whether or no specifically citing Overton).
And there are other uses. Conservative talk show host Glenn Beck released a novel called The Overton Window (2010), a political conspiracy potboiler about a powerful elite seeking to take over the United States by moving an unacceptable concept – “one world, ruled by the wise and the fittest and the strong, with no naive illusions of equality or the squandered promises of freedom for all” – into the Overton window.
Whatever the virtues of the novel (few, reviewers seemed to agree), it got the point of the “window” backward: It is not something that can be manipulated by a “wag the dog” strategy, but rather serves as a measure of how the public changes its mind.
Writer Maggie Astor described it this way: “The key is that shifts begin with the public. Mr. Overton argued that the role of organizations like his own was not to lobby politicians to support policies outside the window, but to convince voters that policies outside the window should be in it. If they are successful, an idea derided as unthinkable can become so inevitable that it’s hard to believe it was ever otherwise.”