Today’s Radicals are Tomorrow’s Moderates: Effects of the Overton Window

the overton window

How did gay marriage advocates gain social acceptance?

How did they go from radical, to acceptable, to popular, all in the span of a few decades? 20 years ago, Democrats and Republicans were in agreement on the sanctity of marriage. Now, the left is pushing the gay marriage cause with the right looking like grandparents stuck in a different era.

And what about the transgender movement? This has progressed faster still. Bruce Jenner’s transformation into Caitlin Jenner, debates over installing trans-bathrooms, and other issues like this are dominating the news. What more needs to be said? These issues seem to be at the forefront of social concerns.

This move from social disapproval to social acceptance is what’s called The Overton Window. It’s a theory that explains the move of views from unthinkable to implementable. It illustrates the evolution of societal change.

You can see the Overton Window present in every movement, from libertarianism to Trump’s nationalism to gay rights.

The Overton Window is a checklist for social change. And if you ever want your views to become culturally accepted, you need to be familiar with this checklist.

The Overton Window, Explained

The Overton Window, theorized by Joseph Overton, is the range of ideas accepted by society. This window defines a cultural debate at any given moment in its lifespan.

Overton_Window_diagramThis window serves two functions: first, it lays out the process by which social reform movements move from the fringes of society to influencing whole segments of pop culture. Secondly, it explains why politicians are limited in the range of policies they can push.

The range of the Overton Window goes from unthinkable, to radical, to acceptable, to sensible, to popular, to policy.

Most movements and ideas start out as unthinkable, moving up and down the ladder depending on social views and changes.

The window can also be defined by a set of policies that make up a particular topic. For instance, take education. The accepted views at the moment are public schools, homeschooling, and private schools. This represents the window of the debate.

One extreme of the education debate is eliminating the Department of Education and all public schools. The opposite extreme is compulsory education in public school, with no private schools or homeschooling allowed. One end of the window represents more freedom, while the other end stands for less. But both are on the fringe of public debate.

It’s this range of acceptable views that not only defines the conversation, but also the legislation politicians can push forward without harming their chances of reelection.

The Overton Window As A Yardstick for Measuring a Movement’s Social Progress

Although this theory applies to both movements and politicians, I’m more interested in the application it has for movements. Not because I think politicians aren’t that important to the conversation (ehhh, ok maybe I do), but because this theory makes one thing clear…

Change originates from private individuals and groups.

Politicians don’t lead social change, they follow it. Economist, Nathan Russell makes this point in his article on the political possibilities of the Overton Window:

“…politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves. Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the “window” of ideas approved of by the electorate.”

Politicians are constrained by the ideas that society finds acceptable. So why would they jeopardize their reelection by pushing legislation that doesn’t line up with their constituents’ worldview?

This is why the job of changing society is up to individuals like you and me.

Whether it’s gay marriage legalization, privatizing marriage, or legalizing marijuana, it starts out on the fringes of the Overton Window.

Legalizing marijuana? Unthinkable a few decades ago. But today, not so much.

Gays should have the ability to marry whom they love? No way! But today, it’s widely promoted.

Both of those movements have moved from radical to popular. The privatize marriage movement, however, is still in its Overton Window infancy.

To open room in the conversation for privatizing marriage, the window needs to be shifted.

The Overton Window the power of social change The Political Informer

The 5 Steps from Unthinkable to Policy

“Real social change is a process that takes place over time, usually quite a long time. At a given moment in history, 99 percent of a society may think and act one way on a certain matter, and only 1 percent think and act very differently. In time, that 1 percent may become 2 percent, then 5 percent, then 10, 20, 30 percent, until finally it becomes the dominant majority, and social change has taken place.”  – John Holt

How in the world do you shift society’s realm of debate? How do you get people to consider the advantages of privatizing marriage? How do you take an idea from unthinkable, to sensible?

Well, here’s a 5 step plan from moving from unthinkable to policy.

Side note: this 5 step plan was originally fleshed out in an anti-gay marriage article. So there’s some irony for you.

  1. Grab the attention of the professoriate or fringe group: this is when you move from unthinkable to radical. The vast majority of people won’t touch the issue, but those on the edges of society will. Academia is a good choice for its theoretical discussions, but academia’s integrity as a conduit of new ideas has been fading fast. So, aim for outsiders like Reddit users, 4chan, and anarcho-capitalists. Someone needs to be the champion.
  2. Changing the terms of the debate: now we’re moving from radical to acceptable, which requires some nefarious tactics. Euphemisms are your friend. Changing the language of the debate is key to gaining traction. Look at how the language in abortion has changed.
  3. Appeal to the dominant worldview: next up is moving from acceptable to sensible. Your movement needs to be relatable to the current social worldview. These days that would be individualism. Look at how LBGT issues are presented; “I’m born this way.” No matter what the dominant worldview is, you need your movement to be applicable to it.
  4. Personalize the issue: now we’re going from sensible to popular, and that means stories come into play. Tell people about how government used marriage to prohibit interracial marriages and push eugenics. Make it about the people suffering from a government mandated marriage institution. Make it personal.
  5. Get the politicians involved: finally, we move from popular to policy. This is where you get a public poll. You grab support, you show your strength, grabbing politicians along the way. Ultimately deregulating marriage via legislation.

The Overton Window Milton Friedman Quote

Conclusion: Smashing Windows & Defining the Debate

“That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.” – Milton Friedman

In the end, shifting the Overton Window comes down to influencing culture itself (just like Lizzy Magie and her anti-capitalist board game).

The most recent societal window-shifter is undoubtedly Donald Trump (some say he’s smashed the window).

Policies and views that were once seen as off the table, have now been brought into the center of the debate. Banning Muslims, building a wall along the US-Mexico border, mass deportation of illegals, all issues thought to be unthinkable. Now, they’re on the table.

Trump has shoved these issues in our face.

I think Trump’s success at pushing these issues into the center of public discussion can be attributed to his flamboyant and confrontational nature. As David Bornstein put it in How to Change the World: Social Entrepreneurs and the Power of New Ideas, put it:

“An idea is like a play. It needs a good producer and a good promoter even if it is a masterpiece. Otherwise the play may never open; or it may open but, for a lack of an audience, close after a week. Similarly, an idea will not move from the fringes to the mainstream simply because it is good; it must be skillfully marketed before it will actually shift people’s perceptions and behavior.”

Trump is a skillful marketer. He’s a businessman for crying out loud!

So lastly, remember this: the tactics you use to shift the window are important, but who’s behind the movement is also important.

Social change is about individuals, so of course it’s going to matter who’s running the show.

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About John-Pierre Maeli

Keeping it simple and crystal clear, because anything else is useless. I'm here to not only inform you, but to also connect with you. That's what The Political Informer is all about. Feel free to follow me on either Twitter or Google+ Let's talk!

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