• Ujjwala Singh

The Overton Window

The range of policies politically acceptable by the public in discourse is forever shifting, including the types of policies that constitute it and the moral standings those policies represent. Policies that could have at one point in time be seen by society as ridiculous, bizarre, or farcical can, over time, morph to be seen as commonplace, rational, and acceptable. To explain this range of publicly acceptable policies, Joseph P. Overton, [an executive at the Mackinac Centre of Public Policy - a think tank], introduced the concept of the Overton Window in the mid-1990s.

What began as a simple way to explain to any of his potential donors the purpose of a think tank turned into a term that would be used in political discourse for decades to come. Overton, with the help of a brochure and a cardboard slider, presented to these potential donors all the policies that existed for a particular issue (in this case education), from least to most government intervention. On one end was the policy of zero public investment in education, and on the other end was the policy of compulsory indoctrination in government schools, i.e., pupils in government schools had no choice but to have ideas, morals, beliefs, etc. be forced upon them without any possibility of a discussion. On both ends were policies that represented extremes that Overton stated wouldn’t be viable in any scenario. However, in between these extremes were a range of policies that had considerable viability and could be termed acceptable. This range of policies is what we now know as the Overton window. In other words, the Overton window represents political possibility. Not everyone agrees on the ideas inside this window, but it is okay to assume that the ideas that lie within it relate to some level of normalcy, and lie in the mean.

As all fluctuant concepts do, the Overton window often shifts depending on the progression of the ideas of society as time barrels forwards. When politicians deliberate on policy formulation, they understand that those policies can’t be made by individuals based on their whims and fancies, no matter how strong their personal beliefs are- unless those policies are considered acceptable by the society at large. The factors that go into making the shift in the Overton window include cultural change, political action, moral standings, advocacy, etc. Of course, all of these factors take time to become impactful enough to change the mindsets of the general public and cause a shift in the window, but the advancement of a society’s ideas depends on them.

For example, if it becomes more acceptable for society to give women the right to vote, then the range of the Overton window changes along with that progression. Other examples of changes that altered the course of society and shifted the Overton window are the abolition of slavery, expansion of moral circles concerning animal welfare, and advocacy for same-sex marriage.

Proof that the Overton windows shift has a direct impact on how society functions and the policies that run it can be seen since the legalisation of same-sex marriage in the United States. A concept that once wasn’t anywhere near even the extremities of the Overton window now dwells within its safe spaces and has also attained legal feasibility.

The quantifiable changes in the range of societally acceptable ideas prove to show that the Overton window was an important concept long before it was termed, and continues to show us how our ideals, values, decisions, and mindsets develop and advance over time. In conclusion, the Overton window does not dictate what is good or bad or even give us the slightest idea of what should or should not constitute acceptable policies; It only serves to make the mindsets of the general public more transparent, and dictate the types of policies that can be put out into the hands of the public and have some magnitude of viability. It shows the policies that the public is currently willing to accept or consider, and helps politicians with policy formulation.

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