Overton Window

The Overton Window is the political Superbowl. If your idea is In the Window, then it's being seriously discussed by the people who make our big decisions for us. This isn't about the Glenn Beck novel. It's about the theory behind it.


Just The Facts

  1. The Overton Window is named after its originator, Joseph P. Overton, former vice president of the libertarian Mackinac Center for Public Policy.
  2. Joseph Overton died in 2003, and the conservative movement picked up his idea and ran with it.
  3. The theory only makes sense if you are a libertarian and/or very paranoid.

The Window According to Joseph Lehman

Joseph Lehman wrote an article about his late colleague (and fellow Joseph)'s idea about how ideas become laws. The explanation is pretty straightforward, and its primary purpose seems to be to justify the efforts of think tanks in general.

It's not entirely clear why it's necessary to line the ideas up according to how much "Freedom" they afford anyone, and why the whole Freedom Scale structure is necessary, but okay.

The Window According to Daily Kos

Some folks on the left are kinda scared of this idea, and warn that "to win, we must realize the power of the Overton Window, and stop kowtowing to the antiquated thinking that pits the Middle versus the Base."

That particular author also takes some issue with the way the issues are grouped on the Freedom Scale. He thinks they should have been in a different order. But he doesn't spend much time on it, because the whole Freedom Scale thing isn't really that central to the idea anyway.

The Window According to Glenn Beck

Glenn Beck: "What's that I smell? Fear? I know what to do with that."

"There is a powerful technique called the Overton Window that can shape our lives, our laws, and our future. It works by manipulating public perception so that ideas previously thought of as radical begin to seem acceptable over time. Move the Window and you change the debate. Change the debate and you change the country."


The Problem with this whole Freedom Scale thing

The issues are grouped according to the degree of "Freedom" that is lost or gained by replacing existing policy with a new idea. There is nothing even approaching a consensus on how this should be measured. For example, anti-terrorism measures: at what point is the fiscal cost plus potential cost to privacy entailed by increased government surveillance greater than the safety gained from prevention of terrorist attacks? How do privacy, safety, and tax revenue translate into graphable quanta of freedom?

When it comes down to it, you really can't lay a bunch of issues on a spectrum like the one involved in the formulation of the Overton Window without making a LOT of assumptions. That's not necessarily a bad thing; Freedom is problably the most inherently subjective thing there is. Of course it gets tricky to measure. It means different things to different people. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

There's also the small issue that having the y-axis measure "Freedom" at all is completely arbitrary. Why measure that particular value as opposed to a different one? Why not "Justice?"

Or for that matter, how about "Awesome?" I'll arrange the ideas on the issue according to which ones I like most and least. That's what most people who use the Overton Window do anyway, so just call it what it is.

If Puff Daddy is coming to my parties, laws don't apply to me anyway.

The Policy Point will end up somewhere in the middle. I can arrange my Awesome Meter so that I've got the most awesome stuff I could imagine up top (this is where ideas about turning the Sphinx into a mobile command center/pimpmobile go), and further down / more realistic to what we've already got. On the other side of the Policy Point is where the suck lives; this is where I get thrown in jail and forced to watch Friedburg and Seltzer movies for the rest of my life.

Lay the Freedom-measuring Overton Window scale on top of that and you'll probably notice that the issues that were close to Policy on that one are close to Policy on this one (albeit possibly in different directions). That's because the Window itself encompasses ideas in such a way that has NOTHING TO DO with what the y-axis measures.

The Overton Window exists where it does because of proximity to the Policy Point, and nothing more. No matter what you're measuring, the stuff close to the status quo is usually where the Window is. Politics is a game of inches and degrees, for the most part, and ideas that end up In the Window are there as a matter of fact of political feasibility.

This makes the Overton Window, as it exists, useful if you want to prioritize your own values and measure the world against what you want it to be and what you really, really don't want it to be. That seems to be what it's used for anyway.

An Alternative

So here's an idea: instead of the y-axis measuring Freedom, let's just have it measure Political Feasibility. In other words, let's put the Policy Point all the way up at the top, to represent that what we're doing in the here and now is the most politically feasible idea currently in existence. As evidenced by the fact that, y'know, we're already doing it.

Electing different people into public office causes the window to tilt.

The Window extends a distance below that, encompassing the ideas that are taken seriously in Washington or wherever this particular issue is to be decided. And here's where things get really cool; the ideas don't need to arranged strictly along the y-axis. They can spread out on the x-axis so that ideas that occupy similar levels of political feasibility can be placed side-by-side.

And if you want, you can then CORRECTLY do what so goddamn many people who have misinterpreted the Overton Window have incorrectly done: make that x-axis politically left and right.

Makes more sense now, doesn't it? All of the ideas on the scale are trying to move up, and most of them are doing so on one side of the political spectrum or the other. Occasionally an idea gets bipartisan support; those ideas move into the Window rapidly.

And what defines the boundaries of the Window? The will of the electorate, as articulated through election results. Talking about ideas gives them momentum; it gets people arguing for them and against them under the aegis of the First Amendment. Ideas are ridiculed, discussed, researched, proposed, and refuted.

And everyone gets to do so according to their own personal Freedom (or Whatever) Scale. That's more or less how democracy is supposed to work. But it only works if you vote.