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.

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