Is the Overton Window a tool or a weapon?

If we want the ideological boundaries of society to help us build community rather than contribute to its compromise, we need to remember what they are for.

This article is part of a series of thinking examining modern media and our civic life including my new book For ALL the People available now.

We need ideological boundaries in a functioning society, but if we are to have a truly diverse, inclusive, democratic civic life, those boundaries must be as broadly defined as we can manage. And we have to spend real time focused on the edges, engaging with the distinction between unsafe and unfamiliar, between philosophically threatening and existentially threatening. The Overton Window is a concept that describes the likelihood of policy adoption based on the spectrum of valid political opinion in a society — first posed by Joseph Overton in the 1980’s. The idea of a shared Overton window should be a tool for helping define productive civic life. However, it can also be the justification for exclusion of ideas with which we don’t agree, a weapon for the exclusion of fellow citizens (often by liberals attacking other insufficiently liberal liberals) or just as easily as a trope for trying to excuse unpopular ideas (often by conservatives decrying liberal cancel culture).

Disagreement is not the criteria for exclusion, but all the sorting pressures built into our current media systems make engaging with disagreement more and more rare. Part of the trickiness of a “shared” Overton window is that what is unsafe for me (a straight, white, upper-middle class man) might be just unfamiliar or even exciting for you or vice-versa. To be shared, it must be what we consider valid, not what I consider valid. Focusing on excluding actually dangerous ideologies that require the elimination of (not just disagreement with) other groups or that demand adherence to falsehood to the exclusion fact or of all others is a start. But importantly, clear, redlines are very, very hard to draw and treating the boundaries as obvious is a good path toward simply reinforcing our own biases and opinions as the boundaries of valid. And this difficulty is before we even consider how we balance, value, and ensure free expression with our desire for cohesive community.

From before the days of America’s founding, people have been debating whether this country was too big and too diverse to be governed as a republic (much less a democracy). Back then the concern was that some rich, landed white men (northern mercantilists) were too different from other rich, landed white men (southern agriculturalists) for democracy to work — much less a country ten times the size with more dimensions of diversity than our flawed founders would ever have even considered. Democracy is hard. It demands of us constant, productive confrontation with things with which we disagree but cannot demand of us constant confrontation with our own extinction. There is a difference — no matter how existential political debate may feel or how much our habits of campaigning have snapped the volume dial off at 11.

How do we ensure that the Overton window is both shared and more tool than weapon? We start by holding on to the reality that it represents flexible boundaries decided by an imperfect, ongoing conversation with as a diverse set of participants as we can include, not a fixed set of boundaries determined by which ever political party or movement is most ascendent at a given moment. And we need help from our media systems to present us with broader, not narrower viewpoints, helping us live in closer proximity to difference, making the unfamiliar more common an less uncomfortable, rather than in comfortable filter bubbles of intoxicating, but misleading confirmation bias. We ultimately have two choices: continue down the path toward homogenous communities trying to extinguish other homogenous communities where unfamiliar equals invalid and pretending we live in a democracy or figure out how to live in community with the unfamiliar and uncomfortable and reinforce and continue to diversify our democratic foundations.


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