The concept of the Overton Window was first developed in the mid-1990s by Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, and it was discussed regularly at Mackinac Center seminars. For a brief explanation of the concept, an interactive tool and answers to common questions about the Window and the Mackinac Center, go to www.mackinac.org/OvertonWindow or click here. The essay below is the earliest published Mackinac Center article on the Overton Window for a general audience.
(Prefatory Note: The late, esteemed Joseph P. Overton exerted enormous influence from 1992 to 2003 as a researcher, author and the Mackinac Center for Public Policy’s senior vice president. Key his name into this Web site’s search engine and you’ll see nearly endless references to his work. He was killed in a plane crash on June 30, 2003 but continues to be a source of inspiration to the many around the world who knew him. He would be 57 years of age today — 2017. On this day we are pleased to publish this essay by Nathan Russell as a further tribute to Joe and his legacy. — Lawrence W. Reed, President)
What does a think tank do? Does it educate? Advocate policy? Should a think tank focus on short-term or long-term goals?
Among Joe Overton’s many contributions, he was instrumental in defining the role of the Mackinac Center in particular and think tanks in general. He understood that, regardless of how persuasive the think tank, lawmakers are constrained by the political climate. Therefore, Overton concluded, to be truly successful, the Mackinac Center should not focus on direct policy advocacy, but instead should focus on educating lawmakers and the public in an attempt to change the political climate.
To answer the inevitable questions about the role of a think tank, Overton developed an explanation that others have since dubbed the “Overton Window of Political Possibilities.” Though his theory has roots in complex public choice economics, it boils down quite easily.
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. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?
Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.
In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the “window” of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.
So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the “window,” a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.
Likewise, policies that were once acceptable become politically infeasible as the window shifts away from them. Think tanks can shape public opinion and shift the Overton window by educating legislators and the public about sound policy, by creating a vision for how things could be done, by conducting research and presenting facts, and by involving people in the exchange of ideas.
The example Joe Overton often used to illustrate his window theory was the Michigan school choice issue during the 1980s and ‘90s. The political spectrum for education ranges from full parental choice on the high end to a complete government monopoly without private schools, home schooling, charter schools or any other school choice on the low end. On this spectrum the politically possible range of options was very limited during the 1980s. Politicians could advocate minor, incremental changes for home schooling, and private schools were part of the status quo, but charter schools were definitely out of bounds for a politician to seriously contemplate.
As citizens became aware of education options and their success in other places, the political climate became more favorable and the window of political possibilities in Michigan began to expand to where politicians could advocate home schooling, school choice and even charter schools without losing at the polls. Not only was the upper limit of the window expanded, but the lower boundary has also moved upwards as well — making it politically unwise to push for restrictions on the education freedoms that have been gained.
Home schooling is here to stay, charter schools are well established, and school choice continues to gain ground. In fact, in some parts of Michigan it is now even possible to run for office on a platform that includes the Universal Tuition Tax Credit — another Overton innovation — a situation that was unthinkable just 20 years ago.
Perhaps the Overton window theory is best summed up by a quote from Milton Friedman in his preface to the 1982 edition of Capitalism and Freedom: “That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.”
A long-term focus on shifting the Overton window allows a think tank to follow its ideals and perform a genuinely positive public service, instead of being constrained to merely advocating those policies that are currently possible. When the window of political possibilities is moved along the political spectrum, the impossible becomes desirable and the simply desirable becomes imperative. This is the true influence of a think tank — shaping the political climate of future legislative and legal debates by researching, educating, involving and inspiring. https://www.mackinac.org/7504
And now let look how it works in practice?
Trump’s candidacy, many liberal commentators have suggested, exemplifies Overton’s strategy. By floating extreme policies (build a wall on the Mexican border, ban Muslims from the United States), he has seemingly forced public debate sharply to the right. Meanwhile, the resurgence of socialist politics embodied by Bernie Sanders and British politician Jeremy Corbyn, as well as the passage of right-to-work laws in several states, increasing restrictions on abortion, and the UK’s referendum on EU membership are said to fit the same pattern. Rachel Maddow devoted a segment to the Overton Window before her interview with Sanders last December, explaining how he could shift the consensus leftward. After the jolt of Brexit, John Lanchester began his 5,000-word lament in the London Review of Books with a primer on the concept.
It’s easy to see why the Overton Window holds such appeal. For one thing, it offers a universal theory of change in an age of polarization and fracture. While Trump and the UK Independence Party pull right, and Sanders and Corbyn pull left, Overton’s concept suggests that the mechanism of change is the same. For another thing, it has the virtue of simplicity: Overton did little more than repackage the basic negotiating principle that if you ask for a lot, you will likely get more than if you ask for a little. And although the window offers a theory of change, its central element—the window itself—actually describes the norm from which reality has deviated. Zeynep Tufekci worries in The New York Times that Trump “voices truths outside the Overton Window,” while the British writer Sam Leith speculates that Corbyn may have positioned his party “dangerously far from the centre of the Overton Window.” The window serves as shorthand for the erstwhile consensus. Viewing politics through the Overton Window reinforces liberal notions about the moderate center, even as that center ground erodes.
For conservatives, by contrast, the Overton Window has always been about strategy. Though Overton himself never committed his most influential idea to paper, his Mackinac Center colleague Joe Lehman continued his work after Overton’s death in 2003 at age 43. Lehman not only coined the term “Overton Window,” he weaponized it, setting up training sessions on the concept for other right-leaning think tankers. The term filtered into the conservative blogosphere in 2006, when Josh Trevino enthused about the window as a tool for the right. “Step by step, ideas that were once radical or unthinkable—homeschooling, tuition tax credits, and vouchers—have moved into normal public discourse,” Trevino declared. “The conscious decision to shift the Overton Window is yielding its results.”
The concept did not reach a wider audience, however, until Glenn Beck cast Overton’s ideas as the bogeyman in his 2010 best-seller, The Overton Window. The villain of Beck’s tale is Arthur Gardner, an aging PR guru who plots to use the Overton Window to foist his own objectives (“criminalize dissent,” “reinforce dependence and collectivism”) on an unsuspecting and gullible public. In his afterword, Beck urges readers to watch out for manipulation in their own lives and to set their own priorities.
While Beck shared Overton’s libertarian ideology, he was wary of the window as a strategy for change, imagining a totalitarian left that could hijack it. Its elitist overtones also stuck in his craw: An early champion of the Tea Party, Beck preferred to extol the power of the American people, whereas Overton largely sought to influence policy-making from the top down by “educating lawmakers and the public.” At one point in his novel, Beck takes a veiled swipe at the somewhat otherworldly Mackinac Center, which was founded on an island in Lake Huron: Arthur Gardner’s son boasts that his father “stole the concept” of the Overton Window “from a think tank in the Midwest.”
Beck’s novel met with disapproval from libertarian policy wonks. “Joe Overton deserved better,” one critic mourned in Liberty magazine. But it helped to create the popular impression of the Overton Window not as a strategy to advance principled political beliefs, but as a conspiratorial plot. “We put a false extreme at both ends,” one of the characters reveals, “to make the choices in the middle look moderate by comparison.” Thanks to the novel’s success—it debuted at the top of The New York Times best-seller list and sold 329,000 copies in its first six months—this view has stuck. Where we once talked about shifts in public opinion, we now talk about the Overton Window moving, implying an unfair tampering with the consensus.
This is perhaps the Overton Window’s biggest drawback as a theory of change: It tells us more about the handful of activists who supposedly move the window than the voters whose opinions actually change. While Trump has certainly lowered the standard of debate on the right, he didn’t have to move the consensus rightward; he played to a bloc of voters who already found his proposals desirable. Sanders, too, connected with bottom-up movements such as the Fight for $15 and Occupy Wall Street. To chalk up their successes to shock tactics is to ignore the long-simmering populism that swept both right and left in the presidential primaries. It is impossible to understand what drives these movements without engaging with the economic and cultural circumstances that underpin them.
The more divided we become, the harder it is to locate the Overton Window, let alone move it. There is now a window of policies that are acceptable to the Republican base, and another for Democrats, but on the national level, there is no window. Instead of a consensus edging one way or another, we have a choice between two poles. The Overton Window is ultimately a name for what we have lost, not an indication of where we are headed. Its popularity today represents a powerful nostalgia for the center. It doesn’t help us overcome fragmentation or rebuild a consensus. Its attractiveness lies in its reassurance that a middle ground once existed.