On the Overton window

In the comments on my post the other day about the importance of evidence in skepticism and science outreach, RBH leaves an interesting comment that’s worth digging into a bit. I replied in the thread, RBH’s invocation of the Overton Window struck me.

He writes:

We hear about the Dunning-Kruger effect; let’s not forget about the Overton Window. In a lovely irony, it might be PZ’s (alleged) ineffectiveness that enables Josh’s (purported) effectiveness.

It would be ironic indeed, but there’s no reason to think it’s true. RBH is a smart guy, and may well have a more sophisticated model of that effect in mind, but as offered, it’s more than a bit hand-wavy. And if I hadn’t seen it offered in that same handwavy way uncountable times over the last few years, I wouldn’t bother writing a post about the issue. This is not a reply specifically to RBH, but an attempt to nail down what the Overton window can and can’t tell us, and what it would look like if someone were trying to use it effectively.

To begin with, the Overton window is an atheoretical, poorly substantiated notion dreamed up by an anti-public education activist and popularized by Glenn Beck. It is often invoked as a magical salve that justifies any form of extreme rhetoric. But when people try to really dig into the underlying dynamic that Overton was trying to describe, that simplistic approach doesn’t work.

The broad idea of the Overton window is that extreme voices at the fringe of a debate can pull the center of that debate in their preferred direction, thereby helping more moderate voices in the center win their fights. That’s what RBH was getting at. Overton himself did that by working towards eliminating public schools through a series of more modest measures. First he made it legal to homeschool, then lowered limitations on private education, then pushed for charter schools, then vouchers, and so forth, with the aim of shifting away from public school entirely in the end. The success of this strategy can be seen in education policies like Bush’s No Child Left Behind and Obama’s Race To The Top, in which charter schools are promoted as a cure-all even when more charter schools underperform public schools than outperform. We haven’t eradicated public schools, but public education is weaker today than it was when Overton started, and I suppose that’s a measure of his success.

I haven’t seen much work in the political science literature actually trying to formalize the Overton window, and to see what really moves it (thought that work may not explicitly use the term, in which case my searches wouldn’t turn that research up). Indeed, the best approach to the Overton window I’ve heard was actually at TAM this year, shortly after PZ’s panel which inspired the last post. I linked to Daniel Loxton’s writeup of her talk before, but I’ll do it again because it was that good. As she pointed out, extreme groups don’t shift the Overton window just by existing, they do so under certain specific circumstances, dependent on their relationship with more moderate forces. Here’s the relevant bit:

While radical splinters can sometimes help to make moderate reformers look more mainstream and palatable, this “Overton Window” metaphor has many limits. As Schell noted (she and I have talked about this many times) the audience must be able to clearly see the difference between the radicals and moderates—and more important, they must be motivated to care that there is a difference. If it’s easier to write off both groups based on the loudest voices rather than discriminate between them, that’s what will happen. To this, I [Loxton] would add that the Overton concept (an idea raised often over in the atheist movement) is a post hoc description of how events have played out in some cases, rather than a predictive strategy. The opposite outcome can also emerge, with radicals (“legalize heroin!”) making otherwise mainstream positions (“decriminalize marijuana”) appear more fringe, rather than less. In any event, as Schell explained, the role of radicals tends to be self-limiting. While radicals helped more moderate civil rights campaigners gain traction for their messages, Schell asks, “When was the last time we heard from the Black Panthers?” Over the long term, in many movements, it is left to centrists to do the unsexy heavy lifting.

Over twitter and in her talk, Schell emphasized that she was invoking the Overton window as a heuristic, not as a predictive tool, and that it shouldn’t be invoked as a magical salve that justifies extremism per se.

I’ve been at too many public events where all pro-evolution speakers were dismissed as atheists to think that the dynamic she describes, in which fringe groups taint more moderate voices, isn’t happening. Indeed, it seems to be the overt goal of some New Atheists (Dawkins, for instance, seems to take a certain glee in noting that he’d be a bad expert witness in a court case). NAs resist being painted as a fringe group, which (Schell argues compellingly) is exactly what they’d have to do in order to make effective use of the Overton window.

The other think they’d have to do is articulate some sort of clear policy goals, list of target audiences, etc. And so far they haven’t done so, not in a consistent way, and certainly not in a way borne out by their actions. Overton was successful because he laid out a clear set of policy preferences, and stages between the current situation and his preferred situation. Then he could stake out an extreme position and let other people compromise between that extreme position and the status quo, in ways that ratcheted public policy away from public schools and towards government funding of private schools, with the end goal always being the eradication of public education. He didn’t attack compromise, and declare anyone with less extreme goals as Quislings or Chamberlainish appeasers (e.g., Dawkins, again, in The God Delusion), he found ways to work their goals into his broader vision.

I don’t see any similar strategy from NAs, and absent that, I think they invoke Overton’s window too blithely. There might be a case to be made, but I’ve yet to see it articulated beyond handwaving.

Comments

  1. #1 Lassi Hippeläinen
    August 4, 2011

    Then he could stake out an extreme position and let other people compromise between that extreme position and the status quo

    Thesis-antithesis-synthesis. Was he a closet Marxist?

  2. #2 Pierce R. Butler
    August 4, 2011

    … popularized by Glenn Beck.

    Funny, I used to see the phrase used regularly, but hardly at all (even by the right wing) since Beck’s “thriller” under that title came out.

  3. #3 Mystyk
    August 4, 2011

    To begin with, the Overton window is an atheoretical, poorly substantiated notion dreamed up by an anti-public education activist and popularized by Glenn Beck.

    This is a two-fold dose of the genetic fallacy. Also, while Overton was a conservative think-tank activist, the Overton Window was widely discussed in both conservative and liberal circles prior to Mr. Beck’s book.

    The broad idea of the Overton window is that extreme voices at the fringe of a debate can pull the center of that debate in their preferred direction, thereby helping more moderate voices in the center win their fights.

    No, the broad idea is merely that subjects exist somewhere along a spectrum of windows representing varying levels of acceptability in public discourse, with the more fringe ideas of any particular strain existing in a window of diminished acceptability compared to those that are less extreme, and that the entire string of one set of related ideas is capable of being shifted one direction or the other.

    The ideas of what deliberate actions are possible by either the mainstream or the fringe to move the window in a desired direction is separate, with much of it being discussed long after the “broad” idea of the Overton Window itself.

    It strikes me that the ways in which the window can be moved fall into two rough categories: Foot in the Door (FITD) and Door in the Face (DITF). These are remarkably different methods. FITD involves extracting small, successive concessions by way of pointing out that the next position is only marginally further from the center than the last. Inportantly, FITD needs no input from the fringe, as it is about increasing the window’s contents by tugging on them from the moderate position. DITF, on the other hand, involves asking for a large concession that will be rejected and then asking for your less fringe position as a compromise. It is about increasing the window’s contents by tugging (if you’re fringe) or pushing (if you’re moderate) on the window sill to encompass more. The fact that it can be employed by both moderates and fringe turns out to be extremely important later on.

    I am fascinated that almost all discussion of the Overton Window seems to flow from the assumption of DITF tactics, and yet the one great success example mentioned (education “reform” [aka dismantling]) is clearly a FITD approach. Perhaps more time should be spent examining this.

    As she pointed out, extreme groups don’t shift the Overton window just by existing, they do so under certain specific circumstances, dependent on their relationship with more moderate forces. [...] “the audience must be able to clearly see the difference between the radicals and moderates—and more important, they must be motivated to care that there is a difference. If it’s easier to write off both groups based on the loudest voices rather than discriminate between them, that’s what will happen.” [...] Schell emphasized that she was invoking the Overton window as a heuristic, not as a predictive tool, and that it shouldn’t be invoked as a magical salve that justifies extremism per se.

    I agree with this completely. QFT.

    I’ve been at too many public events where all pro-evolution speakers were dismissed as atheists to think that the dynamic she describes, in which fringe groups taint more moderate voices, isn’t happening. [...] NAs resist being painted as a fringe group, which (Schell argues compellingly) is exactly what they’d have to do in order to make effective use of the Overton window.

    While I also agree with the blanket dismissal of pro-evolution voices by the public (and especially the right), I think you might be missing something here. It doesn’t matter whether the fringe group resists or accepts the status of being fringe (have you ever known a successful fringe group that didn’t resist that label?), it matters what the public perception of the difference between the fringe and the moderates is.

    This is made pretty darn apparent in the piece you quoted. If the public lacks the ability to discriminate between the moderate and the extreme, you cannot reasonably expect the fringe to stand up and say “Yep, we’re fringe, so accept the moderate position as a compromise!” (on the contrary, they’re likely on the fringe because they believe that position to be right). Instead, it is up to the moderates to point out the distinction between them and the fringe with sufficient clarity for the public to grasp, while being sure not to villify the fringe so thoroughly in the process that the stain accidentally transfers to the moderates as well by virtue of those qualities they share with the fringe. This is a delicate balancing act, and one that I think moderates in the area of atheism, good science, good education, and rational public policy have often done poorly.

  4. #4 Pierce R. Butler
    August 4, 2011

    Mystyk @ # 3 – Thanks for the best description of the spectrum dilemma I’ve seen yet!

  5. #5 Janice in Toronto
    August 4, 2011

    Mystyk @ # 3

    Well said.

  6. #6 TB
    August 4, 2011

    @3 said “The ideas of what deliberate actions are possible by either the mainstream or the fringe to move the window in a desired direction is separate, with much of it being discussed long after the “broad” idea of the Overton Window itself.”

    I disagree. Fringe ideas and mainstream ideas exist without a strategy to define them. If all it takes is a radical idea to earn the label of Overton Window then the phrase has no meaning. If I own a mitt and a bat but never use them, I can’t reasonably call myself a baseball player. That’s the objection here.

    To quote the Makinac Center, home of the Overton Window,

    “The Overton Window doesn’t describe everything, but it describes one big thing: Politicians will rarely support whatever policy they choose whenever they choose; rather, they will do what they feel they can do without risking electoral defeat, given the current political environment shaped by ideas, social movements and societal sensibilities.”

    The Overton Window describes a process, a strategy of compromise to redefine what is considered moderate and make the “fringe” appear less extreme. It’s also, by it’s nature, a wedge strategy – with step in one direction you lose supporters who can no longer agree with you.

    So not only is it being mistakenly used to describe the current situation, there’s no data to support whether or not the strategy would – if actually used – be effective.

    So far as I can see, the only strategy is to invoke the words “Overton Window” to fool critics into thinking there’s actually a clever process behind all this. And it’s not working anymore.

  7. #7 Mystyk
    August 5, 2011

    @TB:

    I never said that fringe ideas and mainstream ideas exist only with a defining strategy. A fringe idea can certainly be held without the desire to move it towards being acceptable discourse. Without such a desire, however, why even frame ones ideas in terms of its acceptability (which is the window’s whole point)?

    What I said is that the broad idea of the Overton Window describes the state of being for the relation of the spectrum of ideas to their acceptability in public discourse, and that the broad idea doesn’t try to describe anything further.

    After the initial formulation of the idea, people started *adding on* with a strategic approach to how one can effectively move the window, under the assumption that 1) the particular group wanting to move it accepts it as a good description and 2) the particular group does, in fact, *want* to move it.

    Further, look carefully at the Makinac Center quote. There is nothing in there whatsoever about trying to *move* the window (further evidence that that discussion was separate from the broad idea). Instead, it’s all about how a politician will usually limit their public words and deeds to fit the existing positions of the window, so as to go as close to their real opinions as possible without risking electoral defeat. It is a description of self-censoring of political ideologues in order to ensure they stay in power, with the self-censoring only going as far as is minimally necessary to ensure victory. It is a description of pure political pragmatism.

    The Overton Window describes a process, a strategy of compromise to redefine what is considered moderate and make the “fringe” appear less extreme. It’s also, by it’s nature, a wedge strategy – with step in one direction you lose supporters who can no longer agree with you.

    So not only is it being mistakenly used to describe the current situation, there’s no data to support whether or not the strategy would – if actually used – be effective.

    Again, in light of what the quote actually says, we can see clearly now that these two paragraphs of yours are, in fact, perfectly refuted by it. It doesn’t describe a process or a strategy as you allege, but rather describes the current situation and the apparent behavior of many politicians. It can, however, be used as a basis for *formulating* a process/strategy, and that is why it is such a popular topic: because the one thing you got right is that the data on whether the strategies formulated from it actually work is slim and inconclusive.

  8. #8 TB
    August 5, 2011

    Mystyk, I understand the point you’re trying to make – I really do. And I appreciate that we agree on the lack of statistical information.

    But you said:

    “After the initial formulation of the idea, people started *adding on* with a strategic approach to how one can effectively move the window, under the assumption that 1) the particular group wanting to move it accepts it as a good description and 2) the particular group does, in fact, *want* to move it.”

    If this were a recent claim, I would probably be more receptive to your point. I understand that you need an initial recognition of an Overton Window before the strategy can be formulated.

    But I’ve been aware of the idea of an Overton Window in this debate for years.

    http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/2007/02/14/thank-you-richard-dawkins/

    That was in Feburary of 2007. More than four years later, the Overton Window is still being invoked but with no evidence that the strategy is being used or data on the performance of whatever strategy is being invoked.

    It wasn’t by accident that I used a baseball player analogy. We see the mitt, the bat and the cap four years ago. These are things that can be used for baseball, so there’s some evidence that the person who has them may be a baseball player.

    But four years later, these things lay unused to play baseball with. And there’s no record of at bats, era or other statistics that we can use to evaluate the effectiveness of the person as a baseball player.

    There’s some evidence that the cap has successfully kept the sun out of their eyes, just like it would work for a real baseball player. Or, in the real world, there was an unforeseen advance in acceptance of atheists among the public. And that’s great, I’m glad.

    Nobody predicted it though, and an unforeseen consequence however welcome a development it is can’t be used as proof of the existence of a preconceived strategy.

    So when you say:
    “After the initial formulation of the idea, people started *adding on* with a strategic approach to how one can effectively move the window…”

    I say, sure. But, just like the baseball tools, there’s four years of dust on the idea of an Overton Window. How many more years must pass while they avoid putting on the mitt and picking up the ball before we can say they’re not really a baseball player?

    How long do they get to handwave off criticism before we get to point out that maybe they’re just saying “Overton Window” and actually just doing whatever it is they feel like doing without any actual data or strategy to guide them?

    For me, time’s up.

    You go on to say:

    “Further, look carefully at the Makinac Center quote. There is nothing in there whatsoever about trying to *move* the window (further evidence that that discussion was separate from the broad idea).”

    In context, that two paragraph quote is part of a website devoted to initiating change through an Overton Window strategy, so that’s not an issue.

    Taken out of context as I did, that quote simply bolsters my assertion that not everything can be identified as an Overton Window.

    Plus that quote specifically describes that without outside pressure politicians will not change but embrace the status quo: “they will do what they feel they can do without risking electoral defeat”. And they describe where the source of that pressure for change must come from: “ideas, social movements and societal sensibilities.”

    Essentially, simply identifying a medium and a fringe doesn’t invoke an Overton Window unless it also involves pressure from that fringe for change – moving the Overton Window.

    Now I said,
    “The Overton Window describes a process, a strategy of compromise to redefine what is considered moderate and make the “fringe” appear less extreme. It’s also, by it’s nature, a wedge strategy – with step in one direction you lose supporters who can no longer agree with you.
    So not only is it being mistakenly used to describe the current situation, there’s no data to support whether or not the strategy would – if actually used – be effective.”

    And there’s plenty of discussion on that website about Overton Window strategy.

    Then you claim: “Again, in light of what the quote actually says, we can see clearly now that these two paragraphs of yours are, in fact, perfectly refuted by it.”

    On the contrary, their paragraphs are assumptions and my paragraphs are a brief analysis of those assumptions about the effectiveness of an Overton Window strategy. Take their retcon of Prohibition: “For example, Prohibition was a policy change driven by a social movement that did not prove strong enough to sustain the policy.”

    But that’s just spin. Prohibition was a result of not enough information (hey wait a minute, I actually like to drink alcohol in moderation. And what’s all this crime now?) which resulted in a classic case of overreach. The social movement forced society to move in a direction to such an extent that it lost support. The wedge had cut off too many supporters – it was only a matter of time for it to fail.

    Only a social movement that evolved into a police state could have withstood the backlash.

    I apologize for the long reply, but I’m just not convinced that the Overton Window is a correct description of New Atheist activities, and separately I’m skeptical that it’s a good strategy to pursue long-term and meaningful change.

  9. #9 CCPhysicist
    August 6, 2011

    The “Overton window” is just a name for one of several debating techniques that help one win without logic or evidence. It most certainly does not have as its goal to make a moderate position the centrist one — its objective is to make your position appear centrist (and hence, implicitly, reasonable) and the moderate (perhaps even mainstream) position appear extreme. There are many examples in history on all sides of any political discussion. Overton described it in the context of an extreme right-wing agenda.

    Another is the use of loaded language. Examples would be using “centrist” as if it meant at the median of public opinion rather than in the arbitrary middle of an arbitrary range of options, “government schools” rather than “public schools” (ignoring that charter schools are government funded), “private” rather than “parochial” or “religious” schools (to hide the nature of the school).

    Yet another is the the use of statements that are objectively true but convey a totally false impression, then turning that into an outright lie. One example would be arguing for evaluating teachers and schools based on student performance on a NCLB test, yet never including the fact that you will not apply those rules to private schools that get public money. They don’t want testing for all schools, because they are afraid that we would learn that private schools, like charter schools, are not automatically better. Another example would be saying “half of Americans pay no tax”, turning a statement that is true if the adjective “income” is included into an outright lie.

    The best, however, is to ask questions constructed like “Have you stopped beating your wife” and insisting on a yes or no answer. You can then argue about the evasiveness of your opponent rather than the facts of the matter at hand.

  10. #10 Mystyk
    August 8, 2011

    @TB:

    Hrmm. Perhaps we spent a bit too much time arguing past each other. I think, on reflection, that our positions are likely closer than we initially realized, and we are struggling with different ways of explaining almost the same thing.

    I apologize for the long reply, but I’m just not convinced that the Overton Window is a correct description of New Atheist activities, and separately I’m skeptical that it’s a good strategy to pursue long-term and meaningful change.

    No problem for long replies. I’m pretty prone to it myself, although I have to stay brief today due to other things tying me up.

    I would certainly agree that it’s not convincing as a correct description of the NA phenomenon, but one of the problems we have is that OW is currently the best theory we have to explain the facts at hand. In that analogy it’s *at best* a VERY rough theory (I’m not really fond of using that word here, but I don’t have a better one at the moment), and the “predictions” from it are vague, but until we have a better approach to quantifying and qualifying what we observe we will not be able to get rid of it from the discussions on either side.

    The rest of your post gives me some interesting stuff to mull over, so perhaps I’ll have to get back to you on this. I would, however, like to touch this:

    Essentially, simply identifying a medium and a fringe doesn’t invoke an Overton Window unless it also involves pressure from that fringe for change – moving the Overton Window.

    I think this is where we disagree. Invoking it in a descriptive manner does not imply the necessity of pressures seeking to change it (although due to the nature of humanity those pressures will almost certainly exist by default). It really is just a heuristic that one can employ to boil down a tough issue into a simple model. I further think that this was much of the point of both Josh in the initial post here and Desiree in the quote: it’s useful and convenient given our current knowledge as an explanatory device, but not as a predictive or process/strategy device. It is therefore problematic that so many want to invoke it in exactly the way that it is weakest.

  11. #11 abb3w
    August 10, 2011

    Google Scholar doesn’t readily turn up any papers involving a deliberate attempt to test the Overton Window conjecture experimentally — though there are cases well described by it, such as Overton’s own efforts. The lack of experimental testing doesn’t prove the conjecture wrong, but does leave the support only a little better than one supported by anecdata.

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