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 a political science theorem. The Overton Window, also referred to as the “window of discourse,” was developed by Joseph Overton (1960-2003), an American policy analyst and senior vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a think tank that is focused on policy research and educational programs, located in Midland, Michigan. 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 or ideas that are politically acceptable to the public at any given time. A successful politician, then, is able to assess what is politically acceptable and promote those policies, falling inside the Overton Window, that make him or her appear sensible — as opposed to appearing radical or extreme. The 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 think tanks and politicians should propose policies that fall inside the window of acceptability. 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.” However, since the late 90s, the concept of the Overton Window has been modified by the media and politicians: politicians now control the Overton Window. That is to say, a fringe idea or theory that falls outside the Overton Window, can become mainstream or conventional wisdom by constant and consistent promotion that shifts public opinion, thus shifting or expanding the Overton Window. A perfect example of this is in the promotion of the QAnon conspiracy theory, which is based on unfounded claims that the deep state, composed of satan-worshipping cannibals and pedophiles, are actively working against President Trump and his administration. By promoting the QAnon theory ad nauseam through television and social media, the Republican party finally shifted the Overton Window (or perhaps smashed it wide open) so that QAnon became mainstream in the party. In 2020, Trump retweeted QAnon-linked accounts about 216 times; there were 19 Republican candidates linked to QAnon who ran for congressional office (and a few actually won!), and QAnon (with its catchy slogan, “Where we go one we go all”) was one of the key inspirations for the assault on the Capitol in Washington, D.C. on January 6, 2021. A survey conducted by the Pew Research Center found that in September 2020, about 50% of Americans had heard about this conspiracy theory. More disturbing was this find: of those who had heard about QAnon, about 20% had a positive view of the movement.
Indeed, 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 warned us how manipulating the Overton Window could not only twist fringe ideas into conventional wisdom, but also create the illusion of free thinking. Chomsky wrote, “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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