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Meeting Joe Overton

Written By: - Date published: 12:03 pm, April 4th, 2009 - 17 comments
Categories: Deep stuff, spin - Tags:

A little while ago we had some discussion here about the Sensible Sentencing Trust and their status as a charity. That’s not what this post is about.

Rather, I’m going to write a little bit about the functional role groups like the SST play in the political process and how they are successful.

The SST, while not a think tank because they produce little if any ‘research’ and don’t pretend to be interested in actual debate, plays a functional role that is very similar to that of your typical think tank, as that role is explained by Joe Overton.

Joe Overton was a researcher and Vice President at the Mackinac Centre for Public Policy, an influential though not widely known think tank in the USA. He came up with one of those insights that is simple, easily understood, and that when you hear about for the first time makes you think, “Of course”. Which, in my view, marks him as a genius.

The insight became known as ‘The Overton Window of political possibilities’, or Overton’s window . The basic idea is that politicians will not, in general, implement policy that will result in them losing their jobs. The policies that will result in them losing their jobs are, simply enough, policies that the public will not accept.

For any given area of policy, Overton tells us, there are a range of policy items or positions that can be conceptualised as being on a yardstick.

The yardstick can be labeled like this, going from both ends to the ‘centre’:

Unthinkable – Radical – Acceptable – Sensible – Popular – Policy

Given that politicians want to keep their jobs, the theory goes, they will only advocate for or enact policy platforms that are in the window of acceptability. If something is beyond acceptable they simply won’t do it. I’m sure we can all think of things that our favorite parties have done, or more often failed to do, that makes us tear our hair out and cry ‘why you bastards, you fracking weak bastards, why?’.

Overton’s window explains why.

What groups like the SST (and the Business Roundtable, Maxim, CIS, et al) do, is shift the window. By continually advocating for positions in the radical and unacceptable zones, they simultaneously open the window at their end, and close it off at the other.

As an example, think about how the idea of parole has moved from being policy (meaning a politician simply must advocate for it or risk losing status) to being somewhere in the sensible – acceptable zone, (where the idea requires defending, and opposition to it is at least acceptable). The SST has done that, shifted Overton’s window, in a way that politicians by themselves couldn’t/wouldn’t.

This is what Overton was talking about, and is what he explicitly saw the role of think tanks to be. That is why think tanks are reliably extreme, challenging and predictable in their views. They are not doing ‘research’ in the normal sense of the word, but using ‘research’ as propaganda to move the population’s view of acceptable opinion, so that the window for politician’s actions becomes more favourable to their agenda.

Sneaky eh?

I think it works better in the States than it does here, particularly since the advent of MMP, (noticed how the BRT has faded away?) Under MMP we have parties that can advocate for views only acceptable to a quite small minority. But I also think that the window is a useful thing to think about in the current NZ situation with regard to ACT’s relationship with the SST.

Another interesting area is the different strategies Labour and National have taken with regard to Coalition and governing arrangements.

Labour, much to the left’s disgust, went to the centre parties and left the radical Green Party, (radical that is in terms of the window), out in the cold.

National has taken radicals to her breast.

We’ll see how that plays out I guess.

17 comments on “Meeting Joe Overton ”

  1. Ianmac 1

    A bit like asking for $100 often and loudly then after a while it comes to be expected then almost acceptable. So now could I have $10? Oh the relief! Glad it wasn’t $100.
    Remember the adv on TV, where the little boy asks if he could drive the car? No! etc. Well could I have McDonalds then? Yes. Acceptable. Didn’t Goebbels have some similar understanding to normalise difficult ideas? Maybe I have missed the point?

  2. Ag 2

    There’s a simpler explanation. The SST is the foremost right wing authoritarian pressure group in New Zealand.

    There have always been New Zealanders who wished for draconian punishments. Back in the 50s there were calls for the introduction of flogging in response to the moral panic at teen culture. All they lacked was money, which American authoritarians are happy to provide. Can anyone else remember the hullabaloo that used to be generated if it was merely suggested that left wing groups were receiving overseas funding.

    Anyone who has read Bob Altemeyer’s books knows that CIS, SST et al are less benign than mere political pressure groups.

  3. ripp0 3

    Doffing my devil’s disciple hat for a moment allow me say how a post-modernist would improvise a solution – ie a means if dealing with or to so-called perpetrators of Overton’s Window.

    Begin with a don’t. Like don’t over-react to it.. to over-react is to give the perpetrator currency for either direct impact or indirect use to impact a target audience or constituency.

    Add a DO. Like do construct your own option. Yes, option since this is mutually exclusive. Folks are attracted to your option, not the other.

    Sprinkle with an undertaking that any ‘language’ battles around and about the two render the perpetrator offensive.. e.g SST would, I aver, have some difficulty with a Crime & Punishment Society (CAPS)..

  4. Tim Ellis 4

    This is a very interesting and thoughtful debate. If your argument is that the purpose of right-wing outfits like CIS, SST and the BRT is not to implement the radical policies they advocate, but to just shift the consensus and discourse, then you could make the same argument about the Greens, Greenpeace, the union movement, the Maori Party and PETA.

    Left-wing groups are just as active and organised in New Zealand as right-wing groups. I tend to believe that they actually believe in the policies they advocate. They all have a legitimate role in public debate.

    Labour, much to the left’s disgust, went to the centre parties and left the radical Green Party, (radical that is in terms of the window), out in the cold.

    National has taken radicals to her breast.

    I disagree. You can hardly describe the Maori Party as right-wing radicals. It wasn’t the National Party that ruled out governing arrangements with the Green Party, it was the Greens who did that.

    I don’t understand why the Greens after being spurned by Labour for so long chose to lock themselves out of any influence in public policy by not being open to working with National.

    John Key and Helen Clark’s approaches to governing under MMP have been very different. Key sought to build the largest possible consensus and support for a National-led government. Clark only ever set out to deal only with those she absolutely had to in order to get a majority. I think that’s part of the evolving and changing face of MMP.

    Ironically, I think Key’s move to get the widest possible support for a National-led government has gone a long way towards saving the MMP system.

    • Daveo 4.1

      I wouldn’t put the union movement in the same category as fringe pressure groups. You’re talking about a democratic movement of 370,000 working people that promotes moderate social democratic policy. That’s not really comparable to an extreme libertarian front group that’s funded from offshore like the CIS.

      • ripp0 4.1.1


        Tim has unfortunately drawn his bow at single/several issues orgs equate to whole movements which, politically, attempt implement legislation and/or policy related to any such issues taken under their wing, as it were. Yes, a big enough issue can make the movement, but that is not the case here with SST.. is it!

        Out of interest Chomsky is right now on R-news relating a clarion call likely get serious attention.. and yes, related to what you have just mentioned.

    • r0b 4.2

      I disagree. You can hardly describe the Maori Party as right-wing radicals.

      Conveniently forgetting ACT. I can understand why of course…
      Edit: I see George made he same point as well.

      Clark only ever set out to deal only with those she absolutely had to in order to get a majority.

      Nonsense. Clark wrote the book on making MMP work, and the range of agreements reached with NZF, UF, the Greens etc set up the model that Key is now following.

      Ironically, I think Key’s move to get the widest possible support for a National-led government has gone a long way towards saving the MMP system.

      Nonsense again. Saving MMP from what exactly?

    • Pascal's bookie 4.3

      Disclosure: I wrote the post.

      You can hardly describe the Maori Party as right-wing radicals

      Not right wing, but on the yard stick they are most definately radical on a lot of subjects. Esp. in the eyes of National party supporters. ACT are radical fullstop. If you don’t believe me then please to be explaining why National went out of their way to deny that a Nat govt would follow an ACT like agenda?

      The interseting thing will be how ACT and National compete about whose supporters get shafted. Where are they going to govern from? Will ACT get dragged ( see the ructions about gang patches), or will National’s centre swing voters?

      I don’t understand why the Greens after being spurned by Labour for so long chose to lock themselves out of any influence in public policy by not being open to working with National

      This touches on two aspects of how mmp changes the equation, or rather how the window has different applications in an MMP context. Political parties in MMP have their own constituencies, freed from the two party system, the fight is about more than just the middle of the general electorate. The Greens have their own voting block, which has a different window than that of the electorate at large. So, the Greens have to look at what National could offer, and decided that what they could get would not be acceptable to their constituents.

      The ‘minor’ parties have all the same issues of having to stay within their window that the larger parties do, but at the same time can serve as shifting the window with regard to the general electorate, the window that Labour and National are competing in. It’s best not to confuse these two roles.

  5. George Darroch 5

    I disagree. You can hardly describe the Maori Party as right-wing radicals

    I think the post was referring to Roger Douglas, and David Garrett.

    To Labour’s credit, they threw them out at the first opportunity, choosing to collapse the Government rather than have left voices free to speak and diligently refused to readmit any, preferring the safety of Dunne and Peters.

    Clark only ever set out to deal only with those she absolutely had to in order to get a majority.

    In formal terms, yes. But did you see how much legislation they relied on the Greens to pass in their last term? Not so different to the current Government in that regard, choosing who they wanted to gain support from.

  6. Something i have long wondered is how many of them really believe the stuff they say. Its oblivious that their policies don’t actually reduce drive and in many instances are likely to make it worse. Garth McVIccar certainly comes across as a simpleton, ignorant of science and short of rational analysis, but I think a fair few of them are pseudo-libertarians (conservative guilt ridden bleaters) who seek to indulge their urges or authoritarianism and get stuck into some good old fashion racism.

    And how cute it has been on kiwiblog this last week with a whole bunch of commenter assuming Maori user names and proporting to give a ‘maori fed up with maori crime” perspective.

    • Pascal's bookie 6.1

      Yeah, it’s interesting. The point isn’t that the window is a strategy (though strategies are suggested by it), but that it describes what is happening.
      I doubt very much the McVicar has heard of it. People know the concept intuitively almost, but Overton gave it a clear explanation that makes for a useful tool for thinking about it.

  7. George Darroch 7

    The question should be asked then – does the left need more radical commentary from groups that are taken seriously?

    I remember a quote from someone in Greenpeace (internationally) saying that they were glad for the existence of groups like Earth First, as they were no longer seen as radical extremists, but moderates, and that having those other groups out there got them a seat at the table.

    Also, the SST, CIS etc. gain currency from having people from National and other ‘respectable’ organisations take what they say and acknowledge it publicly. Labour claimed to want to move the discussion over the medium term, but rarely engaged with groups on the fringe of ‘acceptable’ publicly.

    • Pascal's bookie 7.1

      The question should be asked then – does the left need more radical commentary from groups that are taken seriously?

      I’m not at all sure that we should try and replicate the right’s machine, for a host of reasons, (not suggesting you were suggesting that though!). We tend to suck at copying the right’s tactics, and funding is an issue for the think tank model. We already have the voices though. Academics need to learn how to communicate their ideas to the public that pays them for a start, methinks.

      You are spot on about the respectability issue. Because these groups are treated seriously, they have influence in spite of the radical views. They can take the flack of being called radical, because they don’t need public political support. They divert that flack away from the pollies, all while maintaining an aura of respectability simply by looking right, sounding right, and getting published in the media.

      Also, Sokal (a leftie JFTR) knocked the shit out Theory. Just saying. Cats got skinned anyway.

  8. r0b 8

    The basic idea is that politicians will not, in general, implement policy that will result in them losing their jobs.

    This is so obvious that I’m surprised that anyone made a name for themselves out of stating it. Seems to me its a major flaw with democracy as currently set up. Anything that is uncomfortable for people (eg cutting back on insane consumerism, carbon emissions) or can be made unpopular (eg paying taxes), becomes impossible to make progress on. Our political system doesn’t let us address the hard issues.

    So we have to change the way democracy works. Politicians get one term only. Make the terms longer – say 5 years – and “overlap” them with intakes every 2.5 years so there is some continuity of experience. Yes this will mean a system which is quite different from the one we have currently, and yes it will raise its own range of problematic issues. But until we break the idea that politics is a long term job option that depends on remaining popular, we can’t and we won’t address the hard issues, and we will pay the price for that…

  9. tommy onions 9

    Example of this is the corporate activism of the 1970s and 80s which worked through think-tanks, political lobby groups, mass media etc and utilised PR and polling etc – to promote free enterprise and attack the labour movement and then turned its focus on environmentalism to shift public opinion towards seeing environmentalists’ actions as unacceptable.

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