The "Overton window" is the name for the idea that there is an acceptable range of ideas in public discourse.

Since the mid-eighteenth century, there has been a trend for the "Overton window" to move "leftward". Many ideas that used to be conservative, conventional wisdom are now "unacceptable" for political figures to express. Many ideas that used to be radical challenges to the accepted order are now part of the accepted order. Some ideas have moved from being radically left-wing to standard to radically right-wing.

Is it possible for the Overton window to split? Are there historical examples of a society with a single range of acceptable ideas becoming a society where there is a range of "leftist" ideas (that are acceptable to leftists), and a range of "rightist" ideas (that are acceptable to rightists), but in-between ideas are unacceptable in political discourse?

Please feel free to provide examples that use faction names that do not fall on a "left-right" spectrum.

  • The foundations of Bolshevism and National Socialism were the results of a vacuum of the center and the radicalization of the fringe. – hownowbrowncow Jan 26 '17 at 21:24
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    @hownowbrowncow -- Can you be more specific about what ideas were in the excluded middle? My understanding is that International Socialism and National Socialism were similar variants of Socialism, with the most important difference (before the German invasion of the Soviet Union) being that the International Socialists took orders from Moscow, whereas the National Socialists did not. The Road to Serfdom discusses the conflicts between the three major socialist factions in Germany between World War I and World War II. – Jasper Jan 26 '17 at 21:32
  • Arguably, modern US (or likely Europe) has numerous examples. But this gets stuck in semantics morass really quick. – user4012 Jan 27 '17 at 12:26
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    @Jasper you're disregarding your own dichotomy if you think the nationalists and internationalists were on the same side of the overton window when you only consider a small part of the economic model of anti-capitalism. – hownowbrowncow Jan 27 '17 at 14:54
  • There is a counter cyclical trend in Israel than what you describe: it's become more conservative over time. It basically started out almost completely as socialists from Russia living on Yeshivas. Now, well not so much. – user9790 Jan 28 '17 at 12:32

Well, I believe that some splitting of the window happens quite frequently, but leads to a very unstable situation which doesn't last long, often because one side is crushed (ideologically, politically, or militarily) by the other. Perhaps we are living one such situation right now in the US, but hopefully it will heal quickly and without violence.

An example of such a splitting that lasted a relatively long time was perhaps the splitting between Christians and Pagans in the Roman empire in the (end of the) first, second and third centuries (AD, of course). It is not only that Christians had a different religion than other Romans, but that they have a set of values and acceptable ideas and behaviors, that were completely anathema to the pagans, and conversely. For example, for a pagan of the empire, it was important, whatever the gods and mixtures of religion you adopted, to be respectful and tolerant of the gods of others -- for instance, when you were traveling through the empire, to pay a respectuous visit to all the temples on your ways, and even to offer a sacrifice if you were well-off. For a Christian, doing that was unacceptable, and many Christians who did to secure for instance their position or career or relations in the empire were ostracized by their own community. For a pagan, also, dying on the cross was the ultimate infamy, the definitive proof that you were a criminal lowlife, while for Christians, it became a source of pride. We could multiply such examples, Nietszche has pages and pages on how the values of the Christian and those of the Romans (especially the Roman aristocracy) were diametrically opposed.

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