How the elites lost their grip

ON MARCH 29, 2003, AT A WEDDING RECEPTION IN THE HARVARD FACULTY Club, Lawrence W. Reed gave a toast in honor of the friend whom he was serving as best man—one Joseph P. Overton. Overton had worked at Dow Chemical; he had since become an executive at a free-market, small-government think tank in central Michigan. Among his duties at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy was raising money, and in doing so, he had made a brochure that would become his legacy. Overton was trying to describe the role of think tanks in a society, and he posited an idea that would come to be called the Overton window. In a given society, at a given moment, there is a range of policies politically acceptable to the mainstream. (A 70% top tax rate and a 20% top tax rate are both within this window in America today; abolishing taxes is not.) Generally, the theory went, politicians will only propose ideas that fall within the window. It falls to think tanks (and others) to propose unpopular things outside of the window in the hope of shifting the window and making the previously unthinkable achievable. Overton was an ardent libertarian who pushed ideas like school choice—and, according to Reed’s wedding toast, he had on occasion resorted to more extreme methods of moving the window of the possible, “including the time,” Reed recounted that day, “we flew in a Cessna 172 in broad daylight at treetop level 150 miles into war-torn Mozambique to assist armed rebels fighting the Marxist regime there.” Overton died just weeks after his wedding.

Were Overton still alive, he would be pushing 60—and might be aghast to learn that his “window,” having become famous after his death, is now invoked to describe America’s great, unlikely backlash against the system he defended so ardently: capitalism.

A democratic socialist—Bernie Sanders—is among the top contenders to be the next Democratic nominee for U.S. President. His rival and fellow Senator, Elizabeth Warren, is also among the

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