The Overton Window: A Theory Of Political Ideology

Overton window

The Overton window is a theory which helps explain how certain ideas are legitimized before public opinion, and how from this, a group of citizens adapts to said ideas. This is a metaphor developed by Joseph Overton, who directed one of the most important public policy centers in the United States.

In this article we explain what the Overton Window consists of and why it has been a very important idea to understand. How can a group of people end up adopting an idea?

The Overton Window: what is it?

The Overton window is named after the person who developed the idea: Joseph Overton (1960-2003). He was vice president of the largest policy research institute in the United States, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, located in Michigan.

Overton used the metaphor of the window with the intention of conveying the idea of a narrow and well-defined space, through which we can look at some things and not others Like any window, it is a structure that is intentionally and strategically built by someone.

For example, putting a window overlooking the sea is not the same as putting it overlooking the interior patio. Whoever builds it and places it in a place does so with a specific intention.

In the case of public policies, and the opinions around them, the people who build the window are the groups that They have a certain level of authority and political control That is, it is these groups who build and move the windows through which we observe everything that happens around us.

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It is about exposing an idea that, although it may initially seem unacceptable, can be defended and framed in such a way that little by little it becomes a conceivable idea. Thus, the opinion of those affected or interested in said idea can be directed within the margins of the window and the interests of certain political groups.

A political theory

What Overton proposed through this metaphor is that Policies that are considered viable are thus considered mainly according to the convenience of politicians beyond their individual interests.

These policies can be presented in a more or less narrow range, depending on how much society’s opinion varies. So, they move in a vertical range depending on whether their acceptability can be expanded or reduced As a general rule, the shape of the window means that those who believe in a certain ideological trend only pay attention to certain ideas, and ignore or minimize the importance of opposing ones.

The Overton window can be moved according to ongoing interest and the likelihood of being accepted by a majority. Its limits can be made wider or narrower, depending on the idea that wants to be justified to public opinion. That is why it is also known as the “window of opportunity” and “window of acceptability”.

Public opinion and political ideas

Likewise, this political theory explains that, beyond the individual references we have about politicians, we tend to accept the political viability of their ideas because they are presented to us with a very narrow range of possibilities.

This range means that a public policy (e.g. a measure adopted to manage migration from Mexico to the United States) can change from being considered “unthinkable” to “acceptable”, then “sensible”, “popular”, and finally, as a necessary policy.

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In turn, this range of possibilities is adapted according to the characteristics of the citizens and the current state of public opinion so that the person who proposes them is perceived as a competent politician, or at least not too radical.

Strategically, some ideas can be presented as radical, so that what is “outside the window” is considered moderate and acceptable. Thus, the window can modify its limits and the place towards which we turn, and even the very perception of what we observe.

It can be applied to understand how societies adopt and abandon certain ideas over time, through having been defended with logical, moral and emotional criteria by the interested political group. Through this metaphor different social events could be analyzed and how ideals and practices of all kinds have been legitimized, many of them dangerous.

Popularity and related works

Although the Overton Window is a very popular theory today, it is also a fairly recent idea. It became a theory in itself after Joseph Overton died as a result of injuries suffered in a plane accident.

His colleague, Joseph Leman, was one of the people who named it and spread it during the first decade of the 21st century. Based on this idea, there is even a novel called The Overton Windowone of the best-selling works by American and political commentator Glenn Beck in the last decade.