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The Overton Window

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Aquila King


For those of you who've never heard the term 'Overton Window', let me start out simply with the Wikipedia definition:


The Overton window, also known as the window of discourse, is the range of ideas tolerated in public discourse. The term is derived from its originator, Joseph P. Overton, a former vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, who in his description of his window claimed that an idea's political viability depends mainly on whether it falls within the window, rather than on politicians' individual preferences.[1][2] According to Overton's description, his window includes a range of policies considered politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, which a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain or keep public office.



Furthermore, according to the earliest published Mackinac Center for Public Policy article on the topic of the Overton Window:


Imagine, if you will, a yardstick standing on end. On either end are the extreme policy actions for any political issue. Between the ends lie all gradations of policy from one extreme to the other. The yardstick represents the full political spectrum for a particular issue. The essence of the Overton window is that only a portion of this policy spectrum is within the realm of the politically possible at any time. Regardless of how vigorously a think tank or other group may campaign, only policy initiatives within this window of the politically possible will meet with success. Why is this?

Politicians are constrained by ideas, even if they have no interest in them personally. What they can accomplish, the legislation they can sponsor and support while still achieving political success (i.e. winning reelection or leaving the party strong for their successor), is framed by the set of ideas held by their constituents — the way people think. Politicians have the flexibility to make up their own minds, but negative consequences await the elected officeholder who strays too far. A politician’s success or failure stems from how well they understand and amplify the ideas and ideals held by those who elected them.

In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the "window" of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.

So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the "window," a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.


(Bold Added)


Shifting the Overton Window is a perfectly normal and natural part of any sort of social and political progress. It like any tool can be used for good and bad, so shifting the Overton Window is not inherently a bad thing in itself. In fact in many cases, it has been shifted greatly towards that which is objectively good. However there are also times in which the Overton Window of acceptability shifts in the opposite direction towards the negative.

To name a few examples of the Overton Window taking effect:

  • After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, Islamic terrorism became a frequent topic of conversation around the country. While there was some organized opposition to the Patriot Act, the law passed congress with overwhelming majorities in both houses, and it's been renewed faithfully ever since. Not to mention the drastic changes to airline security, significant increases in military spending, and the creation of a surveillance state that would make George Orwell blush.
  • Before the Civil Rights Act of the 60's, segregation was accepted as a natural aspect of civil society. Now days however, such levels of racism is expected to be rebuked with the harshest of criticisms, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is universally regarded as a Civil Rights hero.
  • Just a few decades ago, the idea of same-sex marriage was all but impossible to even conceive of. But a few people did conceive of it, and dared to advocate it. At first they were only a handful of 'radicals', but over time, the idea gained support. Now, it's an established right in the States and countries around the world, and is now the mainstream.

All social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress. The concept of different races mingling in public, or women voting, or animals having rights - all these are examples of issues where the Overton window has moved over time, so that positions which were once viewed as unthinkably radical have become the accepted wisdom, while those that were once considered mainstream are now outside the window, and unacceptable to advocate in mixed company.

So, how do you shift the Overton window? The answer is simple: You have to stand outside it and pull. Social change always begins with a few brave people who dare to advocate something previously unthinkable. And most of those first-generation advocates, to be perfectly honest, suffer scorn, ridicule and opprobrium, are often even targets of persecution and violence. But by their mere existence, by their willingness to stand fast on their principles and refusal to compromise, they stretch the boundaries of what the majority considers possible and redefine what counts as the "moderate" position.


So why do I bring all of this up? Well, because of Donald Trump.

Donald Trump won the U.S. Presidency by discovering topics and proposing ideas that for years were deemed unacceptable, far outside the Overton Window of acceptable political speech on the right side of the political spectrum, and made them acceptable positions once more. He took policy positions, personal actions, and insulting and hateful remarks that were once thought to be taboo, and made them normal political discourse.

In essence: He shifted the Overton window. His goal was to 'Make America Great Again', thereby reversing the shifting flow of the Overton Window that had been moving gradually more progressive for the past several decades or so. However the important key factor isn't just that he shifted the Overton Window, it's that he shifted the Overton Window amongst conservatives all while progressives became either more progressive or stayed relatively the same. Allow mw to explain...


“Don’t normalize this” has become a kind of rallying cry during President Trump’s first year and a half in office; a reminder to not get too acclimated to Trump’s norm-breaking and erratic behavior. But the real danger of the Trump presidency might have less to do with Trump’s abnormality and more to do with how “normal” he makes other Republicans look by comparison. Everything inside the Overton Window is normal and expected, while everything outside the Window is radical, ridiculous, or unthinkable. And Overton argued that the easiest way to move that window was to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the Window as possible. Because forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they rejected it, would make all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison. It would move the Window of acceptability slowly in that direction.

Say what you will about media outlets, but it's an objective psychological fact that that which you are routinely exposed to on a regular basis shapes many of the core aspects of who you are, what you think, and what you believe. We all have our own favorite media outlet(s), some more than others. Some of us blindly trust whatever is given to us from certain sources, others put a bit more thought and research into what's presented to them. But overall, we all end up having to either accept or reject the stories presented by some sort of news source(s), whether the merits of said source(s) are valid or not. We must all admit that we simply aren't capable of thoroughly researching every single bit of news ourselves. No one is perfectly 100% objective all the time. To do so would be a full-time job. Now, on to Trump's influence on this...

Trump’s presidency has forced news networks to grapple with conspiracy theories, right-wing trolls, and dishonest government spokespeople and political pundits who tell outright lies; making them a regular fixture of our national political debates. And that grappling has moved the Overton Window in ways that will warp our politics long after Trump’s presidency comes to an end. While most people see that mainstream media outlets are anything but objective and unbiased, they do at least attempt to play the neutrality card from time to time. What do I mean by that exactly? Simple. They use the Overton Window as the ultimate standard of acceptability by bringing people from both sides of the political spectrum (within the OW) onto their shows so as to 'debate' one another on the issues, treating each opposing position as 50/50 acceptable and debatable possibilities. Watch just ten to fifteen minutes or so of CNN for example, and you'll see what I'm talking about. Views that would've previously been considered extreme and odious positions, are slowly but surely accepted as debatable topics held by the majority, so long as a significant number of those who appear on the media present such extremist views in the light of now being acceptable political discourse.

Furthermore, when entire media outlets unabashedly no longer pretend to be unbiased towards one political viewpoint over another, and simply become partisan political apologist stations who run non-stop coverage voicing their political views as if they were objective fact (such as Fox News, MSNBC, various YouTube and Talk Radio stations/channels and various other 'news' sites AlterNet or Breitbart, etc.), then the shifting of the Overton Window gets set in overdrive. Now instead of viewing 'both sides' of the political spectrum (within the OW), scores of people are now able to view political positions expressed through content that ever so incrementally push the bounds of acceptability further and further their direction of the political spectrum, conveniently without any exposure to the alternative perspective's point of view. In short: We now thanks to the advent of the internet and social media, etc. have numerous means by which to expose ourselves to ONLY the political content on one end of the political spectrum. Thereby slowly but surely altering people's perspectives on what is and is not considered to be accepted political discourse.


This may be a lot to take in, but I personally believe this to be the ultimate reasoning for why partisan polarization in the U.S. is at an all-time high. And it is also why certain political positions, words, and behaviors exhibited by our political candidates that would've in the past been considered outrageously unacceptable, are now considered perfectly acceptable, and merely a 'different point of view'.

Take any time in recent political history where the Overton Window was previously shifted (segregation, women's rights, animal rights, LGBT rights, etc.) and you'll clearly see the Overton Window shifting the entire nation's perspective in one direction or another. We now all universally consider such political issues as no-brainers (for the most part), but back then they were considered debatable issues. We no longer consider the question: "Should women be allowed to vote?" to be in the least be debatable. We no longer consider racial segregation to be anything less than racist and immoral.

However now things are different. Because of what I just described above (how we can now expose ourselves only to the perspectives of one point of view exclusively), the Overton Window hasn't shifted us ALL in one direction. Instead, it's shifted half of us one direction, and the other half the opposite direction. Progressives are now more progressive than ever, and conservatives are now the most conservative they've been in ages. What is considered to be the accepted realm of political discourse on one side, is completely unacceptable discourse to even be in the least bit considered on the other.


All of this is in essence what I believe to be not only the nation's current roadblock in regards to politics, but also my own personal roadblock against Donald Trump and his supporters. I'm certainly not alone in this line of thinking, however in this new political climate, I find myself unable to reconcile many of the views of Trump supporters as anything less than non-debatable flat-out immoral positions. Nearly every one of their policy positions exists so incredibly far outside the realm of my own progressive Overton Window, that to even consider such policies as anything less than immoral is a near impossibility for me. Just as I'll never accept the idea that women shouldn't have the right to vote, or that blacks should be segregated from whites; I'll never accept a Muslim ban, I'll never accept Trump's heartless plans against illegal immigration, and I'll never accept any opposition against universal healthcare (just to name a few). Such policy proposals are not just prejudiced, hateful, heartless, (some even racist) and morally wrong; but they are on par in my eyes with that of previous notions of segregation, slavery, animal abuses, etc.

Therein lies the core problem. Because there is now no longer one Overton Window but instead two (what is acceptable discourse amongst progressives and conservatives), there is no longer a means by which to properly moderate any political discussions in general. This doesn't just apply to online forums like this one, but to any political discussions ever made period.

I've been corrected a number of times on here in the past for saying that Trump supporters policies are racist and bigoted, etc. Don't worry, I'm not complaining about the moderation here, because I don't in the least bit see this as any of their fault. This is just a symptom of the bigger problem. Namely, the splitting of one overall national Overton Window into two. Within the progressive Overton Window, Trump and his supporter's policies are objectively racist, just as segregation and slavery are also objectively racist. However within the conservative OW that isn't the case at all. It's not that (most) Trump supporters actually view these policies (such as a Muslim ban, building a wall, comments regarding immigrants from s-hole countries, etc.) as racist, they just don't see it as racist in the least. The same thing's true with other policies where they don't see healthcare as a fundamental human right, or don't see promising a living wage as a minimum wage as wage slavery (whereas I do). Within the conservative Overton Window, such policies are perfectly acceptable (and as difficult as it is for me to comprehend), they even see it as moral. So what I'm getting at is that because there are now two separate Overton Windows, it's considered a radical far-out there position to say that Trump's policies are racist and/or immoral. Such remarks are out of bounds within the conservative OW, yet are perfectly natural within the progressive OW. That's why I'm naturally aghast when I find that I've been corrected on here (just for example, again, I'm not complaining about the moderation team here whatsoever) for calling someone's position racist, just as that person is just as equally perplexed when their position is described as such.

I don't wish to disparage conservatives on here and throw senseless insults. I simply genuinely see some of their political outlooks to be so tremendously odious and wrong that it's nearly impossible for me to express this to them without my comments existing outside of the conservative Overton Window of acceptable discourse. Saying that such views are racist, bigoted, heartless, immoral, etc. is said by me because within progressive circles, such views are considered radical and extremist, and exist WAY outside of our Overton Window of political discourse. That's why it's absolutely baffling to me when a moderator allows such views to be expressed on here whilst correcting me on calling out such views as bigoted and immoral, etc. It isn't because the moderation here is unfair or unbalanced, not at all. It's because our overall political culture and landscape has split off so far in opposite directions, that it's nearly impossible to moderate any political discussions with people when there are two Overton Windows of acceptability. This forum has rules against spewing racism (as it should), yet IMO half the stuff that's presented in the political section by conservatives is objectively racist. Yet this is allowed, not because the site is racist or hypocritical, but because the Overton Window has shifted so much that such views are considered legitimate debatable issues now. I pity the moderation team here who has to try and deal with this problem, as it comes to them with no fault of their own.

(and just for the record here, I will try my best from here on out in not stepping out of bounds by calling members political views racist, immoral, etc. In fact, I doubt I'll really be doing much conversing at all in the political sections, but I will probably weigh in here and there from time to time. I simply felt the need to express my frustrations in general here in as polite a way as I possibly can.)


I honestly don't know how to remedy this situation. I don't know how to bring these two sides back together into one Window of acceptability again, or even if such a thing is even possible to do at this point. I guess the reason why I'm writing all of this has more to do with the fact that I wanted to adequately express the deep political divide in this nation in rational terms. I want conservatives to understand (as best they can) why I view them now days as such radical extremists, and why they feel the same thing regarding me. Again, I don't have the first clue on how to bridge this divide. However I suppose the first step is to first acknowledge the divide itself, and as to what exactly it is that caused it in the first place.

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As to the last part of your statement - I believe that all the outrageous things that candidate/president Trump was able to proclaim came as a direct result of the frustration of half the country over the policies of Obama over an 8-year span.  People were so outraged by these things that they'd have voted for ANYONE other than HRC - who openly stated that she would continue down the path that had been created by Obama.  It is remarkable in the extreme that Trump was able to defeat HRC while spending about half what she did.  

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Aquila King


On ‎5‎/‎27‎/‎2018 at 3:51 AM, and then said:

As to the last part of your statement - I believe that all the outrageous things that candidate/president Trump was able to proclaim came as a direct result of the frustration of half the country over the policies of Obama over an 8-year span.  People were so outraged by these things that they'd have voted for ANYONE other than HRC - who openly stated that she would continue down the path that had been created by Obama.  It is remarkable in the extreme that Trump was able to defeat HRC while spending about half what she did.  

I'm curious. What Obama policies specifically were you so upset about?

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