The Overton window explained

Donald Trump and Brexit are breathing new life into an old political concept

A window is smashed during protests in Washington after the inauguration of President Donald Trump
(Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The Overton window, a political science concept born in the 1990s, has become the go-to model for commentators amid the rise of Donald Trump and Brexiteers.

The term was devised by the late free-market advocate Joseph Overton, an executive at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a conservative think tank in Michigan. After Overton died in a plane crash in 2003, his colleague at the centre, Joseph Lehman, formalised the idea.

Now, the “once-obscure poli-sci concept is having its moment in the sun”, says Politico.

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So what is the Overton window?

The concept is used to describe the range of ideas that voters find acceptable and “outside which lie political exile or pariahdom”, explains Politico.

The theory is that politicians are limited in what policies they can support as they risk losing voters if they pursue ideas that are not seen as legitimate options by society.

The Mackinac Center explains that the Overton window “can both shift and expand, either increasing or shrinking the number of ideas politicians can support without unduly risking their electoral support”.

The think tank uses prohibition as an example of something that was deemed acceptable a few generations ago but is now outside the borders of the Overton window, meaning “virtually no politician endorses making alcohol illegal again”.

Why is it a popular term now?

The model has gained traction since Donald Trump put himself forward to become US president, although Politico notes there has been some misconception about attributing this to lawmakers themselves.

“Politicians respond to the public’s definition of the window, not the other way around,” it says.

As Lehman explains, politicians are “in the business of detecting where the window is, and then moving to be in accordance with it”.

Jackson Rawlings on Medium believes the economic crisis of 2008 led the public to “question the political status quo”, while the rise of the internet has encouraged a “herd mentality” among users who are subjected to “articles and ideas to justify basically every position possible, from Nazism to Necrophilia”.

Rawlings says people such as Trump “saw that the Window was wide open, and decided to take society through it”.

Is it a conservative phenomonen?

No. The window can expand and move in different directions.

The New York Times notes that left-wing legislation proposed by Bernie Sanders before the 2016 presidential election was deemed radical at the time.

“His support for these policies set him apart in the 2016 Democratic field, but they are mainstream positions among the 2020 candidates - because, increasingly, they are mainstream positions among the voters those candidates are courting,” says the newspaper.

In the run-up to the last presidential election, David French in the National Review claimed Trump “smashed” the window on issues such as immigration and national security.

“Registration of Muslims? On the table. Bans on Muslims entering the country? On the table. Mass deportation? On the table. Walling off our southern border at Mexico’s expense? On the table,” he wrote. But he added that “the shattering of the window reflects the shattering of the American consensus”.

What about Brexit?

Last week, Ben Kelly in The Daily Telegraph argued that the “Overton window has shifted permanently” in the UK on the subject of Brexit.

Not long ago, Brexit seemed unattainable and the majority of Eurosceptics would have “dreamt” of leaving on the terms of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, said Kelly. But now, for the European Research Group - the staunch Leave faction of the Tory party chaired by Jacob Rees-Mogg - “only a ‘no deal’ Brexit will do”.

In The Independent, Dan Antopolski says nudging the Overton window “should work like a courtroom: each side must present its arguments as vigorously as possible, averaging out everybody’s bias and leaving the truths exposed”.

However, he argues that the Remain campaign has failed to “show up to do their bit in the adversarial process”, leaving the window to “lurch unpredictably”.

In The Spectator last year, Alex Massie recalled how David Cameron once branded Ukip the party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly”.

He concludes: “Once, the Conservatives denounced Ukip as the unacceptable face of Euroscepticism; now they dance on Ukip’s grave while carrying on with its philosophy. The Kippers have won.”

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