The Overton Window – Not the book Glenn Wrote.

Everyone has probably heard that this week Glenn Beck will be releasing his new book “The Overton Window“.    This is a work of fiction that Glenn has written.  This post is not about the book, that Glenn wrote, but about the concept of the Overton Window and what it is.

First off, the Overton Window concept is named after Joseph P. Overton (4 Jan 1960 – 30 June 2003).  In short, it is about a window in the political world.  This windows applies to most political idea or concept.  Basically, if an idea falls inside of this window, then the politician that votes for it will hold the support of the population.  But if a politician votes for something that is outside of the Overton Window, then he will be considered unpopular and removed during the next election.

Wikipedia says this about it: 

At any given moment the “window” includes a range of policies considered to be politically acceptable in the current climate of public opinion, with “acceptable” defined as something a politician can recommend without being considered too “extreme” or outside the mainstream to gain or keep public office. Overton arranged the spectrum on a vertical axis with policies defined as “more free” at the top and “less free” at the bottom, where “free” is defined as less subject to government intervention. When the window moves or expands, it means that ideas previously not considered politically acceptable have become so, and possibly that ideas previously considered acceptable are no longer.

The degrees of acceptance of public ideas can be described roughly as:

  • Unthinkable
  • Radical
  • Acceptable
  • Sensible
  • Popular
  • Policy

The Overton Window is a means of visualizing which ideas define that range of acceptance by where they fall in it. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public so that the window either “moves” or expands to encompass them. Opponents of current policies, or similar ones currently within the window, likewise seek to convince people that these should be considered unacceptable. [ Source: Overton Window – Wikipedia]

You can read more bio information about Joseph P. Orton, and view some of the articles, etc that he has written by going to the Mackinac Center for Public Policy – Joseph P. Orton.

There is another good article about the Overton Window written by Joseph Lehman, President of the Mackinac Center.   In this article, I want to point out a couple of comments he makes about the Overton Window.

“He [Joe Overton] observed that any collection of public policies within a policy area, such as education, can be arranged in order from more free to less free (or from less government intervention to more). To avoid comparison with the left-right political spectrum, he arranged the policies from bottom (less free) to top (more free).”

Note, that items are arranged in a top-down fashion, instead of a left right fashion.  This is to eliminate the terms of right and left wings, and makes everything a basis of free and less free.

Many believe that politicians move the window, but that’s actually rare. In our understanding, politicians typically don’t determine what is politically acceptable; more often they react to it and validate it. Generally speaking, policy change follows political change, which itself follows social change. The most durable policy changes are those that are undergirded by strong social movements.

I have always felt that this is true.  That it is not really the politicians that can make the changes, but the flow of people under those politicians.  If you want something to change, you have to get the Overton Window to either expand, contract, or shift.  By doing this, you make it acceptable for the current politicians to vote in favor or the item you want policy for.  Most politicians will not vote for something outside of the Overton Window, because it will risk their ability to be re-elected, or may even get them kicked out of office.

Joseph then goes on to explain:

Lawmakers who support policies outside the window are one of two kinds — true leaders who have the rare ability to shift the window by themselves, or politicians who risk electoral defeat because they are perceived as out of touch. This explains why key lawmakers in 2009 and 2010 were reluctant to support a massive federal health care bill seen as unpopular with the people. Officeholders knew a vote outside the window would subject them to the political Furies, as in fact it has. 

One thing that needs to be addressed as well, is that the Overton Window can be different on a national level then it is on a local level.  A perfect example is with recent US Senate race in Utah.   Even though TARP may of been considered in the national Overton Window, it was not in the Overton Window in Utah.  So when Bob Bennett voted for the first TARP, he voted outside the window, and in turn was labeled as “out of touch”, and lost the US Senate GOP primary nomination.  (At least in my mind that is what happened, as a State GOP Delegate, that is why I voted to block his primary party nomination.)

If you really want to have a say in the political process, you need to move the Overton Window.  And to do that, you need to have people accept the policy you want, then the Overton Window will shift, and the politicians will be able to vote for it.

I think what we are seeing in our country, with the tea party movement and other movements, is that the Overton Window has shifted under the politicians, and that the politicians are looking at a different Overton Window than the population.   This in turn is making them look Out of Touch with us.  This is why we are seeing policies being passed that the majority of the US does not agree with.  The politicians are passing policies based on their Overton Windows, not the Overton Windows of their election base.

My take on the current Overton Window is that over the years it has shifted from what our founding father’s Overton Window was.  Because of this, we are seeing a huge shift in the public Overton Window to move it back to the original founding fathers views.  And in the process, the politicians are either ignoring that shift, or are trying to fight the sift.   This will eventually lead to the politicians being labeled as “Out of Tough” and they will be removed from office.   My hope is that the politicians view of the Overton Window and the publics view of the Overton Window will align again, and we will start seeing policies and changes that the majority can believe in.

Thoughs…  Comments….

If you want more info on the book that Glenn wrote, you can find it here:

For more resources on the concept of the Overton Window, see these links:
Overton Window – Wikipedia
Why the Right-Wing Gets it–and Why Dems Don’t
The Overton Window – A Model of Policy Change
Craxy Like a Fox?
The Overton Window, Illustrated – I dont agree with the left right diagram.


  1. I believe the 'window' can be manipulated if a consortium of politicians, press, financial backers and PR types intentionally misrepresent where the socially acceptable 'window' is. That misrepresentation gives political cover. If political action continues to use this ruse to accomplish political objectives clearly outside the window, it sows the seeds of revolution.
    So, a leader intentionally out of touch will use this method. And pay the price.

  2. One of the big shifts in recent years has been the way in which the Overton Window is shifted. At one time, the churches and schools were major players in shifting the window. Then, churches faded, and television news ascended to the point that Walter Cronkite was able to shift opposition to the Vietnam War from a radical idea to an acceptable idea. These days, talk radio and the blogosphere are ascendant. People who have never heard of the Overton Window still thought that they were going to help change the world by going into journalism. Their frustration is similar to that felt by the church leaders of 50 years ago.

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