The Overton Window

Learn how the Overton Window relates to the struggle for freedom!

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Joseph Overton observed that in a given public policy area, such as education, only a relatively narrow range of potential policies will be considered politically acceptable. This "window" of politically acceptable options is primarily defined not by what politicians prefer, but rather by what they believe they can support and still win re-election. In general, then, the window shifts to include different policy options not when ideas change among politicians, but when ideas change in the society that elects them. Click here for a video explaining the Overton Window.


A Brief Explanation of the Overton Window

By Joseph Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy

The Overton Window is a model for understanding how ideas in society change over time and influence politics. The core concept is that politicians are limited in what policy ideas they can support — they generally only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society as legitimate policy options. These policies lie inside the Overton Window. Other policy ideas exist, but politicians risk losing popular support if they champion these ideas. These policies lie outside the Overton Window.

But the Overton Window can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without unduly risking their electoral support. Sometimes politicians can move the Overton Window themselves by courageously endorsing a policy lying outside the window, but this is rare. More often, the window moves based on a much more complex and dynamic phenomenon, one that is not easily controlled from on high: the slow evolution of societal values and norms.

Overton Window of Political Possibility

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. No government schools
  2. Parents pay for only the education they choose
  3. Private and home schools monitored, not regulated
  4. Tuition tax credits
  5. Tuition vouchers
  6. Private and home schooling moderately regulated
  7. Charter schools
  8. Public‐school choice
  9. State‐mandated curricula
  10. Private and home schooling highly regulated;
    parents pay twice
  11. Home schooling illegal
  12. Private schools illegal
  13. Compulsory indoctrination in government schools
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. No government ownership, control
    or monitoring of energy markets
  2. Government monitors open competition in energy markets
  3. Energy firms somewhat regulated; no subsidies
  4. Energy firms highly regulated; “alternative energy” subsidized
  5. Government allows only a few market competitors, approves rates
  6. Government protects monopoly energy suppliers, sets rates
  7. Government-protected energy monopolies highly regulated;
    alternative energy mandated and subsidized
  8. Government controls “private” energy firms; consumption rationed
  9. All energy provided by government;
    “over-consumption” criminalized
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. Anyone can own, trade, and use any weapon
  2. Only very powerful weapons restricted,
    very dangerous people restricted
  3. Most people can carry a weapon without permission
  4. Governments “shall issue” concealed weapons permits
  5. Governments “may issue” concealed weapons permits;
    tight restrictions
  6. Only dealers are regulated and registered,
    not individuals or weapons
  7. Certain broad classes of weapons, like handguns,
    registered with government
  8. All weapons registered with government
  9. Lots of regulations on possession, trade, and use of weapons
  10. Heavy regulations on new guns and owners;
    current guns and owners grandfathered in
  11. Small number of government-approved people may own weapons
  12. All gun trade operated and controlled by government
  13. Only government can own and use weapons;
    private ownership and use is illegal
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

You can conceptualize changes in public opinion and political acceptability with this interactive gadget. Move the window by clicking inside the blue box; resize the window by clicking on the edge of the blue box.

Least government intervention
Most freedom
Up
  1. All welfare assistance is private—
    families, religious organizations, charitable associations
  2. Government welfare is generous,
    but strict requirements for recipients
  3. Government welfare is generous,
    but lax requirements for recipients
  4. Government provides safety net of last resort—
    temporary, limited assistance
  5. Government welfare is entitlement with few limits or restrictions
  6. Government more generous;
    starts to crowd out private assistance
  7. Private assistance highly regulated
  8. Private assistance outlawed
Down
Most government intervention
Least freedom

Think for a minute about education policy. By and large, our society agrees that providing children with a formal education is a good thing. It might not seem like it, but how best to accomplish this is actually a wide open question — there are hundreds of different policies that could work.

Now imagine the different policy options for providing children a formal education lined up along a spectrum. On one end, you’d find a policy idea to use the power of the federal government to provide education to all children — a top-down, centralized approach. On the other end of the spectrum, you’d find just the opposite policy idea: no government involvement whatsoever, leaving the provision of education to private citizens. See the image below.

Virtually no politician endorses either one of these policies on the ends of this spectrum. We can posit then that these policies lie outside the Overton Window. The education policies that politicians do champion — tax-funded public school districts, compulsory attendance laws, government approved curriculum standards, etc. — exist between these two ends of the spectrum and are within the Overton Window.

To get an idea of how the Overton Window can change over time, think about the Prohibition Era. Just a few generations ago, the sale and use of alcoholic beverages was made illegal by federal law, suggesting that this policy was safe inside the Overton Window. But fast forward to today when people poke fun of the folly of Prohibition and virtually no politician endorses making alcohol illegal again. The Overton Window has clearly shifted, and Prohibition is no longer within its borders.

The Overton Window doesn't describe everything about how politics works, but it does describe one key thing: Politicians will not support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will only espouse policies that they believe do not hurt their electoral chances. And the range of policy options available to a politician are shaped by ideas, social movements and shared norms and values within society.

All of this suggests that politicians are more followers than they are leaders — it’s the rest of us who ultimately determine the types of policies they’ll get behind. It also implies that our social institutions — families, workplaces, friends, media, churches, voluntary associations, think tanks, schools, charities, and many other phenomena that establish and reinforce societal norms — are more important to shaping our politics than we typically credit them for.

So, if you’re interested in policy change, keep the Overton Window in mind, as it is a helpful guide. If your idea lies outside the window, trying to convince politicians to embrace it is a steep hill to climb. You’ll likely need to start at the ground level, slowly building support for your idea throughout the broader society, and then if it catches root there, politicians will come onboard. Even if the policy change you care about most currently lies within the window, maybe you should re-evaluate if there’s a better option that you’re not considering just because it lies outside the Overton Window.

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Frequently Asked Questions


Who created the concept of the Overton Window?

The Overton Window was developed in the mid-1990s by the late Joseph P. Overton, who was senior vice president at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy at the time of his death in 2003. For a brief biography and a comprehensive list of Overton's commentaries and studies, click here.


Can the Overton Window be shifted by lies, distortions or misunderstandings?

Yes, but it’s obviously wrong to intentionally disseminate misleading information. The Overton Window reflects what society believes, which can be as easily influenced by truth and facts as it can be by inaccurate or deceptive information. Even mistakes can shift the window. The massive underestimate of Medicare costs probably contributed to the program’s creation in the 1960s. The false belief that weapons of mass destruction would be found in Iraq contributed to support for that war.


What is the Mackinac Center for Public Policy?

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a nonpartisan research and educational institute dedicated to improving the quality of life for all Michigan citizens by promoting sound solutions to state and local policy questions. The Mackinac Center assists policymakers, scholars, business people, the media and the public by providing objective analysis of Michigan issues. The goal of all Center reports, commentaries and educational programs is to equip Michigan citizens and other decision makers to better evaluate policy options. For more information, please click here.


What is the connection between the Mackinac Center and Glenn Beck's book, "The Overton Window"?

The book is based on Beck’s adaptation of the Overton Window concept developed by the Mackinac Center, a Michigan think tank. A character in the book reveals the origin of the concept to be a think tank in the Midwest. The Mackinac Center was not involved in the creation of the book. Beck's "The Overton Window" is a work of fiction published in 2010.


How can I help the Mackinac Center promote better public policy in Michigan and reach as many people as possible?

The Mackinac Center is a nonpartisan, nonprofit 501(c)3 organization that depends on thousands of generous contributors like you. For more information on how you can become a member, please click here.

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Links

Joe Lehman Discusses the Overton Window on Glenn Beck's TV Show

Joe Lehman Explains How the Overton Window Shifts

Joe Lehman, Glenn Beck and the History of the Overton Window

Lehman Discusses the Overton Window on Glenn Beck's Radio Show

An Introduction to the Overton Window of Political Possibilities
The Overton Window Opens to Another Audience (audio)
Don't Look Now: Right-to-Work Is in the Overton Window
Overton wasn't just another Joe - Detroit Free Press

"Like" our Overton Window facebook page.

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