OPINION: The Overton Window — which way is it sliding?

Ross McDonnell is a junior journalism major at Kent State and is just starting his second semester of writing for The Kent Stater and KentWired.com. While his eventual career goal one day is to become a columnist, there really is no long and interesting story of how he got to that point. That being said, this is his introduction column, and, as a writer, it’s his job to make the whole process sound as interesting as possible without embellishment.

While at Tri-C, and in the process of choosing a future career, he was introduced to a teacher who told him that he was a good writer, and decided on a career in media. When picking a 4-year college, knowing he was planning on majoring in journalism, Kent State was the clear choice due to the convenience and the reputation it has for journalism.  

His first semester at Kent State was in the fall of 2020, and he joined student media halfway through that semester as a columnist at KentWired. While wanting experience as a reporter at some point in his collegiate career, opinion writing is his eventual career goal and tons of fun. He was surprised to learn that many of his topics were seen as controversial, and therefore, as he is unable to even recognize one when he writes about it, he supposes he doesn’t shy away from writing controversial columns at all. If you like social issues, politics and healthy debate, then you just might like reading his pieces at KentWired. He will respond to every email that he sees, even if you insult him or call him stupid — that won’t hurt his feelings at all; it means someone is reading his columns. He is not on social media, but if you leave a comment on social media, he is sure someone at the Stater will send him a text about it.

The “Overton Window” is a political term used to describe which policies are acceptable or not in the public eye. Most commonly, the phrase is uttered as part of debate or discussion on the policies of a country — generally the United States — as a whole, with the intention of demonstrating how public perceptions of certain issues have changed over time. Oftentimes, the intent behind using this phrase is to make the case that the views of the speaker have only recently become unpopular, or, alternately, to make the case that the views of the speaker should be made popular. That being said, the one thing about the Overton Window that nobody in America — or interested in American politics — can seem to agree on is which way the darn thing is actually sliding.

For example, this column, from Andrew Moody of The Gospel Coalition, as well as this one, from Maximillian Sandefer of The Indiana Daily Student, both make several valid points that show public perspectives sliding more towards what is colloquially referred to as being “left-wing.”  However, this article, from Politico’s Derek Robertson, seems to make good points in the opposite direction, claiming that the Overton Window is sliding further towards “right-wing” principles, and pointing out instances of such people making the Overton Window part of their political strategy. That being said, which way is the Overton Window actually moving? I would argue there is more than just one “Overton Window.” In my opinion, the public’s views on economic issues and its views on cultural or social issues are — probably for the better — not always aligned with each other, and how the “Overton Window” can be, and in my opinion is, moving in separate directions on economic and fiscal issues as opposed to social and cultural issues.

Firstly, economic and fiscal issues. In my opinion, the United States general public’s views on fiscal and economic issues have ultimately moved more to the conservative, also known as the “right-wing,” side over the past seventy years. Have there been some advancements towards the economic left in the past decade-plus? Yes. The passage of the Affordable Care Act and support for politicians such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are signs of public opinion on economic issues sliding left. However, a decade is a relatively short amount of time compared to the history of our nation, and in my opinion may signify the beginning of a trend, as opposed to a trend itself.

One of the most easily recognizable issues in American politics is that of federal income tax. Most people know that Republicans generally talk about lower income tax and Democrats talk about higher income tax, generally with a focus on higher-income individuals. Is it that simple? No, but I’m using the taxation example because it was one of the first major political issues where I personally was able to differentiate the common views held by both Republicans and Democrats, and I suspect it was the same for most of you. Ocasio-Cortez’s ideal tax rate for the top bracket is 70%. Is that radical? By today’s standards, some people would think it is, but that might be the product of an Overton Window shift. The Federal Individual Income Tax Rates History shows federal income tax brackets in the United States by year. In the 1950s, often thought of as a decade dominated by conservatism and “right-wing” principles, the top tax bracket was never lower than 91%.

Another economic policy-related issue that demonstrates the shift is the issue of healthcare. When the aforementioned Patient Protection & Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA) was proposed, no Republican voted for the bill, claiming it was too radical. Less than twenty years previously, however, Republicans in the Senate introduced this Health Equity and Access Reform Today Act of 1993, which is noted in the linked summary to be very similar to the ACA.

However, does all of this mean that all politics in the United States are moving towards “right-wing” principles? I would argue it does not. While Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts in the 1980s certainly slid the Overton Window to the conservative side in the economic arena, the social and cultural arena has trended much in the opposite direction. I know a fair amount of people will likely claim the Overton Window is not moving “left” on social or cultural issues. To use an example of statements made by friends of mine, American social politics have slid to the right, primarily because of the pro-life laws that have been passed since the Supreme Court decision of Roe v. Wade.

How do I claim that the United States’ Overton Window on social issues has slid left, given the aforementioned? It is, once again, all about the long-term. The Overton Window is, once again, about the acceptability of policies in the eye of the public. Roe v. Wade, which was decided less than 50 years ago, was a major turning point in public opinion on the abortion issue. (Side note: Does policy sometimes affect public opinion as much as public opinion affects policy?) However, the overarching point remains the same. For nearly 200 years after the foundation of America, abortion was largely considered unthinkable, but within the past half-century, that policy shifted sharply towards what we consider to be “left-wing.” Whether for better or for worse is not the point of this article.

Does the fact that I believe the American economic and fiscal Overton Window is — ultimately — sliding right have any bearing on whether fiscal conservatism is “good” or “bad”? In my opinion, it does not. Does the fact that I believe the American social and cultural Overton Window is sliding to the left have any bearing on whether social liberalism is “good” or “bad”? In my opinion, it does not. What this column should do is give anyone reading it a historical perspective on the political events of the day. Oftentimes, many people — regardless of their political views — are quick to brand unliked ideas as “radical.” While people may think of such talking points as winning strategies in arguments, it can also be misleading and detrimental to people who are attempting in earnest to learn about new ideas with an open mind.

Ross McDonnell is an opinion writer. Contact him at [email protected]