Overton window: The range of ideas the public will accept. Also called the window of discourse.
The Overton window is named for Joseph Overton (1960–2003), who was a vice president at the Mackinac Center, a free-market think tank in Michigan.
Overton window has been invoked frequently in coverage of the 2016 U.S. presidential campaigns. Virtually no candidate is spared.
Ta-Nehisi Coates, author of Between the World and Me, wrote in of Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders in The Atlantic last month:
Unfortunately, Sanders’s radicalism has failed in the ancient fight against white supremacy. What he proposes in lieu of reparations—job creation, investment in cities, and free higher education—is well within the Overton window, and his platform on race echoes Democratic orthodoxy.
Benjy Sarlin, an MSNBC reporter who’s covering the Republican candidates’ campaigns, tweeted this:
It's often lost in Trump news how far he's pushing the Overton Window on things like torture and summary executions https://t.co/vZe5A2O0dR— Benjy Sarlin (@BenjySarlin) February 20, 2016
The headline on that link: “Trump hails torture, mass killings with ‘pigs blood’ ammo in SC.”
And Clay Shirky had this to say at the beginning of a 50-tweet mini-essay about “both parties becoming host bodies for 3rd party candidates”:
Social media is breaking the political 'Overton Window' -- the ability of elites to determine the outside edges of acceptable conversation.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) February 18, 2016
The Overton Window was imagined as a limit on public opinion, but in politics, it's the limit on what politicians will express in public.— Clay Shirky (@cshirky) February 18, 2016
It’s also cropping up outside the United States. Here’s an excerpt from an article published last week in the British magazine The Spectator, that relies on the original meaning of Overton window (policy, not speech or opinion):
This, along with mandatory controls over sugar, salt and fat content, amounts to a degree of state control of the food supply that is unprecedented in Britain’s peace-time history, but by raising the spectre of a sugar tax the government has shifted the Overton window in the direction of greater state regulation.
A more detailed definition of the Overton window, from Wikipedia:
Overton described a spectrum from “more free” to “less free” with regard to government intervention, oriented vertically on an axis. As the spectrum moves or expands, an idea at a given location may become more or less politically acceptable. His degrees of acceptance of public ideas are roughly:
The Overton window is an approach to identifying which ideas define the domain of acceptability within a democracy's possible governmental policies. Proponents of policies outside the window seek to persuade or educate the public in order to move and/or expand the window. Proponents of current policies, or similar ones, within the window seek to convince people that policies outside it should be deemed unacceptable.
The Overton Window is the title of a 2010 political thriller by political commentator Glenn Beck.