Understanding the Overton Window

The foundation of politics

Understanding the Overton Window

I’m one of those people that gets into a lot of political chatter and debate.

I have my opinions, and I’m easily goaded into setting my feet and putting up my proverbial dukes about them when the situation calls for it. As a result, I wind up getting into arguments. Like…a lot. And they tend to get very heated.

I’m often asked why I make a big deal out of things like rhetoric and representation in media. I’ve been asked why I have such a strong reaction to seeing hateful opinions shared online. Racist comments, homophobic statements, transphobic diatribes- you get the gist.

My reaction has to do with a concept called the Overton Window.

Like many things in life, the Overton Window is a spectrum.

It’s a sliding scale, constantly shifting from month to month and year to year. The idea is that public discourses and opinions are always changing. New ideas are being presented, and old beliefs are being challenged.

Every topic, every political or cultural issue, the standards of humor, you name it- it all falls somewhere on this scale, and on the scale, there is a box. It looks something like this:

The Overton Window refers to what is considered socially acceptable. If something is within the Window, the box in this case, it’s acceptable. If it’s outside of the Window, it isn’t. Pushing the Window around is one of the main goals of political activism.

Think about it. Did you ever notice how politicians and corporations base their campaigning and advertisements around topical issues?

How many Republican lawmakers used to be staunchly against gay marriage, only to suddenly want to talk about going to a gay wedding with their friends?

The Overton Window shifted, and they followed suit. The Window was pushed, little by little, and eventually, the box moved off of ‘homophobia’ and on to ‘gay acceptance’.

Policy change reflects the commonly accepted views of the general population. Or, more specifically, the voting population.

If you want to know what the general views of society are, check out what politicians are saying at debates and look at what corporate advertising is doing.

Whenever I see big companies putting out Pride merch, I smile. Not because it’s true acceptance- frankly, it’s pandering and cringe as heck, but think about what it means. It is not good for their wallet to be homophobic. They think they stand to make more money if they act inclusively.

We’re in a really weird spot right now in modern politics. Due to the intense polarization in the United States and how extreme the divide has grown, we’ve witnessed a fascinating new phenomenon. Fascinating and terrifying.

We now have two separate Overton Windows. One for each side of the political line.

The bounds of what is radical and extreme have become so divorced that a person’s belief in basic human rights can often be predicted by which side of the aisle they proclaim themselves to stand on. Not always, but pretty often.

‘Trans Rights’ is now virtually synonymous with ‘Left-Wing’. That boggles my mind.

In any case, the Overton Window is the foundation, the very bedrock of politics. When you understand how it works and learn to notice its movement from side to side, you’ll be able to predict what trends are going to take root.

So why do I care about what some celebrity with a massive platform has to say? Because of the Window.

When someone with a large platform validates the opinions of bigots, it gives the Overton Window a hard shove. And while it isn’t easy to get that thing moving, it’s also really hard to get it to stop.

We’ve seen it in real time over the past eight years. Immigration at the Mexico border used to be about ‘protecting American jobs’. Then Donald Trump started his presidential campaign claiming Mexico was ‘sending’ an ‘invasion’ of ‘crime, drugs and rapists’.

Now people laugh when a governor shoves human beings on a plane and ships them elsewhere without their papers so they’ll be deported when they land. It’s treated as a joke. Toddlers crying in detention camps is no big deal.

See the shift? He gave it one hell of a kick in an abhorrent direction.

To get the Window to go back the other way, we’ve got to make the hateful people hesitate again. They have to face backlash. They have to be shown, over and over again, that it isn’t funny. This isn’t okay. It’s not a joke.

Racism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, whatever it is- it’s not acceptable.

It’s time to make the bigots want to go back into the closet. That’s the only way we’re going to fix this now.