After I published my "Is Putin Dead?" story here, I got a couple of inquiries from people asking what Overton Window is and how it works. Here is a good illustration from our recent political history:
Candidate Trump: "When I am president, we will ban all Muslims coming to the US because all Muslims are terrorists who are bent on destroying our country. Remember 9/11?"
American public: "This is ridiculous. You cannot ban entry for people seeking refuge in the country that was built by immigrants. It's also a violation of basic human right to freedom of movement."
Candidate Trump: "We'll see."
President Trump: "As I promised, the first order of business is protecting the nation from foreign terrorist entering the United States. We will ban entry for all Muslims who are abusing the US refugee resettlement program."
The public, advocacy groups and lawyers: "You cannot do this! This is unconstitutional and discriminatory toward a large swath of people, using religion as a tool for discrimination, against those seeking protection from oppressive regimes."
President Trump: "Well, then we will ban the entry for at least seven Muslim-majority countries that we know most terrorists are coming from."
The public: "Well, at least it's not an all-out Muslim ban, we can live with it even though it’s still a violation of human rights and our own laws."
As a result, Trump issued the Executive Order 13769 on January 27, 2017 that was dubbed as the "Muslim travel ban." It was somewhat reformulated after the large national protests and airport rescues but it was reconfirmed by the majority-right Supreme Court and stood until Biden rescinded it as the first order of business when he was elected in January 2021.
This policy change is a good illustration of how someone (in this case, Trump) proposes such a radical and outlandish idea what when it gets pushed back people feel relieved and allow for the policy to be changed in the desired direction by the initial policy actor without realizing that they lost a lot of ground in conceding to that seemingly smaller step, which in many cases is the initial intent of the policy actor all along. Imagine Trump coming out with, "We'll ban entry for people from seven majority-Muslim countries" as the first policy proposal. It would have been rejected and pushed back, but because it is seen as a small concession compared to the all-out Muslim ban it was seen as acceptable.
And this is a good example of Overton Window at work: you move the frame of the policy issue so far on your ideological end of the spectrum that when you get an inevitable push back you do not return to the original position but move a little toward your desired outcome as a result of the concession. If you do that often enough and push the same policy change creatively from a different angle, you can move on the ideological spectrum further and further from the center to your desired goal and make what was thought of as unthinkable, ridiculous and completely unacceptable more acceptable with every step.
Overton Window as a technique was developed by Josheph Overton, an American policy analyst who worked with NGOs and advocacy groups on the ways to promote new ideas that would improve public policy. It is important to remember that it was designed by Overton as a benevolent tactic to improve conversations and outcomes in public policy. It was later hijacked by the nefarious actors such as Putin and other authoritarian leaders as a way to move people closer to their radical and sometimes outright fascist positions. You can move the Overton Window on both the left and the right ends of the political spectrum, as evidenced by the right-wing rejection and criticism of "wokeism."
In essence, Overton Window is a variation of the marketing "Door-in-the-face" persuasion technique that can be summarized as "Ask for much more than you need and in the end you may receive exactly what you needed in the first place." If you would like to learn more about door-in-the-face technique, I wrote about it some time ago here: