Joseph Overton died before his time in 2003, when the 43-year-old was involved in an ultralight plane crash. But he achieved immortality when the political concept he first described as the “window of discourse” became known posthumously as the Overton Window.
What Overton refers to is the spectrum of political discourse that ranges from unthinkable ideas to those that are generally accepted and popular. Political commentator Joshua Treviño characterizes the milestones in this spectrum as starting with unthinkable, moving to radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, then policy.
One useful interpretation of Overton’s concept is that it explains how someone can propose an idea that is unthinkable or radical, and to the extent it occupies public discussion, even in its rejection the acceptable window of discourse shifts slightly in the direction of the unthinkable or radical idea.
The New York Times mentioned the Overton Window in a 2019 article that praised 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) for popularizing the previously unthinkable ideas of Medicare for all, a 70 percent top tax rate, “sweeping” action on climate change, and abolishing the Immigration and Customs Enforcement service.
But the Overton Window does not merely explain how previously radical ideas can become acceptable or even popular. It also explains how previously acceptable ideas can become unthinkable. This reality is what confronts right-of-center Americans today.
How Rational and Moderate Policies Became Unthinkable
Because the Overton Window was the product of a scholar working for the Mackinac Center, a Michigan-based free-market think tank, many of the online descriptions of it offer ominous examples of how it is being used effectively by the American Right.
School choice and tax policies are usually the prime exhibits: Watch out! If they say we should use tax funds more effectively, they’re really just softening you up for lowering taxes on rich people! If they promote charter schools, the next thing you know they’ll be trying to abolish all public school funding!
It is true that right-wing policy wonks have used the Overton Window concept to dissect policy choices into specific tactical increments that aim towards a more strategic goal. But their efforts, and their successes, are insignificant when compared to the victories of America’s Left. Backed by virtually all the established institutions—academic, corporate, media, finance, and now, apparently, even the intelligence community and the military—what was once considered rational and moderate is now unthinkable. The examples are obvious, but the Overton Window has moved so rapidly we sometimes have to work to recognize them.
The transformation of the Democratic Party over the past few years is a perfect illustration of how the Overton Window has made dramatic shifts.
With institutional backing, mainstream Democratic thought now accepts the following as truths: America is a systemically racist nation. Gender is disconnected from biology. Climate change is an existential threat to human survival. Endless permutations of truisms deduce from these urgent core premises, and to fix them—all of them—any means necessary are often justified.
The ”climate emergency,” and the broader environmental movement it now catalyzes, offers a good example of just how far Democrats have strayed from their roots. Consider the work of Edmund “Pat” Brown Sr., the Democratic governor of California from 1959 to 1967. This tremendously productive politician was a political moderate, a builder, who gave California the infrastructure it’s still using today.
During the 1950s and 1960s, under Pat Brown’s leadership, the Golden State’s freeways and water projects were the marvel and envy of the world. While some of the projects that began under Brown were completed during the two terms of his successor, Ronald Reagan, after that almost nothing got built. Californians, all 40 million of them, are living with a freeway and water infrastructure designed for a state with 20 million people. Building a new dam or a new freeway in California today is practically unthinkable.
There isn’t any rational reason why Californians, who have only urbanized about five percent of their gigantic state, could not expand their cities and suburbs and build new connecting freeways. There is no compelling case for why Californians could not construct massive new off-stream reservoirs to capture storm runoff and restore water abundance to the state’s residents. If these things were done, homes would again be affordable to ordinary working-class Californians, and water wouldn’t have to be rationed.
And while the true reason for artificial scarcity in California is that it is making powerful special interests filthy rich, the reason voters don’t rise up like a seismic wave and demand change is that the Overton Window has shifted.
Today, if you suggest California needs a new freeway, or a new reservoir, or pretty much anything that disrupts nature—like, say, reviving the timber industry to thin the overgrown forests—you are a “denier.” You are a psychopathic menace, the moral equivalent of a holocaust denier. Climate change is real, we are scolded, and to cope with climate change we will need to abandon rural areas, live in high-density housing, use public transportation, take shorter showers, and eat meat substitutes.
To suggest we should not have to live this way has become unthinkable.
The Censorious Reaction to Moderate Centrism
To challenge all of these policies, not just those that supposedly cope with climate change, it is vital to reject the charge of extremism. What exactly is extremist about taking commonsense positions that advance the interests of ordinary Americans over the interests of an oppressive elite? Nothing at all. It is a moderate, centrist sentiment to want to build new freeways to accommodate all those smart cars that are just around the corner, or to allow the building of affordable homes in spacious new suburbs to accommodate America’s growing population.
Moreover, it is a moderate, centrist sentiment to reject the notion that America is systemically racist, or that gender is connected to rather than disconnected from biology. It is moderate, and centrist, to reject the premises of America’s mainstream Left, and all of the implications of those premises, because they have become extreme.
When absurdity and oppression are cloaked in reason and virtue, and are systematically moved into the “acceptable,” “popular,” and “policy” realms of discourse, that doesn’t change the fact that they are absurd, or oppressive. And eventually, the absurdity and the oppression become so obvious that rebellion builds. This rebellion is what brought America Trump’s presidency, and all the establishment’s increasingly desperate and patently dishonest positioning of the Trump rebellion as an expression of “white supremacy” will not put an end to it.
Perhaps by calling Trump’s nonwhite supporters a product of “multiracial whiteness,” the Trump haters have done us a favor. What on Earth does that even mean? Absurdity abounds. And in its abundance, absurdity becomes increasingly recognizable.
The relentless and escalating censorship being practiced by Big Tech and the establishment media, along with the ongoing canceling of dissent by corporations and academia, are designed to stamp out rebellion. They are designed to prevent the Overton Window from being pulled back into the realm of common sense.
Put another way, now that the establishment has gotten the Overton Window positioned exactly where it wants it, any shift in “acceptable political discourse” poses a grave danger. An article published in July 2019 by the BBC made the establishment position embarrassingly plain on the threat represented by right-of-center narratives. “The more mainstream these narratives become,” security correspondent Gordon Corera wrote, “the greater the tension will be over whether they really are extreme or whether they represent acceptable political discourse, and the views of a substantial number of real people.”
“Acceptable political discourse,” expressing “the views of a substantial number of real people.” We’d better closely monitor and manage that, hadn’t we?
What members of the Trump rebellion must remember is not only that they are not extremists, but that the term “moderate” no longer carries the tepid connotations it once did. To be a moderate centrist today is to have common sense. To be a moderate centrist today is to reject the extremism of the mainstream establishment. In today’s upside-down political culture, moderate centrism has become stigmatized as extremism. But common sense, moderate centrism is only extreme insofar as it presents a mortal threat to America’s corrupt ruling class, who have betrayed the nation and the people who made possible their lives of wealth, privilege, and power.