Thinking About the Overton Window

by Dan Guerin
Goldwater Institute

What if you discovered a diabolical plot decades in the making to transform America into something sinister that could strip away your freedoms? Would you do all you could to reveal the plan and try to save the country, even if speaking out might destroy your life? That is the question facing the protagonist of Glenn Beck’s new novel The Overton Window.

Set for release on June 15, the political thriller is based on a theory developed by the late vice president of Michigan’s Mackinac Center, Joseph Overton, called The Overton Window. The theory states that policy proposals in any given area can be arranged from the most freedom to the least free. But only a narrow window of those policy options is considered politically acceptable to politicians. This smaller list of policy options does not necessarily reflect the stance a lawmaker would prefer to take on an issue. Rather, this “window” looks onto the range of choices the lawmaker believes he or she can support and still win re-election. As ideas change in society, the window shifts to include new policies or exclude old ones.

Policy research organizations such as the Goldwater Institute and the Mackinac Center play a critical part in shifting the Overton Window in the right direction. We call attention to good ideas that the public doesn’t know about. In turn, lawmakers recognize where these ideas fit within the range of policy options they can support. As Mackinac Center President Joseph Lehman puts it: “Today’s unacceptable ideas become acceptable. Yesterday’s acceptable policies become unacceptable. Change ideas to shift the Overton Window. Shift the window, and you change policy.” The Goldwater Institute has, and always will, work to move the Overton Window toward those policies that protect and expand your liberty.

Dan Guerin is a communications associate with the Goldwater Institute.


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