The Overton Window is Wide Open

And it’s getting drafty in here. 

The Overton Window theory postulates that for a particular area of public policy, at any given time only a narrow range of policy options are acceptable.  The acceptable policy positions aren’t just those currently in effect but also those that might be considered tolerable.  Outside of the range of the “window” are those policies which are considered unacceptable; policies that even though a politician may wish to promote, would likely lead to his downfall because they are considered unthinkable or radical.  But, with a shift in societal attitudes towards those policies, choices which were untenable may shift to being acceptable, sensible, popular, and finally, policy. 

This concept informs public policy thinkers on both the right and the left.  Frankly, though the Overton Window theory was developed by Joe Overton of the Mackinac Public Policy Center in the mid-1990s, and creates a good visual tool for policy wonks, the concept of shifting societal values is nothing new.    

Depending on our perspective, these shifts may be good or bad, they may move to where we want to be or leave us behind.  When I joined the Army, there was still a Soviet Union, so to find someone who self-identified as a communist made them a potential enemy agent, and not just someone exercising their free speech.   At the same time, I thought it cool to put “No Religious Preference” on my dog tags and because of my choice every drill sergeant let me know in the kindest possible way what particular religion they were.

Today, Michael Moore can call for the forcible taking of the wealth of others because that money is a natural resource and belongs to everyone without even a, “You’re joking, right?” from the guy interviewing him.  And, the next thing we know, Moore’s call has become the mantra of marchers from Madison to St. Paul and very few media intellectuals are asking, “When did we all become communists?”  Meanwhile, at work today I could inadvertently refer to God while talking to a caller, without any mention of a particular religion, and I could easily lose my job – or at least face political re-education.

If we’re wondering how this happens – look out the window.  Those at the top of the social heap, on the fringes, right in the middle, and even at the bottom; the entertainers; the intellectuals; the elite; the rulers; the politicians; and, all of us, have been pushing the window up and down as suits our fancy for millennia.   Public policy makers commonly follow where the window has shifted but they can attempt to shift the window overtly.  Overton just happened to put into theory how the proactive policy maker can get the window to move without waiting on the numerous vying interests to decide how much air should be allowed in. 

So, we can accept that what society views as its norms shifts over time – that those things which range from tolerable to standard practices, or from fringe to prohibited, will change.  As a man, I’m no longer expected to a wear cod piece because somewhere along the way society noticed how silly those were.  At the same time, I’m no longer sanctioned to berate the wife with impunity if the mutton is too stringy (or because my cod piece is too tight).   It is understandable that these shifts occur, naturally, through human interaction.  What is not natural is the covert action taken by policy activists to shift what we as a society, should consider acceptable. 

I know, this is what politicians do with policies that may not be totally favorable.  They push for reasons why the policy should be favored or they give us examples of why a legislative need exists or they trot out those who would benefit from the policy change and say, “Don’t you have any compassion?”  Yes, that is what politicians and their parties and their political action committees do.  I’m not saying they shouldn’t. 

Because, as they do this we can challenge their statements, we can point out why their arguments are wrong.  We can exercise our free speech in the finest tradition or vote for policy makers who will argue on our behalf.  But when the unelected, unaccountable, policy wonks and the deep social thinkers start seeking policy change by first manipulating the direction of public thought a little bit at a time; or when they pay over-the-top demonstrators to shout out for a cause, they are attempting this shift without the benefit of honest debate.  Often they are doing it under the guise of social welfare or public education.  It is the Media Matters model of creating a biased story and getting that bias into the hands of main stream journalist so that the viewing public hears the bias without ever knowing it is coming from a group dedicated to changing the way we think about something.  Or it is the MoveOn method of raging in absurd ways over social injustices so that, even though we may not be able to stomach their acts, they have you wondering if there is some common ground we can come to.   Consider the recent debate over education reforms, surely some of us have heard a reasonable person discussing the debate say, “Some reform is needed but perhaps it shouldn’t be at the expense of public employee collective bargaining.”  Ah, that would be the window opening farther.

 On one hand, these organizations are exercising their right to speak and advocate for their causes (and the causes of their donors), so perhaps there is nothing to concern ourselves with.  But when looking at this issue from a perspective of what is equitable, there is an argument against them doing it in the way they do.  That is, these organizations enjoy a special status among us.  Specifically, I am pointing to the many organizations that are exempt from tax regulations we are forced to comply with.  They are treated as educational or social welfare organizations doing socially beneficial things, as if their activities benefit all of society.  As individuals, we don’t generally receive a tax benefit to discuss or do the things we believe in.  The individual writing to the editor about zoning issues can’t accept tax-free contributions from his neighbors.  The time I spend writing inane blog posts is not deductable this year (unless I am missing an itemization – let me know). 

 If nothing else, the rules regarding these types of organizations and their activities should change.  They and their benefactors should not enjoy special tax benefits.  There should be no tax exemption for manipulating political discourse.  Just imagine the additional revenues our oh-so-benign government would have.  As it stands now, those with money and power, with agendas that benefit only their interests, have the advantage and are pushing the window wide open.

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