The Overton Window Defines What's Politically Acceptable

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If you've ever felt like politicians and the laws they pass are constantly a few years behind society as a whole, there's a reason. Policy expert Joseph Overton once observed that political change almost always follows social change, since politicians will only back policies they think will help them survive the next election. The range of policies that politicians consider acceptable -- those that won't anger their constituents -- is known as the Overton Window. The Overton Window has shifted many times throughout history, sometimes quickly, but more often gradually, and almost always via the people, not lawmakers. Prohibition, for example, began in the US as a social movement driven by a wave of religious revivalism in the early 1800s, but the constitutional amendment banning alcohol wasn't passed until 1919. The Great Depression hit soon after, and society's ideas shifted again, leading to its repeal a little over 10 years later. Today, most Americans couldn't imagine, much less vote for, a politician in favor of banning all alcohol. Similar stories can be told of civil rights, education, healthcare, and environmental policy. The common thread running through each is that it's the people, not the politicians, who create change.

Martin Luther King, Jr. at a Civil Rights March on Washington, D.C.

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