Wedge Issue

Abortion Debate by Richard McGuire

A wedge issue is a social issue, often of a divisive or controversial nature, which splits apart a population or political group. Wedge issues can be advertised or publicly aired in an attempt to weaken the unity of a population; with the goal of enticing polarized individuals to give support to an opponent. The use of wedge issues gives rise to wedge politics. Wedge issues are also known as ‘hot button’ or ‘third rail’ issues.

Political campaigns use wedge issues to exploit tension within a targeted population. A wedge issue may often be a point of internal dissent within an opposing party, which that party attempts to suppress or ignore discussing because it divides ‘the base.’ Typically, wedge issues have a cultural or populist theme, relating to matters such as crime, national security, sexuality (e.g. gay marriage), or race. A party may introduce a wedge issue to an opposing population, while aligning itself with the dissenting faction of the opposition.

A wedge issue, when introduced, is intended to bring about such things as: A debate, often vitriolic, within the opposing party, giving the public a perception of disarray; The defection of supporters of the opposing party’s minority faction to the other party (or independent parties) if they lose the debate; and  The legitimization of sentiment which, while perhaps popularly held, is usually considered inappropriate or politically incorrect; criticisms from the opposition then make it appear beholden to special interests or fringe ideology. In an extreme case, a wedge issue might contribute to the actual fracture of the opposing party as another party spins off, taking voters with it. To prevent these three consequences from occurring, the opposing party may attempt to take a ‘pragmatic’ stand and officially endorse the views of its minority faction. However, this can lead to the defection of supporters of the opposing party’s majority faction to a third party, should they lose the debate.

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been accused of using social issues as wedge issues to divide the opposing voting base. For example, some Republican strategists have hoped that African Americans, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, yet also one that possesses some of the most conservative views on matters of homosexuality, may be more inclined to vote for the Republican Party because of their opposition to gay marriage. Likewise, Democratic strategists have hoped that the issue of stem cell research could be used as a wedge issue against the right, since some Republicans support the research while others are morally opposed to the use of embryonic cells in research. The well known mantra “God, guns and gays” typifies Republican wedge strategy crafted along other famous wedge issues beginning in the Nixon era which aided winning the South from the Democrats.

Reform of the laws regarding illegal immigration to the United States operated as a wedge issue in 2007. Some Republican legislators, with the backing of President George W. Bush, sought to address the dual issues of ongoing illegal immigration to the United States and the illegal status of an estimated 12 million people currently living in America. Other Republicans bitterly opposed any ‘amnesty’ for illegal immigrants, out of fear that their constituents were unsupportive of immigration reform. Some Democrats pitched in to keep the issue alive as they recognized the issue was deeply dividing the Republican party between advocates of reform and advocates of the status quo. The result was a bitter division in Republican ranks and a stalled bill in Congress; columnist Peggy Noonan wrote in 2008 that President Bush had ‘destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other,’ by pushing immigration reform, as well as other wedge issues for the Republicans.

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