For anyone out there who is involved in activism, politics or social justice advocacy, sometimes the world can feel disheartening. But the concept of the Overton Window serves as a reminder that society is flexible, that there is hope, and that even the most impossible utopian ideas can one day become reality. Read on to learn more.
What is the Overton Window?
The Overton window is a political theory defining the range of ideas and political possibilities that the public is willing to accept. The idea is that politicians are limited in what policies they can support; they risk losing voters if they pursue options that aren’t seen as legitimate by wider society, but what is seen as legitimate can also change over time. In this way, the window is ever-changing and flexible but, at any time, only options that fall within the Overton Window are likely to become reality.
The idea of the Overton Window helps us understand how ideas and opinions across society can change and influence political decisions. Politicians only pursue policies that are widely accepted, therefore lying inside the Overton Window. A politician seeking to maximise the chance of reelection will try to determine where the Overton Window lies for key issues, using public opinion polls and research, to understand how best to campaign in those areas, prioritising public opinion over personal preference.
This also demonstrates that most of the time, politicians will only support policies that don’t hurt electoral chances. The people shape this range of policy options: through ideas, social movements, societal values, and current norms society is used to. Politicians follow more often than they lead and, ultimately, more power lies with public pressure than we might think. Beyond this, social institutions that establish and reinforce societal norms (eg. the media, schools, workplaces, think tanks and charities) are more influential in shaping politics than we may realise.
History of the Overton Window
The Overton Window is named for political theorist Joseph P. Overton, who introduced the idea in the 1990s while working for the conservative think tank Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He invented the concept to explain the role of think tanks to potential donors, never expecting it to gain widespread recognition.
…he created a brochure with a cardboard slider. The brochure listed the range of possible policies on a single issue, from least to most government intervention. On education — an example the Mackinac Center uses — it might run from zero public investment in education to compulsory indoctrination in government schools. But neither of those extremes is going to happen. Only part of the range is achievable, and when Mr. Overton moved his slider, different policies fell into what he called the window of political possibility.
After his death in 2003, the concept grew increasingly popular and is now commonly referenced in political circles.
Overton’s original point was that think tanks can shift the window, but it’s now clear that grassroots organising, campaigning and mobilisation can do the same thing. The window is essentially a description, not a tactic. Shifting it doesn’t involve proposing extreme measures to make other, less extreme, ideas seem like reasonable options. It simply observes how ideas come in and out of fashion, and demonstrates that mobilising to engage public opinion has the power to change policy.
Additionally, the Overton Window doesn’t deem which policies are good or bad, it only describes the range of ideas that society will accept. The people collectively define the Overton Window, and politicians respond depending on what is within it.
How the Overton Window can change
The Overton Window can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without risking electoral support. The window typically moves slowly over time, but can change rapidly in response to major society-wide crises. Sometimes politicians can move the Overton Window themselves, usually by endorsing a policy lying outside the window, but this is rare. Normally the window moves as society shifts and collective values slowly change.
An example of a slow-moving change is the Prohibition Era in the USA. In the 1920s the sale of alcohol was illegal under federal law, suggesting the policy was safely inside the Overton Window. However, alcohol is now widely available, and politicians don’t endorse making it illegal again. The Overton Window has shifted on this topic.
On the other side of this, gun control laws in the UK are an example of the Overton Window rapidly shifting in response to a crisis. In 1996 a local shopkeeper walked into a primary school and opened fire, killing sixteen children and one teacher in what became known as the Dunblane Massacre. This hugely affected public opinion and, in tandem with grassroots campaigning led by the parents of Dunblane students, the private ownership of most handguns was banned by the end of 1997. Since then, the UK has had no school shootings, and the idea of free ownership of guns is outside of the Overton Window.
What this means for activism
Those of us involved in climate justice activism and organising can often be met with some sort of opposition from sections of the public. Whether it be about the tactics of action or policies themselves, the idea of the Overton Window is useful to remember. It serves as a reminder that, just because something isn’t of public concern right now, doesn’t mean things can’t change.
It may take work to move the Overton Window, working from the ground up to build support, but with consistent effort to make a campaign catch root, politicians will eventually be forced to follow. We have seen this with movements such as Stop Cambo: a campaign of momentum building and sustained support led to Cambo becoming a top question for politicians in the UK around COP26. As public opinion started to shift in this area, Cambo was indefinitely paused at the end of 2021. If it hadn’t been for this campaign this may not have been the case.
Public perception can shift and, while some policies we fight for may currently lie outside of the Overton Window, the window is still subject to change. Hope isn’t lost.
How do you shift the Overton window?
The Overton Window is always changing, but this process is usually slow enough that we only notice the differences in retrospect. In the face of a major crisis, particularly one that impacts many people and persists for a long time, the window can move much more quickly. The climate crisis presents such an opportunity.
Overton himself believed that pushing for extreme positions is more effective at changing public opinion, as evidenced recently by the popularity of stances from Bernie Sanders and AOC in the USA.
Forty-five percent of Republicans in one poll supported Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s suggestion to tax income over $10 million at 70 percent; among all American adults, 59 percent supported that. Thirty-seven percent of Republicans said they would vote for a candidate who supported a Medicare for all plan; 53 percent of all Americans said the same.
Activists, therefore, should not be swayed by the scale of demands for a just transition, green new deal or similar sweeping environmental policies. Instead, they must be dedicated to communicating to the public what this actually means, why it matters for a liveable future, and why mass involvement in public pressure is vital.
Another strategy involves avoiding playing political tug-of-war. Economist Robin Hanson describes this as pulling the rope sideways. Instead of pulling on the rope on one side (of the Overton Window), pull it in a direction no one will resist. An example of this could be campaigning for increased taxation of fossil fuel companies to alleviate financial pressures on ordinary people. During the cost of living crisis, at a time when these corporations are raking in obscene profits, there is minimal pushback from the public on these kinds of ideas. Once the window, and public perception, shifts in regards to these companies and their prioritising of profits over human lives, this also provides a better platform from which to aim for other shifts of the Overton Window.
Essentially, the public has more power than those in charge may want us to think. It’s not solely the job of activism to lobby politicians to support policies that lie outside the Overton Window, it’s also our job to get more people on board. Through mass mobilisation we can shift what society will accept, making future policy choices inevitable. Ideas that once seemed unthinkable will become unavoidable, and this can move us all towards a future of climate justice.
We can see a just, fair world beyond the realms we are currently confined to, and we get to decide the terms. We don’t need politicians to get us there because ultimately we, the people, are the leaders, not the followers. We just need to keep working together and bringing people on board.
If you’re feeling disheartened or unsure how to take action, let this serve as a prompt to join your local climate action group, and remember that the impossible can be achieved.