Minding the Overton Door

It’s often said that public advocacy of radical reform, such as that of ‘open borders’, is good because it can create space for public advocacy of less radical reform. In smartypants terms, the advocate for radical reform is thought to serve the purpose of opening wider the “Overton window,” which contains the range of policy ideas deemed currently reasonable or acceptable.

I’m not aware, though, that any hip jargon exists for conveying the following possible downside of advocating radical reform: When one steps out to advocate a very radical reform, any ensuing public debate will necessarily pit many supporters of incremental reform against the advocates of radical reform. And it seems very plausible that such a debate, in which the radical reform is soundly rejected, might displace a debate over an incremental reform. And what if the would-have-been debate over incremental reform could have been won by the pro-reform side? The initial advocacy of radical reform might then be interpreted as a counterproductive distraction.

Certainly, whatever it is that is displaced by radical advocacy in a given situation might not be a healthy and winnable debate over incremental reform. The point here is not to dispute that radical advocacy can sometimes valuably open a window, but to say it ideally would be wielded carefully enough so that shifting air pressure ‘in the room’ does not cause a good door to shut.

DoorsClosing

One thought on “Minding the Overton Door

  1. This would be the argument that, for example, Donald Trump’s anti immigration nonsense, by being extreme, may be shifting the Overton Window in Republican Party primaries but is also actually causing non-Republicans, both Democrats and Independents, to move away from moderate immigration restrictionism.

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