How Radical Policies Seem Sensible: The Overton Window

Have you ever wondered how radical and unthinkable policies become acceptable to the public? How do US President Donald Trump’s claims of erecting a border wall across the southern border with Mexico or banning people from Islamic countries to travel to the US seem justifiable? How did ideas that were once considered taboo, like Same-Sex marriages or Universal Suffrage, become a reality over time?


The Overton Window explains these developments. It refers to a range of policies and ideas that an elected official can support and campaign for without being reprimanded by their constituents. This “window of political possibilities” includes the popular policies that the people think are appropriate, and the policies outside it can be radical or unthinkable. A relatively obscure political science concept, ‘the Overton Window’ originated in the mid-1990s from the works of Joseph P. Overton, a libertarian think-tank official of the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy in Michigan, USA.

Source: Centre for New Zealand Progress


The Overton Window acts as a model to understand how changes occur in society over time and influence politics. It highlights the fact that politicians face limitations in the kind of policies they can support — they can only pursue policies that are widely accepted throughout society, as legitimate. These policies lie inside the Overton Window. While multiple other policy ideas exist, politicians risk losing popular support or being dismissed by the public if they champion them. These policies lie outside the Overton Window.


But the Overton Window can shift or expand - increasing or decreasing the number and type of policies that can be supported by the politicians. In other words, the popularity and support of policies can change with time. Yesterday’s radical and unthinkable policies can be today’s mainstream policies. Same-sex marriage and universal suffrage are examples of how social reform movements can shift the Overton Window. In fact, all social reform movements have to shift the Overton window to make progress. Sometimes politicians can move the Overton Window themselves by emphatically endorsing a policy idea lying outside the window. However, the window often moves in accordance with the slow evolution of societal values and norms.


Joseph Overton argued that the easiest way for politicians and people in power to move the “window” was to force people to consider ideas at the extremes, as far away from the window as possible. Because forcing people to consider an unthinkable idea, even if they rejected it, would make all less extreme ideas seem acceptable by comparison - it would move the “window” slowly in that direction. This is an interpretation of the negotiation strategy called ‘door-in-the-face’. Rejecting a large request in the first instance will make the respondent more likely to agree to a second, more reasonable request, the one that was initially desired.

Source: VoxEu.org


An alternative approach is to make existing norms seem extreme. In the Netherlands, traffic accident deaths slowly climbed while the country was being rebuilt from World War II until the 1970s, when one of those deaths was the child of a newspaper columnist. The columnist began writing a series of articles with the headline “Stop de kindermoord,” or “Stop the child murder”— an extreme reframing for an “accident.” This headline became an organization and thereafter, a movement, and today the country is one of the most bicycle- and pedestrian-friendly countries in the world.


Thus, the “window” can shift. Ideas can go from being unthinkable to mainstream policy. As the unthinkable gains traction, it becomes radical. As the radicals make noise, it becomes acceptable over time. Once the barrier of acceptability is crossed, the once-unthinkable idea comes to be seen as sensible. And, what seems sensible becomes popular, and is thus converted into policy.


Much like the columnist, politicians with large followings on social media can manipulate the public discourse; to shift the “window” to include their desired policies by vehemently arguing for them or their extreme versions.


In India, the Overton window has shifted dramatically to the right since the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government came to power in the 2014 elections; shifting what is considered normal and acceptable. Hindutva which until 2014 was a fringe idea has become the dominant force in Indian politics with individuals such as the Warrior Priest of Gorakhnath - Adityanath - becoming the Chief Minister of India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, and legislations such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 being passed in the Lok Sabha.


In the United States of America, Donald Trump by floating extreme policies (build a wall on the Mexican border, ban Muslims from the United States), has seemingly forced public debate sharply to the right where normal conservatives seem to be at the centre rather than the centrists, who now appear to be left-leaning.


Similarly, Senator Bernie Sanders with his radical policies of Medicare-for-all, free college tuition, and an expanded social security net made him a fringe candidate in the 2016 presidential race. However, four years later in the 2020 Presidential elections, versions of these very policies have entered mainstream politics with both Democrats and Republicans arguing over them because the voters they are now courting are increasingly demanding for such legislation. “We have come a very, very long way in the American people now demanding legislation and concepts that just a few years ago were thought to be very radical,” Sen. Sanders said in an interview. The fact that people in America are now starting to term themselves ‘socialists’ or ‘democratic socialists’ is a testament to how far the Overton Window has expanded in a society that demonized the economic-left during the Cold-War against the Communist Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) in the 20th Century.


Milton Friedman may have summarized this idea by a quote in the preface to the 1982 edition of Capitalism and Freedom:

That, I believe, is our basic function: to develop alternatives to existing policies, to keep them alive and available until the politically impossible becomes politically inevitable.

Author:

Rishabh Ahuja is an undergraduate student of Cluster Innovation Centre, University of Delhi. He is interested in International Relations, Public Policy and Philosophy. E-mail ID: Ris.ahuja@ducic.ac.in


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