If you guessed, “A really heavy window, weighing over a ton,” you get points for discerning the obvious. However, the Overton Window is not a physical object — it is theorem. The Overton Window, also referred to as the “window of discourse,” was developed by Joseph Overton, an American policy analyst. The theorem states: an idea’s political viability depends on whether it falls in the range of being sensible or acceptable as opposed to a politician’s preferences or being radical or unthinkable. Thus, the Overton Window frames a range of policies that a politician can support without appearing too extreme in the context of the public opinion at the time. The spectrum that Overton Window lies over a vertical axis that ranges from “More Freedom” at the top to “Less Freedom” at the bottom with respect to government intervention. As the window slides over the axis, a policy or idea moves through six levels of public acceptance (from the center to outward): “Policy” to “Popular” to “Sensible” to “Acceptable” to “Radical” and finally to “Unthinkable.”
Overton believed that politicians can propose policies that fall into the window of acceptability, but more importantly, can promote ideas outside that window by effectively persuading the public to expand the Overton Window. Overton wrote: “The most common misconception is that lawmakers themselves are in the business of shifting the Overton window. That is absolutely false. Lawmakers are actually in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it.” By shifting the Overton Window, a politician can make fringe policies or ideas more acceptable. In his book, The Common Good (1998), social critic and political activist Noam Chomsky warns how manipulating the Overton Window can create the illusion of free thinking. “The smart way to keep people passive and obedient is to strictly limit the spectrum of acceptable opinion, but allow very lively debate within that spectrum—even encourage the more critical and dissident views. That gives people the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”
A related term is “walking through the Overton door,” which is defined as discussing or suggesting policies that are becoming popular but have not become official policies.
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