In the world of politics there are ideas, concepts, and policies that are considered radical or unthinkable. Something that you don’t do for fear of consequence, be it political, social, legal, or economic. Yet despite these constraints political actions that are at one point considered political suicide later become the public consensus, or vice-versa. For example, as recently as 2008, my home state, California, about as left wing as you can get, voted to ban same-sex marriage, but as of writing this same-sex marriage has been legal across the entire country for nearly 3 years. That’s a pretty big change in one decade. Here’s another example, also from a decade ago. When Barack Obama was elected in 2008 it was not uncommon to hear him being called a socialist, which he ardently denied, and if you were one of the people who did call him one, you were called a racist. And now, as of 2018 a self-professed socialist almost won the Democratic Party’s nomination, and is considered a front runner for the nomination in 2020. That’s another big change from only 10 years ago. So, how does this happen? Why is something that was considered politically infeasible 10 years ago become the political norm today?
Within the realm of political science there is a concept called the “Overton Window.” Picture the political spectrum as a graph. You could do a simple left right one, but I personally prefer the political spectrum with both an x and y axis. Now imagine the different points of the graph represent different extremes. Conservative and Liberal on one axis, with Anarchy and Totalitarian on the other. All the different points on this graph represent different parties, ideologies, and policies. Now imagine a box on this graph. All the points that fall within this box are considered politically possible, with the points closer to the center of the box being considered more feasible. Everything inside the box are things that political actors can enact or propose with little to no political consequence. Everything outside the box is considered politically infeasible, and cannot be proposed or enacted without consequence toward the actor. This box is referred to as the Overton Window, because within it you see everything that is possible.
But as I mentioned before, political options change overtime. That’s why same-sex marriage is legal, and millions of Democrats are now proudly calling themselves socialists. The Overton Window doesn’t remain static. Sometimes it moves, and sometimes it changes size or shape. And when these aspects change, so does what is politically viable.
So now that we know what the Overton Window is, and what it demonstrates, how exactly does it move? Well, there are three main ways that the Overton Window moves. The first is movement by Crisis.
This movement is largely reactionary. When something big and out of most people’s control happens, they become more willing, and in some cases more demanding, of actions and policies outside the Window. This Crisis moves or enlarges the Overton window to include once suicidal actions as possible, or even make it the public consensus depending on the scale of the crisis.
A recent example of this would be the September 11th Terror Attacks. It was something that was for the most part unforeseen, and caused people to panic. With 3000 people dead the public consensus on personal liberty changed, and everyone was willing to put up with more extreme government action in order to remedy the crisis. This, of course, resulted in the nearly two decade war in Afghanistan, and the Patriot Act, which a certain former Vice President hope everyone forgets was his idea, dating back to before the 911 attacks. And like that the Window had shifted and grown to the right.
Another example of this can be found in the early 20th century. A Crisis doesn’t have to be about national security, it can also be economic, and the 1929 Stock Market Crash and subsequent Great Depression was a big Crisis. Now, contrary to popular opinion Herbet Hoover was far from non-interventionist during the Great Depression, but that’s a video for another time. Regardless of myths we tell ourselves about history, the Great Depression shifted the Overton Window to the left as people wanted the government to provide more for the financial needs of individuals. This resulted in FDR pushing through his New Deal programs which were an unprecedented expansion of federal power, and has had a lasting impact on the face of government.
The second means of moving the Overton Window is an active approach which I like to call “Gradual Persuasion.” Unlike the Crisis mover, which is sudden and out of people’s control, Gradual Persuasion is a deliberate effort to change people’s minds about a subject over time. In this method you usually have a group or multiple groups who enact an information campaign to inform the public of an idea, and overtime get more and more people to accept that idea. Now, the information isn’t always objective or even factual, but both can be used to gradually change public opinion.
Let’s use the same-sex marriage example from earlier here. The Gay Rights Movement began in the 60s, and between then and now they have waged an active campaign to get more people to accept their lifestyle, first by getting people to tolerate their existence, than getting people to believe that it’s harmless, and gradually moving the goal post to the point of where a plurality of people believe that homosexuality is natural, and that same-sex marriage is a social good. They did this through public outreach in the form of parades, as well as getting more and more representation on film and television, not always positive, or even accurate depictions, but Gradual persuasion requires baby steps, and they were very successful, moving the Overton Window further to the left.
The third major mover of the Overton Window would be the Charismatic Salesman. This method is faster than Gradual Persuasion, but unlike a Crisis it is has an active mover deliberately moving the window. This method involves a very charismatic person, be he a politician or some other prominent public figure, single handedly persuading the public to move on a particular issue. As per the name I’ve used here, he is able to move the window by sheer force of their charisma.
A late 20th century example of this would be President Ronald Reagan. Regardless of what your opinions on Reagan or his administration are, what you can’t deny about him was his charisma. He was able to get the public to go along with his idea of dramatically cutting taxes. Also contrary to public opinion, cutting taxes wasn’t always the M.O. of the Republican Party, after all his 1980 primary opponent, Vice President, and political successor George H.W. Bush, was against tax cuts at first. Since the 1950s the top marginal tax rate had been 70% or more, and by the end of Reagan’s term it was about 38%, close to a 50% cut, moving the Overton Window to the right. There hasn’t been that big of a cut in taxes since the Reagan administration, which speaks to his charisma
Another example would be in the early 20th century with another Republican President, Theodore Roosevelt. An exemplar of the Progressive Movement, Teddy Roosevelt got the public to go along with things that it would never have before. The Safe Food and Drug Act, the Creation of the Commerce and Labor department, as well as countless military interventions, were all things Teddy was able to convince the public to get behind him on through sheer force of his personality. Most people, even in the progressive era, wouldn’t have accepted these kinds of policies from a run-of-the-mill 19th century president. It took an eclectic like Roosevelt to get these reforms put through without a long drawn out Gradual Persuasion campaign. And like that, he was able to expand the Overton window in all directions.
So there you have it, the Overton Window, and some of its applications. Hopefully now you have a framework for understanding how political change occurs, and can either use this information to inoculate yourself to it, or to embrace it yourself.