Making the Case for Wedge Issues

Conan O’Brien recently tweeted: “Well, I’ve officially lived a long life because people are excited Germany is rearming.” I had a similar feeling recently listening to the FiveThirtyEight politics podcast that discussed “wedge issues.” The conversation between the host, Galen Druke, and two prominent political scientists was illuminating, but the most remarkable thing was what they didn’t say. No one denounced wedge issues.

Growing up politically in the 1980s and 1990s, I was always told that wedge issues were bad, because they were “divisive.” Lee Atwater, the bare-knuckled GOP operative, popularized the term as part of Ronald Reagan’s 1984 campaign. He argued that Republicans should “drive a wedge” between the national Democratic Party, dominated by liberals, and “traditional Southern Democrats.”

For decades, wedge issues were associated with race and other fraught cultural issues that typically divided Democrats, surely one reason why so many liberals hated them: they peeled off members of the FDR coalition. In fairness, the bad odor also stemmed from perceived demagoguery. The late Sen. Jesse Helms of North Carolina, for instance, was a demonic figure to many because he was very effective at tapping into the politics of white resentment to pull traditional Democrats rightward.

But now it seems the odor has dissipated, at least among political scientists and operatives. Sure, there are still some ugly wedges, but wedge issues as a generic category or tool are now recognized for what they always were: normal politics. A general definition of a wedge issue is simply any position that divides an opposing party while largely uniting your own. Politicians often talk about “70-30 issues,” i.e. issues where there’s a clear majority. Logic alone dictates that if seven out of 10 Americans are on one side of an issue, it will divide one party, since neither party has close to 70 percent support.

Education long served as something of a wedge for Democrats because most voters thought Democrats were better on it. But, as Glenn Youngkin’s successful race for Virginia governor last year showed, that’s no longer the case. The resentment over pandemic policies, combined with the fears of critical race theory, served to push many Democrats and Biden-voting independents to vote Republican. At least for now.

As discussed on the FiveThirtyEight podcast, wedge issues have a tendency to swing back and forth across the political spectrum. Opposition to gay marriage was decisive for George W. Bush’s reelection in 2004, but it would be a loser for any Republican now.

What’s interesting about today’s politics is how both parties have a hard time responding to wedge issues. Because they are dominated by their bases—and the base’s stranglehold on primaries—conceding that their political opponents have a point is cast as surrender to the enemy.

Part of Bill Clinton’s brilliance as a politician was his ability to turn wedge issues to his advantage by migrating toward the 70 percent position whenever possible. Clinton recognized that welfare and affirmative action were very effective wedge issues to be used by Republicans. Rather than concede Republican framing of the issues, he coopted them.

He acknowledged, at least rhetorically, that there were problems with the status quo and proposed reforms that satisfied the moderates and independents. He endorsed welfare reforms that emphasized work and offered a “hand up, not a handout.” On affirmative action he proposed “a mend it, don’t end it” approach. His base hated it as much as the GOP base did, but neither had any place to go.

To his credit, Joe Biden did something similar with “defund the police,” a radical idea popular only with a tiny fringe of his party. In his State of the Union speech, he said the answer to our crime problems and our police problems is to fund training to address problems. But mostly, Biden has been incapable of building on that example, which helps to explain why his approval rating is far closer to 30 percent than 70 percent.

The GOP, meanwhile, is struggling with a particularly peculiar wedge issue: Donald Trump. Trump divides the right while uniting the non-right, which is why Democrats are more eager to talk about him than Republicans are.

Regardless, the great irony is that despite decades of talk about how wedge issues fuel polarization, they are, in fact, a key to curbing it because they illuminate areas where a majority of Americans can find common ground. And they remind parties that they shouldn’t take the voters who matter most—the persuadable ones—for granted.

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