The Overton Window

By Aaron Rice
June 11, 2014

Seven years after his death, a friend of mine is drawing national attention because of a simple but profound observation he made about the process of how ideas move from being politically impossible to becoming law. His observation helps explain, in part, why the work of think tanks like ours is so important.

What is now known as "The Overton Window" [illustrated here] was created by my friend, Joe Overton, of the Mackinac (pronounced MACK-in-aw) Center for Public Policy, a Michigan organization similar to ours. A brilliant strategist, keen observer, and wise counselor, Joe was a remarkable man who was not only a leader in the freedom movement in the United States; he assisted freedom fighters in fourteen countries, many of which were under totalitarian regimes at the time. Joe died in an ultralight aircraft accident at the young age of 43.

What Joe called the "window of political possibility" begins with this premise: Policy ideas on any issue (education, energy, gun rights, etc.) can be arranged in order from "less government intervention" to "more government intervention." Or, you could think of them from "more free" to "less free."

On that list of ideas, the window of political possibility highlights those that are acceptable to the public and therefore feasible for politicians to enact. Relatively safe choices are inside the window, and relatively risky or radical choices are outside the window because they are politically unacceptable at the moment. If you shift the position or size of the window, you change what is politically possible. The range of ideas that appear in the window is not defined primarily by what politicians would prefer; rather, it is defined by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. Hence, the window shifts to include new policies or exclude old ones when ideas change in society, not when ideas change among politicians. The most durable policy changes are those that are undergirded by strong social movements.
To change what is politically possible, groups like ours have to focus on changing mainstream conversation as much or more than writing papers about public policy. That's one of the reasons we wrote our Governing by Principle booklet - to help people understand the principles by which all policy ideas should be measured. It's also why we will be translating those principles into policy ideas that we will suggest to candidates in next year's elections, when our entire legislature and all statewide offices will be on the ballot.

By the way, the reason "The Overton Window" is drawing national attention is that Glenn Beck has a new novel bearing that name. I haven't read the book, so I can't recommend it, but from what I understand, the "bad guys" in the story use the idea of the Overton Window to ratchet down the window of political possibility. You see, the Left can (and has been) using every method imaginable to take ideas that were once unthinkable, and they are turning them into hideous laws and regulations. We won't know until after the 2010 and 2012 elections whether they actually moved the window (remember, the window is what politicians think they can do and still be re-elected), but you don't have to look only at recent events to see that the Left is making huge strides in changing the culture to their liking.

At the Mississippi Center for Public Policy, we do not presume that lawmakers will adopt a good policy just because they know about it. Instead we work every day to turn the ideas of liberty and freedom into everyday conversation, to help our fellow citizens see the benefits of liberty to each of them, and to ensure that the freedom envisioned by America's Founders is advanced in our state and across the nation.

Someone's ideology will capture the hearts of our friends and neighbors - and our children. Let it be ours, we who love liberty and choose lives of opportunity for each of them. With your continued support, we will do our part to equip you with the information and perspective you need to move our society forward in today's tumultuous political and economic climate.

Forest Thigpen


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