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As progressives, we want to shift political discourse in our favor.  Hopefully this diary will help clarify why we may not want to use the Overton Window to do it.  Knowing our values and presenting ourselves with authenticity is the key!

Yesterday I posted a diary about the limitations of thinking about politics in terms of left and right.  Today I would like to talk about the problems with a strategy called the Overton Window.

More below the fold...

This diary is cross-posted at Rockridge Nation.

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):


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 (to be published tomorrow at 10 a.m. Pacific time) we will look at how conservative leaders have REALLY shifted public opinion.  Then we will know how progressives can shift it back!

Written by Joe Brewer, a Rockridge Institute Fellow. Founded by George Lakoff, the Rockridge Institute is a progressive political think tank reclaiming the political debate through the application of cognitive science, neuroscience, and linguistics to a broad range of concerns. The Rockridge Institute depends upon support from the progressive community.

Originally posted to joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:01 AM PDT.


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Comment Preferences

  •  Tip Jar (8+ / 0-)

    I am looking forward to chatting with fellow kos folks!

    Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

    by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 09:53:27 AM PDT

    •  The use of the term fallacy (5+ / 0-)

      suggests you would appreciate a logical rejoinder to your argument.  I will attempt to do so here.

      You accuse the Overton Window metaphor of committing the fallacy of statistical realism, which you explain means mistaking a statistical feature of a population as a real property of the individuals or of the world.  While you leave it to your readers to figure our how to apply this charge to the Overton Window metaphor, it seems clear that your goal is to deny that there is such a real thing a "public opinion" or "mainstream opinion."  But it is not sufficient to merely point out a fallacy that a metaphor could be committing without a much stronger argument for why the object "public opinion" does not exist.  It is not enough to show that our only knowledge of it comes from statistical analysis.  While some statistical features of a population are not real, many are.  The function of organs and organisms is such a feature, for they are the result of the activities and interactions of the various cells which make them up.  

      You accuse the Overton Window metaphor of committing the statistical norm fallacy, which you explain as meaning that whatever the statistical analysis shows as being "public opinion" we can ascribe to the individuals that make up the public.  More specifically, you critique the Line of Unacceptable Positions move of the Overton Window as relying on this fallacy.  However, what you neglect is that this move, as a means of shifting public opinion does not, and does not need to ascribe to any individual the level of acceptability that is found to be the statistical average of the group.  Rather, it targets those individual whose acceptability levels are lower (or higher) than the average and attempts to expose them to an unacceptable position.

      You accuse the Overton Window metaphor of committing the fallacy of causal correspondence, which is only a variant of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy.  However, you are coming close to throwing the baby out with the bathwater by undermining any way in which a society can causally determine the individuals which make it up.  This analysis would make the causal efficacy of culture a mystery, or dilute it into a normatively deficient result of individuals acting on individuals.

      Finally, when you accuse the Overton Window metaphor of committing the fallacy of hidden causes, you expose the atomistic presuppositions in this analysis.  You neglect the possibility that as individuals come together in groups, they may organize themselves in such a way as to give them unity and give rise to a truly new object and feature in the world; a unity which in turn reacts back upon the individuals which make up the group and determines them, just as much as they determine the group.  In fact, we see such unities on a daily basis, each of us individually is such a unity, formed from a society of cells organized together to create a single being.  Is it really so hard to believe that individuals which are themselves created through such organization cannot themselves be organized in that way?

      •  Public opinion does not exist outside statistics (4+ / 0-)

        It is a useful fiction, as you suggest.  But the problem with it is that it places emphasis on a bulk measurable quantity for a group, thereby neglecting what is happening in individuals.  For many sociological phenomena, this does not create problems.  But for political discourse, it does.  Here's why:

        Political ideas are held in the minds of individuals, structured in neural patterns in our brains.  In order to change a person's mind, these patterns must be changed in the brain of the person.  At the level of groups, the mechanisms involved are not recognized.  This failure to recognize the mechanisms involved is where the problems emerge in the strategy.

        Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

        by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:47:19 AM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  You are quite mistaken (0+ / 0-)

          Although this is a mistake that has plagued Western Philosophy since Positivism beat out Pragmatism as the dominant school of thought in the early 20th century, so you are forgiven.

          Public opinion shapes individual opinion in a very direct way.  Take the issue of habeas corpus as an example.  Nearly everyone believes it should be protected, but nearly no one has direct, individual experience with why it should be protected.  You may reference neural structures and engrams to your heart's content, but they do not explain that fact.  Rather, what explains it is the mutual interaction of individuals with the society in which they exist.  Our brains and bodies are the substrate in which this interaction is coordinated and recorded, but the interaction itself cannot be reduced to the activities of bodies and brains, there's more going on here.  

          The mistake you make is difficult to grasp, but liberating when it is realized.  It is simply the fact that individuals are not logically prior to the groups in which they participate, rather, it is society which pre-exists individual, for it is only on the basis of the function that it performs within the group that it is capable of being identified as being individual at all.

          The public, and its opinion, or more correctly, its attitude, is more real and has more effect than the opinions and attitudes of any individual member of that public.  I really hate the ontological sloppiness we've slipped into regarding some things as more real than others, it's so medieval.  Anything with a measurable effect is as real as it gets.  Statistical analysis is one way we have of coming to terms with the properties of an object that is too vast or complex to permit direct observation.  While it is important to remember that these analyses are merely approximations to the properties of that object, it is inappropriate to presume that the objects and properties which are being approximated do not truly exist at all.

          •  Differing ontologies do not a mistake make (0+ / 0-)

            We are working from different assumptions about reality.  It is not the case that I am mistaken or that you are.  By granting ontological status to measurable quantities (themselves based upon abstractions that do not exist in the world - but rather exist in the "mental space" of conceptual thought), you grant existence to a set of ideas that I don't grant existence to.

            I recognize the influence of groups upon individuals, but prefer to think about it from a different perspective.  It is the emotional and neurological makeup of humans to be strongly influenced by each other.  We are highly social animals who depend upon groups for our survival.

            In order to function in these groups, it is necessary that we conceptualize many aspects of the group as concretely as possible.  This may be a real phenomenon in the brain of the individual - and be seen reflected in group behavior - but this does not imply that there exists a "group thought" outside of any individual person's brain.

            The presumption that a "public opinion" exists for a group (outside of the brain of any individual) is patently false.  Yet, it is often a useful and effective way to conceptualize patterns of behavior.

            Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

            by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 02:43:11 PM PDT

            [ Parent ]

            •  That is precisely my point (0+ / 0-)

              Differing ontologies do not a mistake make

              And that is why it is inappropriate to describe the features of the Overton Window metaphor as based on fallacies.  

              You claim that "public opinion" does not exist outside the brain of any individual.  This is because you unquestioningly presume that human beings are in fact concrete individuals.  This is as easy to deny as the claim that a group or society is not a concrete, unified object.  All I must do is claim that the "individual opinion" is illusory, because the "real entities" at work are the individual cells and neurons.  Try to find the reality of individual opinion in the operations of the individual cells, and I will take refuge in the molecules and atoms that make them up.  This strategy can be pursued in an infinite regress.  The existence of such explanatory regress is a clue that the metaphysical atomism which underlies your analysis is bankrupt.

              However, if you wish to argue that individual opinion is a real, emergent object whose reality is based not only on the reality of its elements, but also on its peculiar organization, then you have given up the game.  For if organization can give rise to emergent objects due to placing its elements in certain relationships with one another, then there is no reason to deny the reality of a "public" which has a certain orientation or attitude (in other words, an opinion) about the world and which is an emergent object that comes about due to the certain relationship of human beings with one another.  And there should be no surprise that the clearest access we have to the structure and nature of this real entity is through a statistical analysis of its elements.

              •  Learn about conceptual categories... (0+ / 0-)

                I recommend the book "Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things:  What Categories Reveal About the Mind" by George Lakoff.  

                When you consider a collection of items to be a thing-in-itself, you are treating a conceptual category (a product of the mind) to be a thing in the world.  The difference between our perceptions of reality (as constructed by our brains to make sense of the jumble of information entering our bodies) and the reality beyond our perceptions is paramount.

                I am sorry to see that you are so defensive about this distinction.  It would be very helpful if we could begin this conversation again in a different format.  The point-counterpoint framing of this interaction as a debate is not very helpful for improving either of our understandings of each other's positions.

                Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

                by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Wed Aug 08, 2007 at 08:24:56 AM PDT

                [ Parent ]

  •  I admire your analysis (5+ / 0-)

    ... but you muddy the issue by drilling into tangential details.

    First, the Overton Window is not a model for public consumption. It is a strategic, analytical tool for communicators and policy wonks, not the general public. Much like framing, if you are talking about it on the stump, then you aren't actually using it. Consequently, concerns about activating "left vs. right" frames among a misunderstanding public who don't know the details of the model and its use carry little weight.

    To my mind, the Overton Window provides a handy and proven-effective way to frame political discourse. The metaphoric structure it lights up is the ages-old notion of bartering. Consider:

    You have an old laptop that you want to sell for $200. Knowing (secretly) that you want $200 and won't accept any amount less than that, you actually ask for $300 when someone asks the price. The buyer, working in her own best interest to save a buck, offers $100 for the laptop. You hmm, and haw, the counter-offer $250. She counters with $150. You start to pack up the laptop. She, knowing that $200 is still a bargain, offers $200. The result? You get the amount you wanted, she get a bargain, and the feeling of triumph at having talked you down a hundred bucks. Everyone wins.

    Pushing the limits of acceptable discourse is only a means to set the terms of the inevitable compromise. Insofar as the Overton Window model helps progressive communicators understand that principle, it is a useful tool. I find it a bit disappointing that you Rockridgers wouldn't see its utility.

    The opposite of 'liberal' isn't 'conservative', its 'authoritarian'.

    by kingubu on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:39:46 AM PDT

    •  Nice framing analysis (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      CalifSherry, kingubu

      What you are describing in your bartering example is how framing impacts perceptions of risk.  By setting a benchmark for comparison, the person you barter with will assess a range of acceptability for the price you are willing to accept.

      This happens inside the person's brain, not in society at large.  

      There is definitely a use to this technique, but not at the level of public opinion.  Also, there is no place for values or morality in this approach.  

      People vote based on how well they resonate with politicians and issues.  The resonance comes through their emotional connections.  Emotions communicate what people value.

      Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

      by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:53:44 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Nope, sorry (0+ / 0-)

        There is definitely a use to this technique, but not at the level of public opinion.

        I'm sorry, but that is simply incorrect. The whole notion of the Window was to have a convenient way to talk about the range of policy options that a politician could hold without being seen as "too extreme" by the majority of her constituents. Its all about public opinion.

        Also, there is no place for values or morality in this approach.

        Of course there isn't; its merely a tool, amoral in itself.

        I'm becoming convinced you have a deep misunderstanding of what the Overton Window actually is. You evidently see it as a competing approach to strategic framing; it is not. It is merely a convenient way to conceptualize the scope of currently acceptable discourse with an eye toward moving those parameters in a way that provides a friendly political climate for a given policy.

        The moral positions and conceptual frames that form the basis for a policy will certainly effect the messaging that one uses when trying to "move the Window". Indeed, to do otherwise would be a giant blunder. Please do not limit your effectiveness by imagining that frames/values-based approach policy creation and communications is in any way incompatible with the knowledge and use of the Overton Window model. The two are complimentary.

        The opposite of 'liberal' isn't 'conservative', its 'authoritarian'.

        by kingubu on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 02:51:57 PM PDT

        [ Parent ]

        •  Only complimentary when limitations are seen... (0+ / 0-)

          the difficulty comes with using the Overton Window as a conceptually valid tool.  Merely using this technique reinforces the understanding that politics can be approached using one-dimensional tools.

          In order to succeed, we need to rethink many things...including our approach to making strategies.  I am not suggesting that framing analysis is the only tool.  Please stop asserting this to be my position.  It most certainly is not.

          My position is that the way strategies have been understood in the past reinforced a view of politics that doesn't capture what is most important.  In order to succeed - with a multi-pronged strategic approach that uses many tools concurrently - we must seek to understand how ideas evolve and spread in public discourse as well as we possibly can.

          Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

          by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Wed Aug 08, 2007 at 08:29:54 AM PDT

          [ Parent ]

  •  Well, this is all a little bit rarefied for me. (0+ / 0-)

    I wish I contribute intelligently, but I'm not that smart.
    I'm looking forward to part III, though, because I really have wondered how my friends and neighbors got so freakin' conservative.  And how I didn't.  

    "Well, I'm not dead or unconscious, so I say bravo for me." -- Giles, BTVS

    by prodigal on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:45:33 AM PDT

    •  Apologies for the "headiness"... (1+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:

      It really isn't that complicated.  The important thing to keep in mind is that we need to understand our own minds (and, by extension, a few things about our brains) to understand how people change their minds.

      Joe Brewer, Fellow at the Rockridge Institute,

      by joe at rockridgeinstitute on Tue Aug 07, 2007 at 10:49:26 AM PDT

      [ Parent ]

  •  Arch Druid David Brower (0+ / 0-)

    remarked more than once that he appreciated Earth First! because they made him look moderate. That again, is an example of individual responses to Brower, but does it relate?

    Does the Overton Window referr to some majority of individuals who hold some opinion at some time? Is there a Bell Curve somewhere in this theory?

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