The Overton Window

In the 1970s, a popular European city was starting to rebuild itself after WW2. And just like most cities, with the rising popularity of motor vehicles there was a rise in accidental road deaths. Things started heating up when one of the deaths was that of a child whose father was a columnist. The father would soon start publishing posts after posts about how there was a need to do everything possible to reduce or possibly eliminate road accidents. His articles would be accompanied by headlines like “Stop Killing Children” and “This is Murder” etc. 

The father in this case made a seemingly normal phenomenon of accidental deaths into something that is an extremity and this made impacted fundamental ways in which the city’s transportation functioned.

The city in this case is Amsterdam. This columnist/father is one of the main reasons that Amsterdam is probably the most bicycle and pedestrian friendly city in the world. By making a seemingly normal phenomenon feel extreme, the father changed how an issue is looked at and brought it into the window of issues that are part of mainstream conversation.

This window is called the Overton Window, a framework to understand the ideas that shape our political and cultural discourse.

Origin Story & Relevance

Named after Joseph Overton, the window is a range of ideas that is politically accepted by the mainstream population at any given time. This window helps politicians, activists, policy makers recommend/talk about ideas without seeming too extreme and alienating themselves from the mainstream public discourse. The Overton Window is dynamic and ideas that are deemed acceptable change over time and/or due to circumstances. 

The goal is to move a new idea from the “unthinkable” to the “sensible” and eventually help make it a policy.

Let’s consider the evolution of discussions around same-sex marriages and same-sex marriages in the US particular. Back in the 1950’s, it would have been an unthinkable act for 2 people of the same-sex to marry each other legally. Even California, which is one of the most liberal states in the US didn’t legalise same-sex marriage until 2008

While the idea was considered unthinkable in the 1950s, it progressed to being acceptable in the 1990s and became something that was considered sensible in the 2000s given its legal status improving during that decade. And now same-sex marriage has become popular in mainstream discourse.

The evolution of the conversations/sentiment around same-sex marriages can be mapped on a Overton Window’s scale.

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Manipulating the Window

If you spend any time watching one of the 24-hour news channels, especially close to an election or during a crisis, it becomes pretty obvious that at any given point there is someone who is saying something that is outright unthinkable. 

Take the example of the 70+ year old US politician who first suggested that he would rather risk the lives of old people (like him) than let the country’s economy suffer because of COVID-19. A significant part of the US population was initially shocked that someone would suggest putting human lives at risk to avoid a potential collapse of the economy, but that was 5 months ago. 

Now, the discussions around that risk have become far more acceptable in public discourse. In other words, it moved from being unthinkable to something that is acceptable to a significant part of the country. And given enough time and mind space, this notion will likely progress into becoming a staple for politicians, activists and policy makers to jump onto.  

To exploit the window it is always better to propose something that is “Unthinkable”, as soon as possible. Remember that people don’t have to accept the “unthinkable” idea, they just have to get used to it being part of the general discourse.

The idea should be heard enough times for people to start comparing it to other slightly less radical ideas and start looking at them as more acceptable/sensible ideas.

Let’s look at this example.

Position before an unthinkable idea is introduced

Position after an unthinkable idea is introduced

Before moving to the next few sessions, I need to tell you that things get political from here onwards. Plus, I chose to explore the Overton Window through examples from US politics for 3 reasons:

  1. It is popular and there is significant media coverage

  2. I’m not from the US, so my biases are reduced to an extent since I don’t have a dog in the fight

  3. In my opinion, the ideological pursuit of politics is more straightforward in the US than let’s say Canada or the UK

With that out of the way, let’s jump in.

Bernie Sanders & Donald Trump 

Back in 2016, when Bernie Sanders proposed universal health care, he was more or less laughed out of the room even within his own party. But 3 years later during the nomination race, a lot of candidates from the Democratic Party were in favour of universal health care or a variation of it with the most popular exception being Joe Biden. 

Universal Healthcare’s position on the Overton Scale moved from being unthinkable in 1980-2010s to becoming a radical idea in 2016 to now having become a popular idea in 2020. 

The public perception/support/resistance for some of Bernie Sanders’s campaigns over the years have changed and have since entered or exited the Overton Window. 

Another example of someone who changed political discourse is Donald Trump. He is probably the only politician in the US who can move an idea from unthinkable to acceptable with the pace that he does. 

Here is a generalised journey/chronology of a Donald Trump’s idea:

  1. Donald Trump says something that is considered radical/controversial.

  2. Someone on MSNBC (left leaning media) is professionally outraged.

  3. Someone on Fox (right leaning media) is professionally outraged about MSNBC’s professional outrage.

  4. Due to the extensive coverage a niche audience takes to Mr. Trump’s message.

  5. Fox starts showing Mr. Trump’s message in a positive light.

  6. MSNBC starts putting a negative spotlight on that same message.

  7. Lazy publications/blogs on both sides take the story and feed into the echo chamber.

  8. The message has now built an opposition and a support base. 

  9. The idea becomes part of the mainstream conversation and has entered the Overton Window.

  10. Politicians and activists jump on the bandwagon and start engaging it as a legitimate idea on the table.

For the same reasons, Donald Trump can call Kim Jong-un “Short & Fat” which would have been “unthinkable” coming from a president in the past. But now very few people from the general population will bat an eye over it. While it seemed shocking at first, it has been repeated so many times and often along with other serious things that in a strange way, it is now the new normal.

So what really happened during this cycle? Something out of the Overton Window gets introduced and due to Mr. Trump’s ability to drive media conversations it gets a lot of exposure. Anything with enough exposure will find fans and haters which will then become a part of the political discourse. And now since the idea is within the Overton Window, more politicians, activists & policy makers will join the bandwagon on either side of the discussion. 

Ideas outside the window can be pushed over decades (Bernie Sanders) into the window or within a matter of months (Donald Trump). 

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Activism & Pushing Boundaries

The Overton Window can also be used in activism to achieve both positive and negative outcomes. For example, people were shocked initially when certain activists and media personalities were seen defending looting of stores during the George Floyd protests. This shock quickly wore off with more people talking about as if it was normal and soon the Overton Window started expanding with respect what is acceptable in public protests. 

Now the default is shifting into becoming a little more receptive to other activities during a protest that is less severe than looting. While defending looting during a protest is still “unthinkable”, it has made other ideas like damaging property, bringing down statues, assembling people during a pandemic  “less radical” to the general population. Again, it is not necessary that the population agrees with the “unthinkable”, it only has to hear it enough times to compare it to less radical acts and downplay those acts in public discourse.

Hence it is important to understand what you are tolerating by choice which can eventually give rise to things that you will be/forced into tolerating because of social/moral or even legal pressure.

So, that’s the Overton Window. A critical tool used in political discourse and its manipulation to achieve positive and negative outcomes. I know doing a political post can be divisive and not ideal, but it is important to understand these factors that impact the way we function as a society. I tried my best to reduce the impact of my personal political biases while writing this post and I would consider it a success if you  couldn’t figure out where my political affiliation lies.

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Thanks for reading & keep things rational.