From potty idea to political reality: the Overton Window is broken.

Donald Trump and AOC fighting to expand the Overton Window

20th August 2020

Katy Campbell-Ferguson @katycf_art

On the 3rd of August 1832, a petition to extend voting rights in Britain to include older, unmarried women was presented to Parliament for the first time. This was a laughable proposal at a time when a woman and all her possessions became the legal property of her husband on marriage (which remained the case till 1882). Fast forward to the early 20th Century, and the Labour Party is the first to incorporate the promise of women’s suffrage in their 1912 manifesto. Nonetheless, staunch opposition remained on multiple grounds. One such ground, expressed by the then MP for Ludlow, Rowland Hunt, was that “there are obvious disadvantages about having women in Parliament. I do not know what is going to be done about their hats. How is a poor little man to get on with a couple of women wearing enormous hats in front of him?” Another MP, Arthur Beck of Saffron and Waldon, declared that “the idealism of the feminine mind and its deadly logic” would be destructive to the course of democracy. Fast forward to today, and gender equality across not just voting, but most aspects of life, is enshrined in statute (although part of me wonders whether today’s government continues to view ‘logic’ as an unfavourable defect).


From a joke amongst Victorian men to a protected civil right. How did this happen? Presumably, there must have been a moment in time when a room full of men decided that the fantasy of female franchise wasn’t so ludicrous after all – that it would instead be a politically and socially acceptable policy proposal. Cue every political commentator’s favourite analytical buzz-phrase: the Overton Window. 


What is the Overton Window?


Nothing to do with fenestration, this theory was developed by the late free-market thinker Joseph Overton at a conservative think tank in Michigan in the 1990s. The term was coined after his untimely death in 2003 and is used when discussing what policy ideas are or are not acceptable in social discourse at any given time. The concept is centred around the existence of a brief window along the spectrum of political possibility, within which fall the ideas perceived as politically and socially legitimate proposals. Outside of it lies political pariahdom – fringe political ideas clawing at the window frame, unlikely to receive mainstream public support. 


According to Joseph Lehman, who helped develop the theory, lawmakers who support the implementation of policies outside of the window are one of two kinds – 1) politicians who risk electoral defeat because they are perceived as out of touch, or 2) true leaders who have the rare ability to shift the window through their actions alone (a few names may immediately spring to mind). In theory, lawmakers are thus limited in what policies they can reasonably propose, since retaining voters remains their number one priority. 


But… the Overton Window has been shattered. Or at least, has ceased to be effective in defining acceptable policy proposals. As you may have gathered, the window can shift on individual issues, influenced by changing social attitudes and the passage of time – as we saw with the prospect of women’s suffrage. It can also shift on entire sets of ideas – ideologies. The left will likely claim that the Overton Window has shifted to the right, citing the rise of right-wing populism in Europe and Neo-Nazi rhetoric in the US, which has led to nationalist and fascist policy ideas being circulated seriously. However, at the same time many on the political right argue that the Overton Window has not only shifted to the left in recent times (haunted by ‘snowflake political correctness’ and the electoral success of congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), but has been consistently shifting left over the last fifty years. Progressive ideas which would have been considered taboo decades ago find themselves in the mainstream, all the while pushing conservative ideas to the fringe of the window. It’s position therefore depends heavily on who you ask. 


But according to the Mackinac Centre, where the concept was developed, the Overton Window can also widen. It is my belief that it has irreversibly done just that. As society careens headfirst towards its political extremes, the window of political possibility is forced wider and wider, until it becomes a redundant, gaping hole in the wall through which any policy can reasonably pass. As Jackson Rawlings says, ‘If everything from Anarcho-Communism to Neo-Nazism is tolerated, any policy that falls between can be considered fair game.’ 


How did this happen?


There are multiple possible explanations. The most compelling, however, is the internet. With ever-growing internet access, more and more people are exposing themselves to previously inaccessible information and under-represented points of view. You are just a click away from finding dozens of articles and ideas to justify just about any political position imaginable – a recently trending example being the defence of paedophilia as a sexual orientation deserving of protection in the law, by fringe psychologists on Reddit. But it isn’t just the dark web’s doing. Social media has made it easier than ever before for like-minded users to herd together and encourage a bandwagon effect. Ever since the murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has gained unprecedented momentum and audience, with previously fringe calls for completely defunding state police departments and abolishing ICE flooding mainstream platforms like Instagram, with high profile, widely-followed figures at the forefront. 


But why does it matter that lawmakers can now safely entertain any suggestion that enters discussion? Does this not better represent the will of the people? 


The argument can be made that the Overton Window confined politicians to being more followers than leaders; since it was us – the people – who ultimately determined the range of policies they could safely get behind. In practise, the disturbance of this dynamic has served to strengthen the mandates of the world’s more extreme heads of state. This could serve as one possible explanation for how the United States of America – a country whose constitution is built entirely around the core principles of the Separation of Powers, Rule of Law, Individual rights, Federalism and Republicanism – has descended instead into a Trumpian dictatorship. The new norm sees Trump using military power and federal law enforcement to suppress peaceful political protest (he reportedly wanted to deploy 10,000 troops to Washington DC alone during June’s BLM marches), believing he has the power to outlaw speech critical of him (calling the free press “the enemy of the people”), and proclaiming, wholeheartedly, “I have an Article II where I have the right to do whatever I want as President.” Terrifyingly, the list goes on. And on. Whether or not he can be held accountable for spouting rhetoric more fitting of an absolutist monarch, remains to be seen. Labelling Mexican immigrants as ‘rapists’ to justify his 2016 campaign promise to build a wall was not a foolish risk on Trump’s part as it would have been for another candidate a decade ago. His shock election victory in spite of this (or perhaps, in part, because of it) is evidence that the window fragmented some time ago. And it doesn’t seem fixable. A study by Leonardo Bursztyn of the University of Chicago suggests that Trump’s Presidency has emboldened white supremacists to go public and distribute their views more widely on internet forums. With Trump inspiring this surge of ideas, the political conversation is pushed down a slippery slope, his support being reinforced regardless of his authoritarian tendencies. 


So, whilst I believe the influx of diverse policy proposals should be welcomed, the redundancy of the Overton Window model has, in practice, enabled regressive law-making in a seemingly ever-more progressive society. 


Now what?


Who can predict how Covid-19 will alter the playground of political possibility? It’s been interesting to observe how seamlessly the backdrop of a global pandemic has complimented anti-immigrant rhetoric and xenophobic sentiment in the UK, among both the mainstream media and government officials. And whilst the recent increase in online Islamophobic, anti-Chinese and anti-Semitic hate-speech is nominally condemned, its mere existence will only serve to legitimise future policy proposals of that nature. Conversely, the sacrifices made by frontline NHS workers during the pandemic don’t seem to have been enough to cause the government to consider the outlandish idea of giving nurses free hospital parking.  


The shattering of the Overton Window isn’t all doom and gloom, however. It simply means that we are in dire need of a better calibre of politician. One that does not abuse their position as a lawmaker through corporate interests, links to exclusive political circles or a lack of integrity and basic human decency. If the threat of losing electoral support is indeed becoming less effective at holding politicians accountable for their words and actions, then we can only hope that the next generation of lawmakers has an innate interest in justice and holding themselves accountable to the people they represent. So consider your place in shaping future policy; how are you educating yourself and thus influencing the course of political discussion? No matter how polarised our society becomes, education and empathy will always be the key to good law making. 



Further reading

How the Politically Unthinkable Can Become Mainstream, New York Times, 2019 

Covid-19 – How hateful extremists are exploiting the pandemic, Commission for Countering Extremism, July 2020

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