The Overton Window is a tactic to manipulate social opinion by reframing the issue: “put a false extreme at both ends to make the choices in the middle look more moderate by comparison” (page 146).
We use this tactic without even thinking about it at car dealerships, during online auctions, and for business contracts, but we call it negotiation or compromise. Here’s a harmless everyday example: if my son wants to go to sleep at 10 pm, and I am willing to let him stay up until 9 pm, I can suggest a 8 pm bedtime. Suddenly, 9 pm looks pretty good. Or, used against me, but still relatively harmless: if my spouse wants to buy a $1,000 TV, but I think $700 is more reasonable, they might suggest a $1,500 TV. Suddenly, $1,000 is a compromise.
But what happens when the choices are more serious and one side has more power than the other?
In “The Overton Window” (2010), a political thriller by Glenn Beck, Noah Gardner, son of ruthless public relations visionary Arthur Gardner, meets activist Molly Ross and falls in love. His heart leads him to a Founders Keepers rally, a secret agenda to consolidate wealth and power among the elite. Meanwhile in Nevada, undercover FBI agent Stuart Kearns and blogger activist Danny Bailey set up a sting operation to catch homegrown terrorists – but get caught up in a sting themselves.
The plot is a little awkward and the characters are flat – we don’t really know what motivates them. Noah is an odd protagonist – educated and intelligent, but passive, detached, and without convictions. We are sometimes like Noah, indifferent to manipulation, nonjudgmental where we should take a moral stand.
The central conflict in the book is whether the people or whether a select group are best capable of deciding our future. “Our founding documents established this new form of government to protect us from the sickness that has destroyed freedom since the dawn of civilization: the inevitable rise of tyranny from the greed and gluttony of a ruling class” (page 62), argues constitutionalist Beverly Ross. “The American experiment has failed, and now it’s time for the next one to begin. One world, one government – not of the people this time, but of the right people, the competent, the wise, and the strong” (page 211), argues power-broker Arthur Gardner.
The novel is about the defining moments in your life; how our ideas of what is “normal” can be manipulated; the compromises we make to our freedoms – for better security, for better government, for economic stability; and social change as evolution vs. revolution – not by changing opinions, but by changing the truth.
“The Overton Window” is thought-provoking and grim; don’t dismiss it because it is a conspiracy theory. Instead, think about the choices that government offers us: for example, the choices we were given in airports used to be x-rays vs. full-body scans; it has become full-body scans vs. intrusive pat-downs.
Are there any ‘false extremes’ in our lives? How can we present our own choices back to our government – and marketing executives?