If you’ve been involved in left politics in the last four years, you’ve probably heard a lot about “the Overton window.” We’ve been told that Bernie Sanders has shifted the Overton window with his social-democratic policy proposals, that Bernie and Trump have jointly managed to “break” the Overton window, and that radical slogans like “abolish the police” must be supported by anyone who wants any sort of police reform because it “shifts the Overton window” in the right direction.
Sometimes, people who use these phrases are making a purely descriptive claim. Shifts occur in which ideas are widely discussed by political commentators. In 2014, for example, only a handful of prominent figures were foregrounding single-payer national health insurance. Now everyone who talks about politics for a living has said something about whether “Medicare for All” is a good idea. This in turn has helped spur centrists to develop proposals that lie somewhere in between Medicare for All and the health care laws currently on the books.
No one denies that shifts of this kind happen. The question is why they are happening — and how consequential to real politics these evolutions are. Can “shifting the Overton window” help the Left get closer to achieving our goals?
Joseph Overton’s Theory of Politics
Joseph Overton was a senior vice president at a libertarian think tank in Michigan, the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. He developed his “window” idea in the mid-1990s as a way of convincing potential donors that his organization was doing valuable work.
The Mackinac Center spends its time arguing for proposals to bust labor unions, undercut the movement for climate justice, and generally make things worse for most people. It’s not hard to see why wealthy plutocrats would support this agenda, but Overton understood that even inherently attractive products benefit from good marketing. He made a brochure for potential donors with a cardboard slider to illustrate how the “window of political possibility” on any given issue could be shifted along a spectrum going from total government control to a libertarian utopia of zero government intervention.
After his death in 2003, the concept was taken up and named after Overton by his Mackinac colleague Joseph Lehman. “Public officials cannot enact any policy they please like they’re ordering dessert from a menu,” Lehman told the New York Times. “They have to choose from among policies that are politically acceptable at the time. And we believe the Overton window defines that range of ideas.”
Crucially, the point wasn’t about implementing the policies the Mackinac Center actually wanted. He would tell them that neither the most libertarian nor the least libertarian possibility was ever going to become a reality. Instead, they should think about points on a spectrum.
Ideas within the “window” on Overton’s slider might be implemented. Ideas that were too far outside of the window were “radical” or even “unthinkable.” Summarizing Overton’s thinking in the New Republic, Laura Marsh says he proposed that “the most effective way” of moving relatively libertarian ideas into the mainstream wasn’t to “advocate for minor, incremental changes to an already accepted idea” but to make the best case for a currently “unthinkable” idea and thereby move policy proposals adjacent to that from “radical” to “acceptable.”
The Overton Window and the Left
At least two kinds of commentators whose political preferences sharply diverge from those of Joseph Overton seem to think that leftists can “shift the Overton window” by advocating policies previously considered to be unthinkable. On the one hand, some moderate progressives are, at least in their more conciliatory moments, happy to have the likes of Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “shifting the Overton window” on progressive policy. If Bernie and AOC are putting Medicare for All on the table, for example, this might have the virtue in the eyes of some of these Democrats of making a “public option” more likely.
The second group is made up of leftists genuinely committed to transformative goals who think that advocating the loaf that they’d love to have someday at least makes it more likely that they’ll get half a loaf sometime soon.
The moderately progressive case for the value of Overton window manipulation is typified by Rachel Maddow. She did a segment on Overton and his window just before she interviewed Bernie Sanders in December 2015. The way to shift the window, she said, was to “advocate super-extreme positions which change the realm of what’s politically possible” because “after something super-nuts has been floated” positions which are “slightly less nuts” will “start to look acceptable.” She illustrated this dynamic by describing Donald Trump’s rivals for the GOP nomination first denouncing Trump’s proposed Muslim ban and then making somewhat similar proposals themselves. When she segued from this segment to the Sanders interview without even a commercial break, the implication was lost on no one. This guy might be a little crazy, and he certainly won’t be the nominee, but hey, at least he’ll help shift the conversation in a more progressive direction.
Anecdotally, I’ll say that I heard a lot of this kind of thing after Bernie’s first defeat in 2016. Sometimes it came from liberals trying to cheer up their dispirited leftist friends. Sometimes it came from leftists themselves looking for a silver lining in the outcome of the primary. “In a way,” members of both groups would say, “Bernie has already won. Just look at all the concessions to him in the Democratic platform!”
This was always pretty thin gruel. American major party platforms are wish lists with little practical significance. But it’s the kind of consolation that rings especially hollow after Bernie’s second defeat — this time to a man who has strongly suggested that if Medicare for All were passed by a Democratic House and Senate during his second term, he would veto it.
The Problem With the Overton Strategy
In a way, the idea that we should put forward radical demands not in order to achieve them but so that less radical versions of them will become policy just sounds like common sense. Any union negotiator will tell you that it makes sense to bring ideas to the bargaining table that are highly unlikely to make it into the actual contract. If you demand eleven, you might at least end up with three.
The problem with using this analogy as a prism for thinking about what kind of a left political agenda we’re putting forward is that there are some fairly large and relevant disanalogies between the two cases. To start with, a union negotiator suggesting contract language it would be difficult for the boss to accept knows that the union’s members would love these proposals.
Those extra two weeks of paid vacation every year might never become a reality, but that’s not because the people on whose behalf the negotiator is working don’t want them. Contrast that to demanding the abolition of all policing in a country where 81 percent of black Americans don’t even want police presence in their neighborhoods to be reduced. Demanding eleven is sometimes a good strategy for getting a nervous enemy to grant you three, but it’s far less clear that when the majority of the people you think would benefit from a policy don’t even want two, demanding eleven will get them to want three.
In at least some cases, it might even have the opposite effect. It remains to be seen whether the gambit will pay off, but Donald Trump certainly seems to believe that he’ll get a lot of mileage out of blurring the lines between (a) the tepid and grotesquely inadequate police reforms proposed by Joe Biden, (b) the more popular idea of “defunding” the police, and (c) police abolitionism, and using popular fear of (c) as a cudgel against even (a). To be clear, I don’t think the possibility of the Right using this kind of rhetorical strategy against us is a good enough reason not to put forward radical policy proposals. Right-wing fearmongers will lie about any progressive idea as a matter of course. The point is just that we have little reason to believe that proposing very unpopular ideas will do anything to make more moderate versions of those ideas more popular.
The second, related problem is that company negotiators aren’t going to come back with a proposal for an extra two days of paid vacation out of a sheer desire to continue to look reasonable in a situation where the boundaries of the discussion have shifted. If the demand has any impact it’s because the union has real-world leverage. If bargaining breaks down, the workers might walk off the job and hurt the company’s bottom line. No parallel mechanism exists to make establishment politicians sit up and take notice when a faction that’s out of power engages in a purely rhetorical escalation of its demands.
The analogy between negotiating tactics at bargaining tables and ultraradical slogans printed on protest signs or advocated in left-wing magazines gets even thinner when we remember that much of the point of the latter isn’t to directly spook policymakers into making concessions. Our goal is to shift public opinion in our direction so that we can build up a movement with enough support to actually win such concessions — or, better yet, to take power so we can implement our ideas ourselves. And for that task, the negotiating analogy just isn’t relevant. You can’t “spook” a majority of the population into wanting the things that you think they should want.
Radical Politics Without Overton Delusions
None of this means that socialists should only advocate things most people already support. It doesn’t even mean that there’s no value in making currently “unthinkable” ideas a little easier to imagine. About half of the articles I write for Jacobin are attempts to do exactly that. But the point of the exercise isn’t to somehow trick skeptics into supporting something halfway in between our radical aspirations and the status quo.
Sometimes the activity of the Left might well result in inadequate reforms implemented by establishment figures that greatly improve on previous conditions. But we don’t get any closer to that goal by going for broke on a rhetorical level. Instead, that becomes possible when we build up a movement so powerful that our political enemies see the need to make concessions to stop us from coming to power. And the way we build up such a movement is by clearly and persuasively articulating what we actually want in a way that’s compelling to large numbers of people whose material interests would be served by that agenda.
That’s the opposite of verbally advocating things we aren’t even sure make sense for the sake of “shifting the Overton window.” Doing the latter, if anything, undermines our ability to convince persuadable people that a better world is realistically possible.
Ghoulish right-wing think tanks like the Mackinac Center do advance the agenda of their wealthy donors. But the way they do it isn’t well-represented by Joseph Overton’s cardboard slider moving some ideas into the “window of political possibility” by making previously unthinkable ideas a few steps beyond those proposals a bit more thinkable. Rather, the main value of think tanks to their donors’ agenda comes from doing things like filing amicus briefs in court cases, providing cheat sheets of arguments used by partisans in debates about things that already politically possible, and even writing sample laws that fit the preexisting policy preferences of right-wing donors.
A think tank (or a political magazine) that wants to be useful to its political goals might well spend some time, or even quite a bit of its time, advocating ideas that probably aren’t going to become popular any time soon. I’m a socialist. I don’t just want to nationalize health insurance by implementing Medicare for All. I want to nationalize every hospital in the country by taking a page from Britain’s postwar Labour government and creating a National Health Service. Oh, and I’d also like worker control of the means of production. That’s pretty far outside of the “window of political possibility” in America in 2020.
But we need to be clear on what advocacy for these ideas can and can’t accomplish. Medicare for All is already quite popular, which is one reason it makes so much strategic sense for us to focus on it right now, but it’s quite doubtful that it’s going to be made more popular by socialists talking about currently fringe ideas that go beyond it. The point of talking about creating an American NHS isn’t to trick anyone into supporting M4A. It’s to persuade people who already support M4A that our work won’t be done when we’ve accomplished it.
It’s important for radicals to work to make what’s currently unthinkable thinkable. But that’s not so we can “shift the Overton window” so far that something halfway between those unthinkable horizons and the miserable present can become politically possible. It’s so that we can actually achieve the kind of “unthinkable” future that we desperately need.