The Overton Window

by | Apr 18, 2019


The concept of the “Overton Window” was created by a policy director at a think tank, Joseph Overton. The concept is that (most) politicians will not pursue policies and ideas outside of a relatively small window of acceptability. Things that are too far outside of the window are dangerous for a politician to discuss/support. Note: The above sliding scale is not necessarily liberal vs. conservative, rather the scale is usually “less freedom” to “more freedom.”

The Overton Window moves over time. Ideas/policies once thought unthinkable can move into the window of potential policy.

Overton himself suggested that the most expeditious way to move the window was to propose ideas at the extremes. This makes sense – by forcing people to consider extreme views, ideas just outside the window seem more acceptable. Traditionally, the job of proposing ideas outside of the window fell to think tanks who provided research and policy papers on ideas outside of the window. The media and pundits often pick up on think tank policy and broadcast it. IFOD on Think Tanks. Politicians did not engage in proposing ideas at the extremes – it was too dangerous to their political careers.

The Overton Window model has changed. Politico summarizes the change well:

And then Trump came along. By transforming the far right’s racial subtext on immigration into … let’s call it “super-text,” Trump revealed that the Overton window was far wider than establishment politicians and the media had previously assumed. The dynamic played out on the left, as well, with Bernie Sanders’ unexpectedly strong showing in the 2016 Democratic primaries revealing that for a large chunk of America’s liberals, “socialist” was no longer a dirty word. Whatever the reason, the electorate was amenable to ideas that just four years earlier would have been anathema.

The increasing political polarization of the electorate, as well as the internet’s ability to deliver ideas that once would have been ignored by the mass media, have been driver of the change in what we view as unthinkable vs. potentially acceptable.

1 Comment

  1. In design there is a similar concept – MAYA. Most Advanced Yet Acceptable. If it is too extreme people will not adopt it right away. So sometimes great ideas are scaled back to “acceptable” levels of change


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