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How do ideas that were once unthinkable become accepted policy?

In this conversation with Royalty Exchange cofounder Gary Young, we discuss the Overton window — the range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream population at a given time — and what it means for entrepreneurs.

The concept, named after Joseph P. Overton, frames the range of policies that a politician can recommend without appearing too extreme in order to gain (or keep) public office, given the climate of public opinion at that time. 

The concept offers a helpful way for entrepreneurs to think about their own individual biases and the ideas that shape their daily reality. Many of these can be self-limiting, so it’s helpful to examine them.

I outline four ways Overton windows change over history:

1) Crisis mover (9/11, Covid-19).

2) Gradual persuasion (same-sex marriage, decriminalizing drugs).

3) Charismatic salesman (MLK with civil rights, Ronald Reagan with taxes).

4) Provocateur (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Tucker Max, Malcolm X).

Gary adds a fifth way: 

5) A shift in media technology that allows people to observe variances in different people’s Overton windows (talk radio, social media).

Our advice:

  • Know what boundaries you’re operating within. Test where they are and see if they’re useful. 
  • Don’t be an agent of the Overton window, by shaming and guilting people for their thoughts and actions. Independent thinking will help get you out of an Overton window.
  • Be an anti-agent: Speak the truth (see “The Turkey Problem” episode) and plant seeds in people’s heads.

Resources

What You Can’t Say,” by Paul Graham

The Turkey Problem” (previous SmithSense episode)

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