The Overton Window

You often hear on the news that an event or series of events has shifted the Overton window. This was spoken about regularly around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership to explain why his socialist policies were now acceptable and popular with a majority of the public. Policies that fall outside of the window will cause dissatisfaction and lose public approval, so politicians must identify the current window position and keep proposals within this window of acceptability. Activists will attempt to move the window or expand it by persuading the public of a given political idea’s merits or even shutting down beliefs seen as acceptable to shift the widow towards their views.

The Overton Window, or the discourse window, is a term used in political science to explain the range of policies that are seen as acceptable by the public at any given time. If a policy falls outside the Overton window, it’s seen as too extreme for the voting public to accept. The Overton window moves, so a policy idea in one election year might be seen as radical, might then be seen as popular just four years later for the next election.

Joseph Overton created the model to describe the level of government intervention the voters would be prepared to accept on a spectrum with freer on one end and less free on the other. The window can move up and down the range with the public mood. Joshua Trevino later added six degrees of acceptance to the model: from unthinkable, radical, acceptable sensible, popular, and finally policy.

The six degrees work both ways along the spectrum, meaning that there are currently unthinkable policies on both ends of the freedom spectrum and softer versions of these that might be seen as sensible or even popular. The current lockdown in the UK is an excellent example of a dramatic shift of the Overton window; eighteen months ago, it would have been unthinkable for a democratic government to restrict the public from leaving their homes for months at a time. However, we are over two months into the second set of tight restrictions on movement, and according to YouGov, Government disapproval is only at 43%, and approval is 36%. The Prime Minister’s approval rating is at 41%, roughly the same as in January 2020 before the pandemic began.

Many activists with political views currently in the unthinkable areas of the spectrum will attempt to restrict freedom of speech at the other end of the spectrum. These activities use techniques, such as no-platforming. They try to stop venues from allowing a speaker from holding an event, pressuring organisations to enact policies that prevent free expression, or repeatedly questioning a speaker’s reputation.

Throughout history, efforts to move the Overton window towards more freedom have had positive effects, such as abolishing the transatlantic slave trade and universal voting rights. The discourse window can also move towards less freedom, such as the rise of communist and fascist dictatorial regimes.

When you see people trying to move, the spectrum of acceptable opinion tries to assess if they are doing it to reposition the Overton window towards a current radical or unthinkable policy and decide if this is a move towards more or less freedom. Just remember that someone has to be in charge of what is seen as ‘acceptable’ when speech is restricted; you might agree with the current person’s views, but what if the next person in charge is someone that does not agree with you?