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Tag Archives | Overton Window

The reform train

The previous post explained the idea of Overton window. This post aims to understand the concept through the example of a push-pull locomotive. A Push-Pull train is one where locomotives at both ends of a train are used at the same time to move the train in one direction — both the locomotives are controlled by one pilot.

Push-pull train[1]

push pull

push-pull locomotive

 

Government reforms operate like the Pull- Pull model ie., locomotives on both sides are pulling the train apart in opposite directions. Both the directions are pulled by separate pilots, and the reform train stands still.  The train can be thought of as the Overton window whose motion is dependent on which side the force is stronger. The force required to pull the train on either side depends on what the societal majority prefers. Needless to say, like social change, reforms are slow and deliberate that take enormous effort and conviction.

pull pull

This analysis might lead us to make fatalistic conclusions. It is here that newspapers, opinion makers, social media et al play an important role in the moulding public opinion and thus help move the Overton Window. Which side the window moves depends on how public opinion is moulded, but it for certain that these elements are unconstrained by electoral calculations and therefore are critical; a politicians motto might be to win the elections, but a common man’s motto is to lead a happy and a prosperous life and this is only possible through an efficient government.

PS – The famous “push-pull” night train between Mysore and Bangalore takes 5.5hours to travel 140km.

PPS- The original Overton window was presented with a vertical alignment to avoid the “right”/”left” connotation. Although horizontally aligned, the author does not assume right/left connotations in the locomotive example.

[1] The image is taken from wikipedia

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The reality of political opposition

A politician’s first goal is to stay in power and staying in power requires winning consecutive elections – Varun Ramachandra (_quale)

Policy analysis through models and frameworks is useful because it holds the potential to distill complex ideas in a simple manner without stripping the essentials. Therefore, it makes sense to analyse why governmental level reforms are hard to achieve through these very models.  Usually, we trivialise the process of reforms at the governmental level, but reforms are complex processes  involving multiple stakeholders (including politicians and policy makers). Political realities, parties’ own political future, and a multiverse of public opinions are considered before taking a decision.

“Overton window” is one such model that helps us achieve the said objective. This concept was first developed by Joe Overton of the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. The Overton Window describes the realm of political acceptability within which politicians and policymakers operate. This realm (window) is determined by what politicians believe will win them their next election. As described by this introductory essay in Mackinac Center, “Policies inside the window are politically acceptable, meaning officeholders believe they can support the policies and survive the next election. Policies outside the window, either higher or lower, are politically unacceptable at the moment”

overton

(Figure shows the Overton Window– more freedom refers to less government intervention, less freedom refers to higher government intervention)

A politician’s first goal is to stay in power and staying in power requires winning consecutive elections. Therefore, policy changes occur only within this window of reality. The window moves if and only if the move has the potential to lead towards another electoral victory. It is often thought that politicians with enough credentials can move the window either side, however that is very rarely the case. History has shown us very few leaders who have expanded this window, but these leaders are exceptions that validate the general rule (of course, the analysis holds true only in case of democracies and not in an authoritarian setup).

The word reform in the modern context refers to improving existing conditions or practices, and therefore it surprises many of us when we see opposition parties opposing reforms that an existing government tries to bring about. It is also true that depending on a person’s political ideology, certain reforms may not be thought of as reforms at all. This conundrum leads us to conclude that opposition to reforms might stem from 2 sources

  • From those who assess that the “proposed” change is outside their own Overton Window, thereby not opposing it might lead to electoral failure.
  • From those who assess that the proposed change is well within the “Overton window” of the ruling party, thereby ensuring the continuity of the existing ruling party.

It is not unusual to hear the term “opposition for the sake opposition sake”, while this is true in the larger context, from a political party’s viewpoint the quote transforms itself into “opposition for the sake of winning the next election”.

Varun Ramachandra is a policy analyst at the Takshashila Institution, he tweets @_quale 

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