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May 01, 2010

The Overton Window and Glenn Beck:
Pot. Kettle. Black.

Overton WindowI have previously blogged about the Overton Window, which describes the boundaries of public discourse and offers a rhetorical technique in which think tanks, pundits, talking heads, and hired advocates can shift the range of acceptable public discussion by communicating radical, extreme perspectives that make their client's objective seem relatively normal.

In a world where the cost of being a publisher approaches zero, the Overton Window is increasingly available to a wider sphere, and all sorts of people are getting in to it. Of course, if radical, extreme perspectives are exerted on both sides of the spectrum, the central window remains in the same place while the tone of the discourse moves outside of the traditionally acceptable range.

I have enjoyed knowing about the Overton Window because it helps me to understand the rhetoric of American discussion (on both/many sides of the aisle) and also because, frankly, it's a niche knowledge and it's kind of cool to be in on the story. It's sort of like the Sullivan Nod - once you know about it you see it all around, and it's not widely known.

The phrase Overton Window is about to have its fifteen minutes of fame, as it is the title of Glenn Beck's new collection of words (to call it a novel is to condemn authors everywhere).

(Also, allow me to point out that there is no link to Beck's product on this blog; you'll have to search for the sordid tome yourself. No help here.)

Glenn Beck, a huckster, shill, and entertainer of a quality perhaps not seen since Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker left the public spectrum, is certainly a practitioner of the Overton Window within his audience - his polemics and phillipics make almost anything else seem reasonable.

The problem with Beck's use of the Overton Window is that the technique is only profitable if you're communicating to the full audience - in other words, it only works if his proposals and utterances are widely conveyed to the people who disagree with him. If a practitioner uses the Overton technique exclusively with the people who already agree with their agenda, all that results is increased polarization, radicalization, and fanaticism.

There's a reason we use "preaching to the choir" as a pejorative phrase.
  • It increases identification.
  • It suggests alignment.
  • It doesn't change the real-world situation.
  • It eventually turns the choir into militants and harridans.
Here's the problem, visually. You have a single population (the United States) drawn in red, and the Overton Window of acceptable public discourse shown in grey. The objective of the (marketer, consultant, propagandist) is to get the peak to skew to the right/left by delivering relatively extreme messages on that side of the spectrum, having the effect of making the desired change seem reasonable.

But if the (marketers, consultants, propagandists) of both sides only speak to their own consituency, the one population splits into two populations, which each skew according to their preferences. As the two distributions diverge, the average remains the same, and the Overton Window stays in place, but very few people are in it - most people move outside of the range of civic discourse.

It's wonderful that the Overton concept is going to gain awareness among the American public. It's awful that it's going to be explained to some by this hack's spin. The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, which carries on Joe Overton's work, is going to use the notoriety as an opportunity to improve the public's understanding of the concept.

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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