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The Overton Window, Illustrated

shystee's picture


Definition and discussion of the concept is below. The main points I want to convey with this image:

- There is, or there should be, a constant tug-of-war on the edges of the Overton Window on any issue.

- There is a place for everyone and anyone along the Left side of the rope, as long as we're all pulling in the same general direction.

- The current location of the Overton Window is so far to the right of any objective political spectrum, that what are now considered Extreme Left Positions are really not extreme at all.

Definition, Review:

This is old hat to a lot of folks in the blogosphere, but defining terms is a good thing. Wikipedia:

The Overton window is a concept in political theory, named after the former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, Joe Overton, who developed the model. It describes a "window" in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue.

The lower line with various notches represents this full spectrum in the chart above. The black brackets represent the Window itself, which contains the smaller range of policy that is acceptable to the public at any given time.

Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous "outer fringe" ideas. That makes those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable.

Delivering rhetoric to define the window provides a plan of action to make more acceptable to the public some ideas by priming them with other ideas allowed to remain unacceptable, but which make the real target ideas seem more acceptable by comparison.

The way to shift the Overton Window is by moving the edges, by pushing ideas that are even more extreme than what is actually desired.

As the Overton Window shifts along the spectrum, a specific policy (a notch in the graph) goes through the following phases of public acceptance:

- Unthinkable
- Radical
- Acceptable
- Sensible
- Popular
- Policy

Here is a specific example of the Overton Window in action as it relates to public school policy.

The Importance of "Extremists"

Responding to "progressive conventional wisdom" that says the Democratic Party plays too much to the elusive Middle, Kos Diarist Thereisnospoon:

On the contrary: the GOP knows that the middle DOES matter. They know that by playing to their base in very well-crafted ways, they can shift the very definition of what the middle is. By introducing radicalism into the public discourse (and taking initial heat for it), whatever used to be radical within this context becomes moderate by comparison.

Eliminationist Right-Wing Blogs and Fox News screechers may look like clowns, but that is their function. To stretch the Window so far to the Right that anything short of nuking the Middle East seems acceptable.

Or take the Abortion issue. The prominence (way out of proportion to their actual numbers) of Fundie Whackaloons who want to outlaw abortion completely, has made it acceptable that some procedures have now been, in fact, outlawed.

So non-insane fundy voters can say to themselves "Well, at least abortion isn't completely illegal. Phew!" As if it were even something a modern society that believes in a woman's right to control her uterus would even consider!

The truth is that we need to do both. It is not an either-or scenario. We cannot achieve victory by playing to the base and ignoring the middle, nor can we win by playing to the middle and ignoring the base. We need to do both--and the GOP understands this. ...

To win, we must sway the middle by playing to the base--and we must understand that this is a difficult and heavily calculated process that requires time, money and manpower.

I'm not sure if I agree completely with Spoon, but they're on to something.

The discussion of the Overton Window is completely abstracted from Reality. It assumes that anything can be made acceptable through this technique.

While the Bushies and the Neocons have done a smashing job of proving this point, recent events have shown that Policy which is not based on Reality, and that goes against the best interests of the country tends to fall apart at some point.

More on that and more colorful pictures in another post.

[Welcome, Wonkette readers! The irony of Glen Beck adopting a term for a book title that was propagated in the blogosphere by -- lambert blushes modestly -- the left is almost to great to bear, but then it must be admitted that the right has done far, far better job moving the Overton Window their way than we have moving it ours. Of course, the right, through both legacy parties, is running the country, so they have it easier.. -- lambert]

[Welcome, Peter Daou readers!]

[Welcome, Rockridge Institute readers.]

[Welcome, Naked Capitalism readers.]

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Submitted by lambert on

Shystee, this post has not gotten the attention it deserves, particularly this great metaphor:

There is a place for everyone and anyone along the Left side of the rope, as long as we’re all pulling in the same general direction.

So, so right, and can prevent so many stupid conflicts.

No authoritarians were tortured in the writing of this post.

Jakebnto's picture
Submitted by Jakebnto on

from the left is actually moving the overton window.

That, and reality. The window can only go so far. A pig with lipstick and a wig is still a pig.

Although I did hear a lovely expression on Fresh Air last night - from a Brazilian (I think) woman commenting about singing in English - "Singing in English is like wearing high heels and putting on lipstick - it's not who you really are." What a lovely metaphor.


Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

The point about "There is a place for everyone and anyone along the Left side of the rope, as long as we’re all pulling in the same general direction." is of course true...but of course works both ways. Problem is, as long as there's just one rope, everybody pulling on it is responsible for everybody else pulling the same way. A fuzzy accommodationist can't-we-all-just-be-a-little-less-evil centrist (most of the D side of the US House for instance) is tugging on the same rope as an Eat The Rich And Take Their Stuff firebrand (i.e. the way any recind-the-tax-cuts and Stop The War figure is portrayed).

This leads to the sort of internicine "OMG I don't believe that nutty stuff" which leads to lack of unity. The left-bound rope of course is mostly labeled the Democratic Party.

Contrast this with the way the move to the right has been carried out over the years. We know, now, just how much of it was coordinated behind the scenes over the decades--but did not even we (well, some of us) (hangs head in shame at naivete of a decade ago) mock when Hillary first talked about the "vast right wing conspiracy"?

The way They managed to disguise this was to have, or at least appear to have, lots of ropes tied to the right side of the window. "American Enterprise Institute" it sez under that one talking head. "Focus on the Family" says this other one. "Christian Coalition" sounds ooooooh so big and impressive. "Heritage Foundation" is the label on the next. And so on and on and on. I wish I could find the page the invaluable Bellatrix put together that named all (or most) of these "groups" and showed the strings of funding and control back to the Popes and the Coors and the other rich fucks who stay behind the scenes.

But the effect is to let all of those anti-freedom forces (1) look bigger than they really are in terms of American public opinion, by all polling data but more importantly for purposes here (2) it lets them appear to be independent of each other. So if one group is tugging the rope for Lower Taxes, they don't appear linked in public perception, and more importantly don't have to take responsibility for, some fanatical forced-pregnancy outfit.

When everybody's pulling on the same big long rope everybody along the line is responsible for everybody else. With lots of ropes...not so much, but just as much if not more pulling takes place because somebody, somewhere is pulling all the fucking time.

Oh, and it is indeed brilliant shystee. thanks. :)

Submitted by lambert on

... all shouting into the same echo chamber. "I am the great and powerful Oz." The political balloon is equivalent to the financial balloon...

But we can't do that (funding) nor is it likely that we should do it (ferment of new ideas).

Reacting to Xan's "internecine" point--

I think it's pretty simple to suss out who's really pulling the rope in a generally leftward direction, and who isn't. The DLC isn't, so they need to be thrown off our rope or trampled underfoot, and the litmus test, at least for now, is very simple: Don't use conservative talking points!

So, DLC out, ANSWER in! And why? Because you need the extremes.

No authoritarians were tortured in the writing of this post.

Jakebnto's picture
Submitted by Jakebnto on

as LB points out, is that not everyone on the left side of the window is in fact pulling the rope leftward - some of those pullers are pulling it rightward. It's not so much that they are conservatives in sheep's clothing as it is that they just don't understand the contest.

Or reality, but then, who is a full time realist? No one I know. The only question is how much reality you accept. Conservatives have made a science out of reality denial. Odd, that, for a group that prides itself on pragmatism and realpolitik.


Submitted by lambert on

Is a problem with assholes like you Joe Lieberman who are supposed to be pulling left and are in fact pulling right. By their talking points shall ye know them.

No authoritarians were tortured in the writing of this post.

MJS's picture
Submitted by MJS on

Theocorpcon Surprise

Take the blood of dead soldiers & civilians and generously spread the theological/corporate/neocons(Theocorpcon) side of rope from the Overton Window with this sauce de sanguine

Add layer of the blood of wounded soldiers and civilians to form a crusty veneer

Optional: mix in the future blood from women hemorrhaging in back alleys from "illegal" abortions

Baste with fossil fuels until everything gets really warm

Play tug of war near a cliff, with the Theocorpcons having their backs to said cliff


Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I'd rather see a couple of crack whores who can't keep their legs shut dying in back alleys, than an innocent child vaccuumed from the womb of the very person who is supposed to be protecting it!

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I'd always had an abstract understanding of the concept of the right wing noise machine and why they tolerated the absolute crazies in their midst,pulling the middle much further to the right, but I never knew what it was called.

Man this clarifies so much.I look at the polls over the last 30 years or so, and see that on issues the country is majority center left, and yet the power and the strength of the right continued to grow. And the needs and wants of most of the populace were ignored, and the population kept voting for them, against their own interests. And it never ever made any sort of intellectual sense to me, why that could be so. But I walways knew they kept the Limbaughs,Coulters, Malkins, Becks and O'Reillys bleating and blathering for a reason.

Keep Gravel and Kucinich in this race for as long as possible. Let's move that Overton Window our way for a change. It's not that they are crazy, it's that they are a nice bit lefter than DLC Hilary and Obama.

dr sardonicus's picture
Submitted by dr sardonicus on

Of course Hillary Clinton knew that there was a "vast right-wing conspiracy" in America - she's part of it...

Seriously though, Shystee. this was a great analysis when you first brought up the Overton Window concept, and it's good to see it featured prominently again. Although IMO, the rise of the right in recent years wasn't all due to media manipulation. We need to keep in mind that American conservatism is more of a cultural phenomenon than a political one. These people won't go away because we achieve better message control - in fact they're likely to feel even more aggrieved than they do now.

...for the rest of us

malagodi's picture
Submitted by malagodi on

Nailed it Sardonicus. 'Conservatism' is a cultural phenomenon being exploited by the political machinery. Hence, Sarah Palin.

Just as the 'counter-culture' was a cultural phenomenon before it was ground up and eaten by the political machinists of its day.

Same thing. This is why the health care reform effort was so easily hijacked. It was conducted by the reformers as a political effort at 'reform', instead of a genuinely social, that is cultural, demand for actual health care.

It was so simple. What would you rather have, an insurance policy or actual health care? One, insurance, is political; in the realm of economics. The other, health care, is social, the cultural method of healing. No political effort was going to deliver health care.

On the back of my car is a bumper sticker that asks a fundamental question, a koan of sorts. It asks "why are we so stupid?"

shystee's picture
Submitted by shystee on

Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, ever'body.

Xan: I think it's entirely possible and appropriate to have a multi-roped Left-Wing conspiracy. The key is to have all the ropes pulling in the same direction.

The righties are indeed skilled at keeping an "arms-length" relationship to all their myriad entities, but they do all support each other. I've been listening to a lot of right wing radio at work ('cause a lot of Air America shows are Teh Boring) and they always make sure to "cross-pollinate" by mentioning right-wing bloggers, other radio hosts, Fox news, etc.

The key is that the Right wing has no fear of having to "take responsibility" for their crazies/extremists. They know they need them and find ways of wink-winking nudge-nudging tothem. They just shrug off any close association.

The Beltway Dem types on the other hand are scared shitless of the peace marching grannies and occasionally potty-mouthed feminists to their "extreme" left.

Lambert: You kept bringing up the window so I thought I would make a pitcher of it.

I think the litmus test should be what policy is any particular group advocating: is it to the right or the left of
the current Overton Window? I don't like the Don't Repeat GOP Talking Points test, especially because I get accused of it sometimes. I need to be able to criticize Dem politicians if they are screwing up.

And BTW: you were calling Joementum an asshole, not Jakebnto, right?

Jake: I agree that reality is the X factor in moving the window that the Overton theory ignores. More charts on that coming up.

About the rope pulling, the illustration works if you ignore stated party affiliation: if the policies you promote are not to the left of the window, you are not part of the left. You may identify as a Democrat, but if you're a "Liberal Hawk" who wants to subjugate the Middle East by force, you're on the Right (wrong) side of the issue.

MJS: love the recipe and playing field setup.

Dee Loralei: glad to help, but I can't take credit for it. If you follow the links, it looks like the concept was introduced into the blogosphere by a notoriously foul right-winger.

I totally agree that Kucinich and Gravel should be celebrated rather than shunned for their role in tugging the window leftward.

Dr. S: I've never liked the weight given to the "Culture War". I'm perfectly happy to let some folks continue to hate gays and brown people, as long as they have no political clout to do anything about it. And I think much of the Culture War has been stoked in order to gain political clout.

Submitted by lambert on

Not everyone pulling the rope left identifies as a Democrat.

But for a self-identified Democrat pulling the rope, I think the "Don't repeat Republican talking points" litmus test does apply. (It's about meta-policy, in the party context. When you reinforce the talking points, you reinforce the VRWC, and the VRWC just has to be exposed and destroyed, otherwise the whole country is blindfolded. Otherwise we get nonsense like supporting Lincoln Chaffee because he's good on policy, and getting the Supreme Court justices who destroy the very policy we claim to support. But people who don't identify as partisans don't have that responsibility, I would say.)

And I also agree on Kucinich and impeachemnt. Cohen in WaPo wrote a bizarre editorial on impeachment where he supported Kucinich, gave all the logic for impeachment, and then said it would never happen, but gave no reason. The reason, of course, is that impeachment is hovering just barely outside the Overton Window. Once unthinkable, it's now radical.

No authoritarians were tortured in the writing of this post.

You say "There is a place for everyone and anyone along the Left side of the rope, as long as we’re all pulling in the same general direction."

While this is true, of course, it does also require that some of the more centered, pragmatic elements of the left "sister souljah" the more extreme elements from time to time, while getting shifted at the same time.

This won't be a problem as long as all involved keep their egos in check and understand the dynamic at work. Unfortunately, that's often a difficult thing to ask.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

I agree with Lambert. Many people have conceptualized this but it really needs to get more attention. It really is crucial to understanding the media and political landscape today. I will keep harping on it linking to it at Glenn Greenwald's. That should help. I'd heard of this, but forgot about it. I'm glad that I let Atrios point me in the direction of Henry's post at Crooked Timber

"Not everyone pulling the rope left identifies as a Democrat." Or liberal... and it depends on the issue

"It describes a “window” in the range of public reactions to ideas in public discourse, in a spectrum of all possible options on an issue."

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

The model assumes that all the acceptable policy options are near each other on the ideological scale. More likely, you have a bimodal distribution with Republicans clustering on the right and Dems clustering on the left.

Submitted by lambert on

No doubt, of course, you, and the rest of the pro-coathanger forces would be happy to get an abortion yourself, or one for your girlfriend (if any, and assuming you're not gay), as Christianists often do. Most Christianists are all about applying rules to others, but never to themselves.

We. Are. Going. To. Die. We must restore hope in the world. We must bring forth a new way of living that can sustain the world. Or else it is not just us who will die but everyone. What have we got to lose? Go forth and Fight!—Xan

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

The perspective above appears to me to be valuable as far as it goes. Billionaires wanting more can be on the right end pulling home the return on their investment.

What I think is missing is how K Street, money and business get a hand on anyone running for office because of the high costs of media (air war) and field (ground war) campaigning. It almost does not matter what one wants if one needs money to get on the stage.

So we have hands on the rope pulling toward other forms of investment and continuing the systemic influence of 1 dollar one vote rather than one person one vote.

Who will pay for extreme left votes. Who will take Joe LIeberman's hand off of the rope. Who will tell Barack and Hillary to pull left when all their money is pulling right?

Submitted by lambert on

Is that we will pay for ourselves by taking what is due to us. Or for our families and children.

That's not to say we are funded, of course. I wish!

[x] Any (D) in the general. [ ] Any mullah-sucking billionaire-teabagging torture-loving pus-encrusted spawn of Cthulhu, bless his (R) heart.

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Reading and looking at the Overton Window in this article reminded me of Kurt Lewin's "Field Theory" and "Force Field Analysis". He defined change as "freezing", "unfreezing" and "refreezing" the "forces for a goal or concept", and that the "Force Field Analysis" looked at the "sustaining forces" or "retaining/restraining forces" versus the "driving forces" for change. Either device seems like a useful tool to visualize the "forces that be." But we need to conduct a more complex "macroanalysis" and look at the "higher circles" and "hidden powers that be". G. William Domhoffs, "Power Structure Research" comes to mind. We have to understand the "golden rule" ,them that has the gold write the rules and figure out the pressure points and weak links where we can have some leverage to make a difference for "revolutionary reforms", like single-payer universal healthcare.