News Story

Where the 'Overton Window' Came to Life

Joe Lehman, president of the Mackinac Center, reached into his file cabinet and pulled out a piece of scribbled-on yellow legal pad paper that was the basis of Fox commentator Glenn Beck's soon-to-be-released novel.

Nearly a decade ago, then-Mackinac Center Vice President Joe Overton had an idea of creating a brochure to market what is now known as "The Overton Window" — the name of Beck's book.

Overton died in 2003 before he had the chance to fully market his idea.

Now, Lehman will carry that torch when he appears on Fox News' Glenn Beck Show this week. The plan is for a live appearance, perhaps as soon as Wednesday, with some possible recorded segments and an appearance on Beck's radio show.

Overton wanted to use a rectangular piece of plastic with a section cut out to create a window. Lehman then placed it on the legal pad numbering 0 to 100 down the side. Only the numbers 30-through-60 could be seen through the plastic window, creating what the Overton Window theorized were the options that politicians would consider supporting.

Anything outside of that window would seem to policy makers too risky to support if they cared about re-election. So the goal was to make persuasive arguments for desirable ideas that weren't yet within the "Overton Window."

"You see how his mind worked," Lehman said as he slid the plastic window up to change the 30-to-60 options to 20-to-50. "He was thinking of a brochure that worked like this. So if you wanted a 20-percent tax rate, you'd have to move the window."

"Isn't that cool?"

Ironically, Overton never named the theory that is now getting world-wide attention. On that yellow legal pad, he simply called it the "window of political possibilities."

The Mackinac Center started training public policy think tank professionals in the window theory in 1998. Lehman said think tanks can shift the window and influence policy when they develop ideas and debate them in the public arena.

When Overton died in a plane accident, Lehman said it was decided to honor him by calling it the "Overton Window."

"Once he explained it to you, a light bulb would go off in your own mind — 'Of course! I see it now!' " Lehman said.


See also:

The Overton Window home page

Joe Overton - biography page and list of published work

An Introduction to the Overton Window of Political Possibility

Glenn Beck Highlights Mackinac Center’s “Overton Window

The Universal Tuition Tax Credit: A Proposal to Advance Parental Choice in Education


Eulogy by Lawrence W. Reed

Eulogy by Joseph G. Lehman

Personal Tributes from Around the Nation and the World

Tributes from Joe Overton's Mackinac Center Colleagues

Wedding Toast to Joseph and Helen Overton

Think Tank Leader Dies In Plane Crash