When Centrism Becomes Extremism

Joseph Overton died before his time in 2003, when the 43 year old died in an ultralight plane crash. But he achieved immortality when the political concept he first described as the “window of discourse” became posthumously known as the Overton Window.

What Overton refers to is the spectrum of political discourse that ranges from unthinkable ideas to those that are generally accepted and popular. Political commentator Joshua Trevino characterizes the milestones in this spectrum as starting with unthinkable, moving to radical, then acceptable, then sensible, then popular, then policy. One useful interpretation of Overton’s concept is that it explains how someone can propose an idea that is unthinkable or radical, and to the extent it occupies public discussion, even in its rejection, the acceptable window of discourse shifts slightly in the direction of the unthinkable or radical idea.

The New York Times referenced the Overton Window in a 2019 article that praised 2016 presidential candidate Bernie Sanders for popularizing the previously unthinkable ideas of Medicare for all, a 70 percent top tax rate, “sweeping” action on climate change, and abolishing ICE. But the Overton Window does not merely explain how previously radical ideas can become acceptable or even popular. It also explains how previously acceptable ideas can become unthinkable. This reality is what confronts right-of-center Americans today.

How Rational and Moderate Policies Became Unthinkable

Because the Overton Window concept was the product of a scholar working for the Mackinac Center, a Michigan based free […] Read More