Overton Window

The following excerpt is taken from the essay “Brexit Blues” by John Lanchester.

“The ‘Overton window’ is a term from political science meaning the acceptable range of political thought in a culture at a given moment. It was the creation of Joseph Overton, a think-tank intellectual based in Michigan, who died in 2003 at 43 after a solo plane accident. His crucial insight, one which both emerged from and was central to the work of the think tank Right, was that the window of acceptability can be moved. An idea can start far outside the political mainstream – flat taxes, abolish the IRS, more guns in schools, building a beautiful wall and making Mexico pay – but once it has been stated and argued for, framed and restated, it becomes thinkable. It crosses over from the fringe of right-wing think-tankery to journalistic fellow-travellers; then it crosses over to the fringe of electoral politics; then it becomes a thing people start seriously advocating as a possible policy. The window has moved, and rough beasts come slouching through it to be born.”

Consider the archetypal, linear political spectrum. On the extreme left you have communism, on the extreme right you have fascism. The Overton Window describes the portion of that gradient scale that any one culture deems acceptable.

Over time that window expands, contracts, shifts left and shift right.

Fringe parties that gain popularity open the window’s boundaries on one side. This has the affect of moving the centre ground and reframing the way all mainstream parties are perceived.

This is what I find most interesting.

By expanding the window, fringe parties indirectly influence mainstream politics.

You don’t have to look much farther than UKIP. From The Spectator:

“UKIP has shifted the Overton window to the right (…) making room for the main parties to formulate harsher policies on immigration than the UK has previously experienced.”

At the time of writing UKIP hold just one of 650 seats in the House of Commons. And yet their presence in Britain’s mainstream politics contributed to The Conservatives’ promise to hold a referendum on EU membership.

I find this equally fascinating and terrifying at the same time.