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'The Overton Window' Explained (Not Just Glenn Beck's New Book)

3 years ago
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Glenn Beck fans who have been waiting eagerly for the June 15 release of the pundit's new book "The Overton Window" like tweens quivering for the next vampire novel will have to make due with a confusing book trailer and the first chapter of the audio book for now. But for the many stumped by his fictional novel's title, here's a primer on what the Overton Window actually is and who invented it (hint: it wasn't Glenn Beck.)

The Overton Window is a public policy concept developed by Joseph Overton, who was the senior vice president of the Mackinac Center, a Michigan think tank, when he died in 2003. The concept describes the public policies that are available to politicians based on the public's beliefs about them.

Policies are ranked on a vertical scale. Those that involve the least government intervention are at the top, while those that involve or require maximum government intervention are located at the bottom. Either end of the spectrum includes ideas generally deemed "unthinkable" by society. As the scale moves toward the center, the ideas become more acceptable. The Overton Window refers to the middling ideas, those that are most palatable to society.

When society's views shift, however, the Overton Window can shift up or down or expand to include more diverse and extreme policies, giving politicians a wider range of options for policymaking without fear of losing votes. The example the Mackinac Center uses is based on education. It looks sort of like this:
Least government intervention

No government schools
Private and home schools monitored, not regulated
Private and home schools moderately regulated
Charter schools
Public school choice
State-mandated curricula
Private and home schools regulated
Home schools illegal
Private schools illegal
Forced government education for all

Most government intervention
As the scale moves closer to the center, the policies become more acceptable, and at a certain point – the Overton Window – the policies could be law.

But the key to the Overton Window, and one which dailykos.com argues Republicans have been using for years, is that the window can be controlled by espousing radical ideas. If those ideas on the very extremes of the scale become part of the public discourse, the scale shifts in their direction and ideas that were once considered "radical" become "acceptable."

Just how all of this parlays into an edge-of-your seat thriller about a "twenty something" who has a "pretty sweet life" and a "bonafide killer eHarmony profile" but has to save his girl and the country from a plot "a hundred years in the making," remains a mystery.
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