Overton Window Presents Distorted View

This article is part of the Thinking Points Discussion Series published by the Rockridge Institute in early 2007. It was written by Joe Brewer (Rockridge Institute staff member) on August 2, 2007

Political strategies based on the left-right political spectrum are inherently limited. In this article, the second of a three-part series, I present the Overton Window and analyze its foundational concepts to reveal the short-comings of this approach.

This is the second of a three part series about shifting political discourse. Part 1 explored the importance of ideological worldviews in politics, emphasizing the reality that people are biconceptuals. Part 3 will present the real strategy conservatives have used to shift political discourse in their favor, laying the groundwork for progressives to reclaim the advantage.

The Overton Window: What is it?

Public opinion changes regularly. At any given time, there are some ideas that are acceptable and others that are radically unacceptable. The Overton Window is the range of ideas that are considered to be acceptable at the moment. The strategy is to shift this window of acceptability by exposing people to positions more extreme than what you are trying to achieve.

There is a range of possible reactions to an idea (such as universal health care):

Unthinkable
Radical
Acceptable
Sensible
Popular
Policy

At any given time, the idea of having universal health care will be at one of these locations. Overton described a method for moving that window, thereby including previously excluded ideas, while excluding previously acceptable ideas. The technique relies on people promoting ideas even less acceptable than the previous “outer fringe” ideas, making those old fringe ideas look less extreme, and thereby acceptable.

This is often done in an orchestrated manner where one group promotes an extreme policy recommendation while another takes a more “moderate” position relative to it.

Pictorial View

The graphic on this site uses the mythical Linear Politics metaphor, in which the window right now is shifted far to the right.

Overton uses this diagram to illustrate the strategy of “moving the window to the right” by being more extreme. But this isn’t really what the conservatives are doing. They are being more purely conservative.

The rest of this article is devoted to pointing out the limitations of this technique to set the stage for seeing what the winning strategy looks like. I will clarify how conservatives have actually been shifting the debate for all these years. Then the practical steps necessary for progressives to shift debate in our favor will become clear.

But we have to go beyond the Line of Political Positions metaphor.

Revealing the Concepts Involved

The thing that is lacking in previous presentations of the Overton Window is an explanation of how the brain makes sense of the concepts involved. It has to do with framing and metaphors. Let’s start with the metaphors for the window itself.

The Line of Acceptable Positions Metaphor
The Line of Acceptable Positions metaphor is a version of the Line of Political Positions metaphor, with the additional caveat that each position represents a level of acceptability by the mainstream public. It has political positions lined up from left to right, with some on the extreme ends and others in between. Their locations correspond with how acceptable the “mainstream” public considers them to be. This metaphor presupposes the existence of a mainstream public that lies between the more extreme view to the left or right.

Every time we talk about the “left” or the “right” the mythical mainstream position required by this metaphor is active in our brains.

This is visualized by the idea that “moving to the right” will result in the mainstream public finding positions on the “left” to be less acceptable. At the same time, the more extreme positions on the “right” become more acceptable.

Note of Caution Regarding the Line of Acceptability Metaphor
Serious problems arise when this idea is applied to campaign strategies. It creates an ethical dilemma by requiring a candidate to become inauthentic by moving away from his or her true values to appeal to the “mainstream” public opinion. The strategic disadvantages are two-fold:

  1. The candidate is more likely to offend his or her base and lose credibility by taking positions s/he doesn’t actually believe in.
  2. The candidate expresses conservative ideas and values to appeal to the “center”, which we can see from the diagram above is currently more conservative than progressive.

The Window Metaphor
The range of acceptable political positions is understood as being a window that can slide from left to right. This idea requires the acceptable positions to be clustered around an “average” position on the linear scale. In Thinking Points we call this phenomenon the “mainstream myth”. Here is what I wrote about it earlier:

The Mainstream Myth
This myth assumes there is a real center of public opinion as determined by polls on particular issues. Here’s how it works. Ask a large number of people which issues are most important to them and what their positions are on those issues. Perform statistical analysis on this data to figure out what the average position is for the group of people polled. Assume this average position represents the average voter – this is where things get distorted – and prepare a campaign platform to attract the average voter. In reality, this average voter doesn’t exist. It is like the household that has 2.3 kids. No such household exists but it appears as a result of the number crunching. You may not find a single person who holds the same views as the fictitious average voter. This is because there is no ideology – no worldview or system of values – connecting the different positions reflected in the polls.

The Reference Point
In order to shift the metaphorical window, there needs to be a shift of acceptability. How does it happen? The idea is that a new reference point for considering options must be created. If an extreme view is presented several times, it causes the mainstream public to consider the less extreme versions of the same argument to appear more reasonable by comparison.

Putting all of these components together we start to get an idea of how the Overton Window is supposed to work. It should also be apparent by now that the conceptual framework for the Overton Window is inadequate for describing how political opinions shift in real people – not just in the “average” person or the “mainstream” public.

What’s Wrong with this Picture?

The assumptions behind the Line of Political Positions metaphor are:

  1. There is a mainstream public opinion that exists and can be determined.
  2. This mainstream opinion is a true representation of the individual opinion held by most citizens.
  3. When the mainstream opinion changes, the individual opinions of most citizens change in the same way.
  4. The way to change the mainstream opinion (and all corresponding individual opinions) is to present a more extreme version of the opinion you want people to have. When individuals are exposed to this extreme position, the position you actually want them to have will appear more acceptable by comparison.

All of these assumptions are necessary for the Overton Window to work. But every one of them is false!

Assumption 1: The Fallacy of Statistical Realism
The first assumption is an example of the fallacy of statistical realism, which can be stated as:

The fallacy of statistical realism is the mistaken notion that a statistic (such as the average value) is a real thing that exists in the world.

This is like claiming that a household containing 2.3 children actually exists. Furthermore, it is a claim that most houses contain 2.3 children.

Assumption 2: The Statistical Norm Fallacy
The second assumption is based on what I like to call the statistical norm fallacy, which can be stated as:

The statistical norm fallacy is the mistaken notion that a statistic (such as the average value) is an accurate indicator of the value held by each individual.

The Line of Acceptable Positions metaphor depends on this flaw when the average acceptability for a group of people (the public) is considered to be the same level of acceptability for individuals in the group.

Assumption 3: The Fallacy of Causal Correspondence
The third assumption is pretty bizarre when you think about it. How can changes in the average opinion for a group be directly linked to changes in most individuals? The answer is that changes in enough individuals will be reflected in a new average value. Yet, this assumption asserts that causation works in the opposite direction! It is as if there were a mechanism for changing the statistical norm that applies exactly the same change to all individuals. I call this the fallacy of causal correspondence:

The fallacy of causal correspondence is the mistaken notion that a change in a representative feature of a group causes the change to be expressed in each member of the group.

Assumption 4: The Fallacy of Hidden Causes
The fourth assumption claims that the only factor involved in causing a shift in opinion is exposure to an extreme version of a political idea. This neglects many other factors that contribute to the shift. This is what I call the fallacy of hidden causes:

The fallacy of hidden causes is the attribution of a single cause to a phenomenon that is influenced by many factors that have been hidden by the way the analysis was done.

Not only are all of these assumptions flawed, which the Line of Political Positions metaphor makes use of, but there are important things that have been left out. We know that public opinion has indeed shifted toward the conservative worldview over the last several decades, so what gives? The truth is both illuminating and practical.

In Part 3 we will look at how conservative leaders have REALLY shifted public opinion. Then we will know how progressives can shift it back!