Overton Window

The Overton Window

Like many peacebuilders, I got into this line of work because of my opposition to aspects of American foreign policy. In my student days, it was the war in Vietnam. Since then, I can’t say that there has been a lot I’ve liked about American foreign policy either. However, as I sit back and add (to me) a new concept to the way I think about this or any other policy subject, I find that my conclusions are more nuanced. We have made more progress than many of us are inclined to admit.

And as we try to show our critics and our funders that we have made a difference, the Overton Window should be part of that discussion.

The new concept comes from an unusual source. Joseph Overton was never more than a marginal player in libertarian circles. Overton Window (1960–2003) was the little-known vice president of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy when he was tragically killed when he ultralight aircraft crashed.

He has since gained a bit of notoriety for one idea, the Overton Window. But it is stunningly important.

As the diagram suggests, ideas which might seem outside the pale one day can be acceptable the next. Overton (and how the people he inspired) suggested that our challenge is less to get senior policy makers to change their points of view but to expand what the general public finds acceptable.

Then, and only then, Overton suggested, would political leaders follow.

I’m not convinced that today’s interpretations of Overton’s idea are completely accurate. After all, there are plenty of instances of political leaders placing themselves dangerously ahead of the curve as moderate Republicans did on civil rights legislation sixty years ago or Senator William Fulbright did on Vietnam a decade later.

There is little doubt, however, that his basic idea often makes sense. We’ve seen this most clearly in recent years with the dramatic and rapid shift in public support for gays serving in the military and same sex marriage. In both cases, the Overton window moved which made policy change possible.

And Foreign Policy

At a time when our national leaders are as bellicose as they are, it is hard to argue that we have made the Overton window move much in recent years. However, as I look back on the half century I’ve been a peacebuilder or the nearly twenty years since 9/11 it is safe to say that it has moved. Here are four examples. In some cases, the “window” moved because elites changed first; at other times, they followed public opinion. However, in each case, the center of gravity as far as these issues has changed in directions peacebuilders should be happy with. Not with the pace of change. Just the direction.

  • Afghanistan and Iraq. When those wars began nearly twenty years ago, plenty of respected analysts thought that they could and would be won by military means alone. Now, a number of things have changed, including the public perception that we cannot win these wars and that it is time to end them. We don’t agree on how to do that, but the Overton Window has certainly shifted.
  • Countering Violent Extremism. You could say the same thing about violent extremism which is the code word that replaced the Global War on Terrorism from the George W. Bush’s administration. Again, there is no agreement on the best way(s) forward, but the limited public opinion polling suggests that most Americans understand that we have to address some valid concerns about how our policies themselves contributed to the extremism of the first two decades of this century.
  • What soldiers learn. There is no better example of how much one version of the Overton Window has shifted than the curricula used in military schoolhouses. Of course, the next generation of soldiers still learns how to fire weapons and they still read Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. However, they also learn about alternatives to war, including Department of Defense Directive 3000.05 which gave conflict prevention and post-conflict reconstruction the same importance as combat operations. The service academies all have courses that deal with peacebuilding. Later this week, I’m going to Quantico to help train some Marine civil affairs personnel who are about to be deployed so that they know what NGOs are like before they encounter us in the field. And, the guy who invited me spent a dozen years in the Marines himself during which time he got a Masters degree in international relations and conflict resolution from the American University University.
  • Realism itself. Last but by no means least, the Overton Window has shifted among international relations scholars. Even diehard realists of a decade ago now include soft power, the importance of ideas, and cultural norms in their writings. Academic international relations is still too grounded in traditional power politics for my liking, but recent books by the likes of Michael Kagan and John Measheimer suggest that this world is changing, too

As we build a case for peacebuilding and its effectiveness, we would do well to emphasize how much the Overton windows of our lives have moved and how much we’ve had to do with moving them.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Alliance for Peacebuilding or its members.


Originally published at Chip Hauss.