The Overton Window & Energy Policy

by Deborah Lagutaris

July 2008

I went to an Energy Policy Platform meeting today. People were discussing the development of a national policy, much like the “Go to the Moon” initiative originally pressed by JFK in the 1960s, to lessen our dependence on carbon-based fuels. Such a national policy already exists, developed by the Apollo Alliance and similar organizations.

I took the discussion beyond that point. I stated that in order to accomplish such a mammoth goal, it might be necessary to nationalize the oil companies. Realistically, this step must be taken. Oil companies are oil *pushers.* This step is politically distasteful, and I got a range of reactions to my comment. The reaction was meaningless to me. I was merely opening the range of discussion. What I said today, although abhorrent to some in my audience, is a seed planted.

Political and economic changes do not occur because people ask for exactly what they want. These changes occur because people ask for their ideal and press for it, in the streets. Then, the ruling class gives people something that provides the illusion that they might get what they want, someday, if they will just go home.

This is an example of the Overton Window in action. The Overton Window concept holds a narrow range of possibilities can be expanded…that people should demand MUCH MORE than they want, in order to move the discussion closer to the ideal.

“In addition to being dependent on the ideas that form the boundaries of the political climate, politicians are also known to be self-interested and desirous of obtaining the best political result for themselves.[2] Therefore, they will almost always constrain themselves to taking actions within the “window” of ideas approved of by the electorate. Actions outside of this window, while theoretically possible, and maybe more optimal in terms of sound policy, are politically unsuccessful. Even if a few legislators were willing to stick out their necks for an action outside the window, most would not risk the disfavor of their constituents. They may seek the good of those who elected them, and even the good of the state or nation as a whole, but in pursuing the course they think is best, most will certainly take into account their political future. This is the heart of the Overton window theory.

“So, if a think tank’s research and the principles of sound policy suggest a particular idea that lies outside the Overton window, what is to be done? Shift the window. Since commonly held ideas, attitudes and presumptions frame what is politically possible and create the “window,” a change in the opinions held by politicians and the people in general will shift it. Move the window of what is politically possible and those policies previously impractical can become the next great popular and legislative rage.”

Example: The Depression. The Depression led to misery and death worldwide. Let’s stick the U$A as an example. Revolution threatened. So, what did the “smart conservatives” like FDR do? They implemented programs that helped WHITE MEN only, like the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). Then, those programs were dismantled in favor of the WWII war economy, never to return. What the people wanted was a way to earn a living doing dignified and fulfilling work in their home towns. They got nothing like that.

Example: The Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement demanded not only equal opportunity, but such things as a guaranteed job! Gasp! What, they didn’t want welfare? No! All they wanted was a guaranteed job, the ability to work to take care of their families. What they got instead after 200 years of pain, misery, poverty, and death, was the Voting Rights Act and the Civil Rights Act. These Acts provided those who suffered from discrimination not what they asked for, but the illusion that they might be able to achieve their goals. Problem: you had to sue and win and enforce a judgment. Result, not even close to what justice and compassion demanded.

The Overton Window was not shifted far enough. It’s time to start asking for WAY more than we think is possible.

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