The myth of the Overton Window

Deliberately advancing bad ideas is in fact bad.

Coming up with new ideas that make sense and developing persuasive arguments in favor of those ideas is hard. Many people aren’t up to the challenge. So there’s naturally a robust market for meta-theories as to why it’s okay to not do that and just spew nonsense instead. Consequently, an idea developed by Joseph Overton to help fundraise for a libertarian think tank in Michigan has ended up going viral in policy circles because it offers a license to spew nonsense. Yet tellingly, the viral version of the Overton Window is a mutant strain expressing an idea that’s actually very different from Overton’s idea as described by the think tank he worked for before he died.

That’s because his original point, while absolutely a useful metaphor, is also a bit banal and simply ends up emphasizing the importance of having arguments that are persuasive. The mutant strain, by contrast, is inauthentic and has no evidence behind it, but it does serve as a useful ad hoc rationalization for sloppy advocacy while also offering a ready excuse for not picking fights with dumb ideas “on your side” on the grounds that they are doing useful Overton Window work.

But this is dumb and wrong. People should not make bad arguments in favor of indefensible positions.

More importantly, since nobody thinks of themselves as being the person with bad arguments and indefensible positions, donors making funding decisions should raise the rigor bar for what they’re willing to support and the ideas are signed onto by the groups they back. The original spirit of the Overton Window — that it’s fine to advocate in civil society for ideas that are currently unpopular — is totally fine and correct. But the Mutant Overton Window which holds that it’s fine to back unsound extreme ideas for tactical reasons is wrong. You should back good ideas, not bad ones.

The window of political possibility

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy is a libertarian think tank in Michigan, and Joseph Overton, who was a senior vice president of the center in the 1990s, outlined the idea of a “window of political possibility” as a way of explaining what he thinks the role of a think tank should be. He died in a plane crash, but the idea of the window was later popularized by his friend and colleague Joseph Lehman, who is the source of most of our canonical information about what the Overton Window idea is.

One service that policy organizations can provide is to equip political insiders with technical information about feasible policy ideas. The Biden administration, for example, announced in its first week in office that it was enacting a 15% boost in pandemic EBT benefits and an increase in the maximum SNAP allotment for the poorest kids. My guess is that Joe Biden did not personally read through the statutes to uncover the fact that these were things he could do. But it also wasn’t widely-known general information at the time; I was surprised when his economic team laid the plan out to journalists because I wasn’t aware those options were available.

Someone figured it out, and that’s a thing effective policy advocates can do. But Lehman and Overton wanted to defend a different style of think tanking, where you have blue-sky policy development and make the case for unrealistic, envelope-pushing ideas. Here’s what the think tank says about it:

The Overton Window doesn't describe everything about how politics works, but it does describe one key thing: Politicians will not support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will only espouse policies that they believe do not hurt their electoral chances. And the range of policy options available to a politician are shaped by ideas, social movements and shared norms and values within society.

All of this suggests that politicians are more followers than they are leaders — it’s the rest of us who ultimately determine the types of policies they’ll get behind. It also implies that our social institutions — families, workplaces, friends, media, churches, voluntary associations, think tanks, schools, charities, and many other phenomena that establish and reinforce societal norms — are more important to shaping our politics than we typically credit them for.

So, if you’re interested in policy change, keep the Overton Window in mind, as it is a helpful guide. If your idea lies outside the window, trying to convince politicians to embrace it is a steep hill to climb. You’ll likely need to start at the ground level, slowly building support for your idea throughout the broader society, and then if it catches root there, politicians will eventually come onboard. Even if the policy change you care about most currently lies within the window, maybe you should re-evaluate if there’s a better option that you’re not considering because it lies outside the Overton Window and no current politician endorses it.

I think that’s a very sensible set of observations.

If you were sitting around in 1991 trying to cook up a political agenda to ask LGBTQ-friendly politicians to back, equal marriage rights would not have been prominent on the list. It was somewhere on the border of radical and unthinkable, and you’d be wasting your time ginning up support for it. But people like Andrew Sullivan, who started making the case in favor of equal marriage rights, were not wasting their time. They persuaded enough people that by the time I graduated college in 2003, it was firmly in the “acceptable” or even “sensible” window where lots of people would happily espouse the idea — it just wasn’t electorally viable. After a few more years of advocacy, it became popular and, paired with a savvy litigation strategy, it became the law of the land.

The change on marriage equality was unusually rapid, but it’s a pattern you see on many issues. I went to a marijuana legalization rally in New York in 1998 and it was all kooks and stoners. Now the politically cautious governor supports it, as does the state’s senior senator who was touting his tough-on-crime record back in 1998.

But note two things about Overton’s account of the Window:

  • The goal is to actually get your idea enacted.

  • The theory of change is persuading people your idea is good.

In its mutant form, Overton Window rhetoric is used to describe a completely different idea — throwing out bombs to frame your idea as reasonable.

The Mutant Overton Window

Back when he and I were both at Vox, Carlos Maza did a video outlining his understanding of Overton Window thinking, and it reflects a very different idea — that by tossing out zany and extreme ideas, Trump reframes somewhat-less-extreme ideas as reasonable.

This is an idea we know from marketing. The small sodas at the movie theater are very large, but the existence of an absolutely absurdly large “large” size makes the idea of upgrading to a medium seem plausible.

By the same token, a December 2015 Rachel Maddow segment described the Overton Window as a theory that says people should “advocate super-extreme positions which change the realm of what’s politically possible.” The idea is that once this has happened, ideas that are “slightly less nuts … start to look politically plausible.”

Maddow, like Maza, was talking about Trump there.

But, her very next segment was an interview with Bernie Sanders. Writing in Jacobin, Ben Burgis — rightly I think — interpreted that juxtaposition as an attempt to frame Bernie as an Overton Window shifter for liberals.

Now I don’t want to deny the reality that this kind of political framing effect is a thing. Joe Biden ran for president in 2020 on a health care platform that would have read as aggressively liberal had Obama backed it in 2012, but thanks largely to Sanders’ strident single-payer advocacy in 2016, it came to seem kind of moderate. But here’s a critical nuance — I think the reason that Sanders’ advocacy was a constructive intervention into the health care debate is that single-payer health care is a perfectly reasonable idea.

  • Actual countries such as Canada and Denmark have single-payer health care systems.

  • The United States has a single-payer health care system for senior citizens.

  • Many mainstream political figures including Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi have in the past advocated for single-payer health care.

All of the problems with single-payer health care as a legislative concept are political in nature. Writing down legislation that would enact a large, disruptive change to everyone’s health care arrangements has a lot of downsides as an electoral strategy. I think Biden should have run on a bolder health plan than the one he adopted, but I don’t think running on single-payer would have been wise. But, if you put single-payer health care up for a vote in a referendum, I would absolutely vote for it. And if single-payer advocates can convince more people to agree with me, then its political viability will improve. That is what shifting the Overton Window is supposed to be about — convincing people that your “out there” idea is good.

Contrast that with Beautiful Trouble’s account of the Overton Window in its advice to activists:

For example, if what you actually want is a public health care option in the United States, coordinate with and promote those pushing for single-payer, universal health care. If the single-payer approach constitutes the “acceptable left” flank of the discourse, then the public option looks, by comparison, like the conservative option it was once considered back when it was first proposed by Orrin Hatch in 1994.

There is a subtle transmutation here from “pushing your ideal policy is likely to help you get a good compromise” to “if you want the compromise policy, pretend to want the other more extreme thing to make it look more moderate.” In the particular case of health care, these lead to similar conclusions, because single-payer is a substantively plausible idea that happens to be politically tough.

The difference matters though, because in the Beautiful Trouble account, it doesn’t actually matter whether single-payer makes sense. And it leads you to the logic that Emily VanDerWerff embraced in her account of “The Narrative Power of ‘Abolish the Police’”:

Thus, the surface-level debate over “abolish the police” is not a matter of policy; it’s a matter of political discourse. And it’s already bearing fruit, if the moves made by local governments throughout the country — Minneapolis’s pledge to dismantle its own police department is an obvious example — are any indication. Even if you vehemently disagree with the idea of abolishing the police, just the statement of the phrase shifts the Overton window and makes you rethink what is possible within American politics.

Derek Robinson wrote a good article in 2018 explaining the transmutation and illustrating that Mutant Overton Window thinking has taken hold among both left- and right-wing activists. And unlike the canonical Mackinac Center idea, the Mutant Overton Window seems very unsound to me.

Backlash is real

The big appeal of the Overton Window is twofold.

On the one hand, it gives activists an excuse to be lazy and sloppy in their own thinking and advocacy because they can always say they are simply acting to expand the Overton Window.

On the other hand, it lets people avoid infighting, which is socially awkward. If you sincerely believe in fighting for higher pay for low-wage workers, then you don’t want to be the skunk at the party who tells someone that his plan for $50/hour goes too far. That’s annoying. You’d rather just ignore him because who cares that he’s wrong; it’s not like that’s actually going to happen. But then maybe over time, the Fight For $50 people grow stronger, and you can’t tell yourself they’re irrelevant. But the federal minimum is still stuck at $7.25/hour, and you’re trying to get a five-year phase-in to $15, so you really don’t want to fight with the $50 guy. Well, you can tell yourself that it’s fine because he’s helping you with the Overton Window.

But it’s worth asking yourself if you see anyone on the other side in that light.

Did Trump’s repeated flirtations with extreme racists actually make his immigration restriction agenda seem more moderate and appealing to you? To me, it made it seem like his administration was full of racist nutjobs. I’ve heard the take that it was hypocritical of people to be sharply critical of Trump’s clampdown on asylum-seekers when they were much more open to Obama clamping down on asylum-seekers after being faced with a surge. But I don’t think that’s hypocrisy at all — I think it’s common sense. Obama seemed like a reasonable person who was cracking down because his team genuinely thought it was necessary, and if there were flaws or problems in their implementation, it was probably a good-faith effort.

Trump’s rhetoric, his wink-nudge stuff with white nationalists, his dumbass wall, his crackdowns on legal migration of skilled workers, etc. made him seem like a xenophobic maniac whose approach was grounded in cruelty and hysteria.

Indeed, support for immigration today is at an all-time high because Trump radicalized Democrats and independents in its favor.

By the same token, what actually happened with “abolish the police” is that the reimagining effort in Minneapolis collapsed, and even though Democrats are now in power in Washington, nobody is talking about the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act anymore. Activists talking about eliminating policing haven’t made slightly less radical proposals look more moderate — they’ve made police reform look like a politically dicey subject that Democratic leaders want to avoid at all costs.

In a funny interview moment, Lehman, the original Overton Window popularizer, said, “Journalists or pundits sometimes treat the Overton Window as if it is a tool designed for the purpose of manipulation, and that's not what it's for. It’s like saying, gravity is for the purpose of dropping pianos on people's heads.”

Rigorous advocacy works

I’ve referred in the past to the sanewashing of “defund the police” into a meliorist agenda of shifting municipal budget priorities at the margin.

But I’m trying to be more of a transparent, self-critical rationalist type so let me focus on a sanewashing moment of my own. I’ve been interested for a long time in full employment policy — in challenging conventional thinking around monetary and fiscal policy, and drawing attention to the wide-ranging benefits of a comprehensive emphasis on low unemployment. As a result, when the idea of a “jobs guarantee” became briefly prominent in 2018, I wrote an article trying to sanewash the jobs guarantee idea into my vision of full employment politics.

This is a good way to get clicks on the internet (which was, in a sense, my job) because when people see a new buzzword gaining steam and people they think of as their peers are getting excited about, they go searching for more content on it.

If you’re interested in policy advocacy, though, this is not a very effective strategy compared to rigorous thinking.

At their best, I think Mutant Overton Window acolytes are confusing advocacy with strategic bargaining dynamics in a legislature. A real thing that you see all the time in housing reform politics is that the champion of a YIMBY bill introduces it and then people have various objections and whatever ends up being enacted is somewhat more modest than what was initially proposed. But that’s the slow boring of hard boards, not an arbitrary framing effect. If people are convinced that the underlying case for more housing supply makes sense but they have various specific concerns, then you can make a compromise with them. If they think your underlying idea is stupid, then they’re not going to come to the table — nobody wants to bargain with people whose ideas don’t make sense.

The upshot of this is that actual persuasion matters. I know a lot of people in climate advocacy who became frustrated over the years at journalists’ habit of asking congressional Republicans whether climate change is “real,” because the real question is what are you going to do about it. But I think if you look at the energy bill that passed late last year, you see that the reality question matters. There are several members of Congress — of whom Lisa Murkowski, Joe Manchin, and Jon Tester seem most important in practice — who just can’t entirely write off the idea of fossil fuel extraction. But because they believe climate change is real, they are very happy to pass legislation that makes meaningful progress on the climate front. The objective political constraints matter here, but so do the actual underlying beliefs.

Fund good ideas

Now in an ideal world, the only way to sincerely persuade someone of something would be to be correct. Unfortunately, that’s not the case, and bad ideas can be persuasive.

But the fact remains that if you have an idea that you think is good, far and away the best way to make progress on its behalf is to try to persuade people that you are correct. That means trying to pay attention to detail, answer obvious objections people have, and choose language that is clear and friendly.

And that means that if you’re in a position to fund advocacy efforts, you should try to fund people who are smart and persuasive and hard-working, not people who throw bombs or hop on viral fads. The idea that there’s some political science magic that makes it okay or even good to put out bad ideas is very appealing to people who want to avoid fights or who lack the capacity to develop good ideas. But those are the people you should avoid! Political change is too hard to leave in the hands of people who don’t make sense.