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Use your radical fringe to shift the Overton window

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In Sum

The Overton window is the limit of what is considered reasonable or acceptable within a range of public policy options. Slide the window of acceptable debate by focusing attention on a position that is more radical than your own.

The various policy options available on a given issue can be roughly plotted on a spectrum of public acceptability, from unthinkable, to fringe, to acceptable, to common sense, to policy. The Overton window, named after Joseph Overton, a staffer for the center-right Mackinac Center for Public Policy, designates the range of points on the spectrum that are considered part of a “sensible” conversation within public opinion and/or traditional mass media.

The most important thing about the Overton window, however, is that it can be shifted to the left or the right, with the once merely “acceptable” becoming “popular” or even imminent policy, and formerly “unthinkable” positions becoming the open position of a partisan base. The challenge for activists and advocates is to move the window in the direction of their preferred outcomes, so their desired outcome moves closer and closer to “common sense.”

There are two ways to do this: the long, hard way and the short, easy way. The long, hard way is to continue making your actual case persistently and persuasively until your position becomes more politically mainstream, whether it be due to the strength of your rhetoric or a long-term shift in societal values. By contrast, the short, easy way is to amplify and echo the voices of those who take a position a few notches more radical than what you really want.

For example, if what you actually want is a public health care option in the United States, coordinate with and promote those pushing for single-payer, universal health care. If the single-payer approach constitutes the “acceptable left” flank of the discourse, then the public option looks, by comparison, like the conservative option it was once considered back when it was first proposed by Orrin Hatch in 1994.

This is Negotiating 101. Unfortunately, the right has been far ahead of the left in moving the Overton window in their desired direction for a long time. If anything, the left often plays it in the exact wrong way, actively policing and seeking to silence its radicals for fear that strong left positions will serve to discredit moderate left positions. The irony is that the Overton window should actually be easier for progressives to play: if you look at the polling on issue after issue, from education to jobs to foreign policy, the actual majority stances tend to be to the left of the range of policy proposals on offer.

Potential Pitfalls

Not all radical positions are effective in shifting the Overton window, so don’t just reach for any old radical idea. Ideally, the position you promote should carry logical and moral force, and must include some common ground with your own position — it needs to be along the same continuum of belief if it is to be effective. It also must not be so far out of the mainstream that it becomes toxic for anyone vaguely associated with it, or the backlash will in fact push the Window in the opposite of the desired direction.

Josh Bolotsky is an online organizer, blogger, comedic performer/writer and occasional voiceover artist, currently serving as new media director for Agit-Pop Communications and its Other 98% Project. While at Agit-Pop, he has worked on creating and spreading projects that include the RepubliCorp effort for MoveOn, and Target Ain’t People, the very first Depeche-Mode-inspired take on the Citizens United decision to break a million views on YouTube. Josh also serves as part of the national volunteer collective that manages Living Liberally, a network of progressive social groups and activist resources in all fifty states. He enjoys vegan chili and writing about himself in the third person.

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