The Overton Window

Jumping Out the Overton Window

Have you ever heard of the Overton Window? It’s not a place where any little rays of sunlight pass, lighting things up. Instead, it’s a common political ploy that America’s political parties routinely use to get what they want.

In essence, it involves showing how your position on an issue falls within the range of acceptable opinion. If you happen to have a radical opinion that falls outside the window, you work on moving the range of opinion so that your position – even if extreme – can be considered somewhat acceptable. It’s one of the older bargaining methods in existence, as highlighted by a recent personal experience of mine.

I live in one of the most ethnically diverse communities in the states, a small college town called Ann Arbor. Not long ago, I was meeting with some associates of mine, and we had an interesting mix of nationalities present. There was an Indian fellow, a Jewish fellow, an Iraqi fellow, a Chinese fellow, and me, the “token white guy,” as we joked. We had some fun kidding each other about which culture stereotypically bargains the hardest. The joking centered on the probably ancient “I say a hundred, he says fifty, I say seventy five” method of haggling. I won’t tell you who we agreed says “twenty” when you say “a hundred,” but we did agree white guys were the worst, because no matter what they say, they won’t shake on it, and have a lawyer standing behind them with a pile of documents.

In any case, this method of negotiating can be very effective when not stretched to the point of insanity, as often happens in politics. It helps keep prices down, for instance, and can generally be a sort of inverted compromise, where it’s the OTHER person who is doing the compromising. But compromise is always good, right? Especially when you ask your spouse for a hundred bucks so you can go get a massage, but quickly add “but I’d be just as happy with a shoulder rub,” which moments before would have seemed like a big demand. I guess some people call it the “Overton Window” because that sounds so much nicer than the “door in the face” technique!