- Wedge issue
A wedge issue is a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a "wedge" in the support base of one political group. Wedge issues can be advertised, publicly aired, and otherwise emphasized by an opposing political group, in an attempt to weaken the unity of the divided group, or to entice voters in the divided group to give their support to the opposing group. The use of wedge issues gives rise to wedge politics.
Political parties are usually fairly diverse groups though they will always try to project a united front. A wedge issue may often be a point of internal dissent within the opposing party, which that party tries to suppress or ignore talking about because it divides "the base." Such issues are typically a cultural or populist issue, relating to matters such as
crime, national security, sexuality (e.g. gay marriage), or race. Another party may exploit this dissent by publicly supporting the issue, and in effect align itself with the dissenting faction of the opposing party. A wedge issue, when wielded against another party, 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.
* The legitimising 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.
Wedge politics in Australia: the Tampa incident
In Australia, "wedge politics" may sometimes be known as dog whistle politics, due to the practice of selective targeting so that only certain people will hear the message being pitched.Fact|date=January 2008
A case study of the use of wedge issues in practice comes from the
2001federal election campaign in Australia. In early and mid-2001, a great deal of public attention was focused on boat people(asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised vessels), there having been several widely publicised landings of hundreds of people. On August 24 2001, a ship illegally bearing 460 such people became distressed, and its passengers were picked up by the Norwegian cargo vessel MV Tampa.
Liberal Party of Australiatook the opportunity to appear tough on asylum seekers. The opposition Australian Labor Party(ALP) had a slight majority of people strongly favouring more sympathetic treatment, and was hence perceived as internally split. This provoked a fierce debate within the ALP on the relative merits of siding with national opinion (in favour of the Government's actions) or standing on party principle (opposing). But with over 90% of some television polls supporting the government's stance, the leader of the ALP Kim Beazleychose to silence the majority and agree to the tougher policy--though it ended up opposing certain elements of proposed legislation, which the Liberal Party blasted as "weak on border security".
The damage was done, with the party appearing inconsistent and divided. The Liberal Party campaigned largely on a platform of border security and increased its support at the federal election that November despite being the
incumbent. Some who would typically vote Labor voted instead for the Greens and the Democrats in protest against what they saw as the ALP's complicity.
It later emerged that the controversial campaign strategists
Lynton Crosbyand Mark Textorhad an active role in making the Tampa incident a wedge issue for Howard to exploit. [http://www.nzherald.co.nz/index.cfm?objectid=10519252]
Wedge politics in the United States
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.
Reform of the laws regarding
illegal immigration to the United Statesoperated 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 Noonanwrote in January 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.
Wedge politics in Canada
Social issues are often used as wedge issues in Canada in a very similar manner to how they are used in the United States. The Conservative Party has often brought up gay marriage because it is a matter of internal dissent in the opposing Liberal Party. The Conservatives have demanded
free votes in the parliament on gay marriage and other social issues, as such votes may illustrate the divided nature of the Liberal caucus on such matters.
The Liberal Party, in turn, has frequently raised
bilingualismand multiculturalismas issues that divide the Conservative Party base. Much of the Conservative Party's western base, in Albertaand British Columbiaare not strongly supportive of such policies, though officially the CPC remains in favor.
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