The Overton Window is a political science concept that articulates that politicians and policymakers are stuck in a constantly shifting paradigm of ideas. That is, reforms are firmly stuck in the realm of the possible. The Mackinac Centre, of which Joseph Overton was an executive, use prohibition as an example of something that was once in the realm of possibility but now, no politician would endorse making alcohol illegal as public opinion has shifted far too much on the issue. The Overton Window (‘the Window’) is a useful tool when analysing recent political debate. Once public mood has altered, the change that is possible on a political scale follows.
The Window represents public debate and as such can be moved by think tanks, the media, political actors, events, and crises. Consider for example the rise of Donald Trump in the United States. Ideas that were once considered as outside the mantra of public discourse were suddenly within the Overton Window. The concept of a permanent border wall between Mexico and the United States, or a travel ban on Muslim Countries were never ideas that a major political party could bring to a national election yet, as the public mood shifted, largely influenced by elements of the media, people like Tucker Carlson at Fox News (and Donald Trump himself), and the perceived crises of the migrant caravans moving north, such ideas began to take hold and became mainstream election issues. To further explore the Overton Window and the unique lens it provides on political issues, consider a thought experiment that is closer to home, the 1996 national debate in Australia around firearm control. A recently elected John Howard was faced with a crisis that shifted the national debate on firearms away from individual freedoms towards strong state control. Howard was sworn in as Prime Minister in March 1996 just a month before one of the worst massacres in Australia’s modern history transpired in Port Arthur, Tasmania where a lone gunman shot and killed 35 people and wounded a further 23. The event caused a seismic shift in public mood and moved the Overton Window despite a strong and vocal group of gun lobbyists and a spirited group of individuals from rural farming communities for which guns were an essential part of farming and farm culture. Twelve days after the events at Port Arthur the National Firearms Agreement (‘the Agreement’) was signed. The Agreement banned the sale of automatic and semi-automatic weapons, introduced strict licensing on firearms, brought forward a registry of firearms and for the first time in Australian history, a reason was required for purchasing a firearm, with self-defence not considered a valid justification. The government also bought back over 600,000 guns costing the taxpayer half a billion dollars.
There was vocal criticism to the reforms. While popular in cities the Agreement was deeply unpopular in regional Australia, the heartland of the National Party, the other half of the Liberal National Coalition that Howard led from 1996 to 2007. Some Coalition Members of Parliament (‘MPs’) received white feathers in the mail to signify cowardice and some MPs were sent white pieces of paper with a black spot in the centre. John Howard himself, when attending a gun control rally in the Victorian town of Sale was forced to wear a bulletproof vest, the only Australian Prime Minister to wear one on Australian soil. The then deputy Prime Minister, Tim Fisher had his effigy hanged from a noose in Gympie, Queensland for his support in the reform. Yet the reform passed parliament and remains in place to this day.
Despite the moves from minor parties in Australia trying to open the debate on firearm control there has been relatively little movement of the Overton Window on the matter. In fact, public sentiment is calling for a review of the legislation to make sure that the reforms are working to keep firearm ownership in the hands of those who need them and out of those who do not. The Agreement has become a flagship by which other countries can learn from and implement lasting firearm control (as exampled by FPL’s previous analysis ‘The lasting relevance of Australia’s National Firearms Agreement’).
The Overton Window works to define the public mood and show what reforms are in the realm of possibility. The Window is shifted by lobby groups, think tanks, members of the media, and events who pull the window towards areas of the national debate that were once considered untouchable. Moreover, it isn’t unique to progressive politics and can be responsible for conservative reform. In the end the Overton Window is an effective tool when looking at government and asking what can be done about an issue and if it can be changed.
Ross Dennis is a Policy Analyst at FPL Advisory.
FPL Advisory is a team of specialists resolving risks and creating opportunities with respect to government. We work with public sector and corporate clients to execute strategies for owning and managing change.