The Overton Window

The Overton Window is one of my go-to resources whenever I end up in hardcore debates about something political or social. It encourages moderation, diversity of views, commonsense, and the avoidance of extremes.

What is it? It’s a concept invented by Joseph Overton in the 1990’s and used in public policy contexts to describe the range of ideas and proposals that are considered admissible or politically possible — “within bounds” one might say — in a given society or political context at any given time.

On any issue, the window can be visualized as a spectrum of positions, with certain ideas and policies located closer to the center being the ones more widely accepted by most people. Ideas and policies located at the edges of the window, or outside it, are less acceptable or even taboo. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, where Overton worked, has a brief explainer including an example of a range of policies on education. You can play with sliding the “window” up and down across a range of positions.

What’s particularly interesting is that the range of possibilities — the policy landscape a window looks out upon — changes over time, even within a given society. Ideas that were once taboo can enter the range of open possibility and acceptability, while other ideas, once mainstream, can become taboo and considered extreme and no longer acceptable. It’s worth considering the implications of this when looking at history and its major players, whether as sources of inspiration or wisdom, or as causes of current success or malaise.

Another welcome feature of Overton windows is that they actively encourage diversity and creative problem-solving. One cannot help but acknowledge a mix of perspectives, all of which should be publicly acceptable in current context. If a society’s window is open and extensive on any given issue, it allows for a wide range of constructive conversation, debate, and creativity in problem-solving. There are a multitude of ways to try to solve any problem, and considering a range of solutions can potentially work in tandem, as hybrids, or be found to be more appropriate in some places or circumstances than others. Having a wide range of possible implementations allows for flexibility and context-sensitive choice.

The next time you get in a heated debate with someone, ask whether their views can fit within an open, diverse, creative Overton window. If they can, find a way to turn the debate into something constructive. If someone takes an extreme view, something you’d consider taboo or out of bounds, ask first how big your own window is and whether or not it might benefit by being opened a bit to let in some fresh air.

Note: most diagrams of the Overton window place the scale on a single axis: more or less freedom, more or less government control. This is one way to orient a policy dimension, to be sure, but it’s not be the only one. For example, policies might be more national vs state or local; they might be more economic-incentive vs legal-regulative; they could be shorter or longer term; high or low budget; institution-based (structural) vs culture-based (informational); and so on. It’s probably more productive to pick end-point labels that have real content to them, however, rather than being mere labels: blue, red, Democrat, Republican, left, right, or even liberal, conservative.