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July 01, 2009

Rhetoric, the Golden Mean, and the Overton Window


If I were to go back to school, I think I’d study rhetoric. If by rhetoric you mean the cheap shot, the artful question nobody answers, then I say No sir thank you very much; but if by rhetoric you mean the classic art of persuasive communication, the means for any man to speak and sway the populace, the basis of democracy and civilization – why then, yes sir, that is what I mean by rhetoric.

Overton Window

The Overton Window

I’m probably not going back to school, and if I did I’d probably stay within the field of my previous studies. I do read and ponder rhetoric, just for my own edification and pleasure. I’ve only recently learned of a rhetorical concept called the Overton Window, and I’d like to mention it.


The Overton window suggests that most issues fall along a spectrum, from one extreme to another. Somewhere along that spectrum is a small window, which represents the window of communication (or the range of political possibility) that the public is willing to engage in.

The Overton Window of Political Possibility

Here's an example of the Overton Window of Political Possibility, or of Acceptable Public Discourse, in a technical field:



So let’s say you work at a think tank, and you have a Client who has a Cause. Their cause is way out of the range of what’s acceptable in public discourse. In fact, the Cause is Unthinkable.

You make a few press releases about Concept-B , of things even more extreme than the cause. You’re setting new boundaries on the spectrum. You’re talking in a way that makes people a little bit nervous. All of a sudden, people are thinking that your ideas (which were once unthinkable) are now simply radical.

You come up with an even crazier concept, Concept-C, and you get some grad students to start protesting and blogging about it. Now, they’ve defined a new extreme. Their Concept-C is Unthinkable, Concept-B is Radical, and your client’s cause is now moving into Acceptable.

You’re feeling pretty good, and you get a think tank to release a truly bizarre proposal, Concept-D. D is unthinkable. Now, Concept-C seems Radical. Concept-B seems Acceptable. The Cause is now Sensible.

The progression continues, and as the window of public discourse moves closer and closer to the Cause, the Cause progresses through being Unthinkable, Radical, Acceptable, Sensible, Popular, and finally: Policy.

Remarkably, you never discussed the Cause with anybody, and you were never publicly aligned with the Cause. You just talked about things much more extreme than the Cause that redefined the spectrum, and the Client’s Cause became Policy.



In a way, this manipulates Aristotle's concept of The Golden Mean. You can shift the mean by adding new data points on one end of the spectrum. You move the middle by piling on progressively extreme positions.

The lists below show an initial state of public discussion about education (with the acceptable range in red), and a subsequent state of discussion about education (with the new, moved Overton Window in red).



I thought Think Tanks were kind of cool places that did the scholarship and theoretical heavy lifting for political parties. Sure, Barney Frank is a charmer, but where does he go for new policy? I assumed he bought it at a think tank that was aligned with his values.

Now I’ve learned that think tanks exist to move the Overton Window, and they do that by floating extreme concepts that shift the framework of what’s acceptable in public discourse. Just like Pat Moynihan wrote about defining deviancy down, think tanks redefine the spectrum of discourse and move the Overton Window to their client’s advantage. WOW.

This technique does not work by contributing concepts to the discussion that the pubilc finds acceptable - rather, this technique works by contributing unacceptable options to the discussion.

Learning about the Overton Window has been enjoyable to me because now I recognize the pattern at work. For instance, now I understand why Charles Rangel kept introducing military draft (that is, conscription) legislation in Congress - he did it in 2003, 2006, and 2009 – it changed the spectrum in a way he found beneficial.

See also:
Daily Kos
Open The Future : The Overton Window
EJ Dionne: Rush and Newt Are Moving the Window
israel's Overton Window
Overton, Clinton, and Krugman
Intro to the Overton Window
Overton Window, Bush's Apostasy & Wizard's Complaint
Overton Windows at Mercury Rising
Theocracy and the Religious Overton Window
Daily Kos: More on Overton Windows
Richard Dawkins and a non-linear Overton Window


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