The Joe Overton Window

by John J. Miller

A lot of think thanks are happy if a few thousand people read their publications. The Mackinac Center, a free-market outfit in Michigan, soon will have hundreds of thousands of readers. That’s because the title of Glenn Beck’s new thriller The Overton Window was inspired by a member of its staff.

Joe Overton died seven years ago in a plane crash. Those of us who knew Joe, as I did slightly, were startled and shaken by the news. He was only 43. (I posted a short item about it on The Corner–go here and scroll down to 5:05 pm on July 1, 2003.)

Joe used to talk about “the window of political possibility.” Simply put, it’s a model for thinking about how public policy changes. After Joe died, his former colleagues at the Mackinac Center continued to promote this concept, but they started to call it the “Overton Window.” At some point, the Overton Window began to generate interest among left-wing bloggers who saw it as a conservative tool for manipulating public opinion through the media, even though it’s really a value-neutral concept.

Beck’s novel apparently refers to a “think tank in the Midwest” but doesn’t name the Mackinac Center until an afterword. I haven’t seen the book. My information comes from Joe Lehman, the Mackinac Center’s president, who recently taped a few radio and television segments with Beck. “It’s amazing how Joe Overton’s idea has found itself smack dab in the middle of popular culture,” says Lehman.

The Mackinac Center–a leading member of a free-market think-tank network that I wrote about for NR–recently set up a special website on the Overton Window. It offers detailed information about the idea and the man who originated it. It also lets the Mackinac Center take advantage of a unique opportunity. Glenn Beck recently put The Road to Serfdom by F.A. Hayek at the top of the bestseller list. The Michigan School Privatization Survey probably won’t repeat this success, but the Mackinac Center is about to become the world’s most famous “think tank in the Midwest.”

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