The Birth of the Left-Wing Wedge Issue
How Dems can peel off GOP voters via a tried and true right-wing tactic.
Here’s a little datum that may have slid by you: Gallup has just found that on social issues, the country is now equally split between liberals and conservatives. The question was: “Thinking about social issues, would you say your views are” very conservative, conservative, liberal, or very liberal?
And the answer came back: Grouping the first two into one category and the last two into another, it was a dead heat at 31 percent each. This is pretty close to seismic. Just five years ago, the conservative edge on social issues was 39 to 22 percent. Now it’s totally wiped out. The implications for our electoral politics are obvious and enormous, and I mean good-enormous.
I’m not sure when people started using the phrase “wedge issue.” But we’re all sure what wedge issues are: They’re cultural politics issues used in elections by the right—and always only the right—to drive a wedge into the liberal coalition. Nixon did it expertly, even though the phrase wasn’t in use back then. Reagan did it well, cleaving so many working-class white ethnics away from the Democratic Party. George H.W. Bush and Jim Baker did it—remember Willie Horton (race was the original wedge issue). And Bush the younger and Karl Rove expanded it out to include guns and gays.
And now, Gallup is suggesting to us, the era of the wedge issue may be over.
But wait! Why should it be over? Maybe it’s time for some liberal wedge issues! I like the sound of that a lot.
Gay marriage was a great wedge issue for Dubya and Rove in 2004, as you’ll recall. They got anti-gay marriage initiatives on the ballot in 11 states, many of them key swing states; studies have tended to find that in Ohio, which Bush carried and which was the difference between victory and defeat in the Electoral College, the initiative did goose evangelical turnout a bit (and remember, Bush won the state by just 118,000 votes out of around 5.6 million cast). It may have also helped him win more African Americans than he would have otherwise, hence the wedge.
Well, in 2016, same-sex marriage can be a wedge issue again, but this time, for our team. The numbers are now so decisive that surely in the key swing states with the bushels of electoral votes, the likely Democratic candidate can cast shame upon the head of her opponent. In Florida, support for gay marriage was 57 percent a year ago, and it’s probably a little higher now. In Ohio, support-to-opposition was 52-37 in 2012, and that’s surely higher now. In Virginia in 2013, support registered at 56 percent. The issue isn’t a loser in any important swing state, with the possible exception of North Carolina, which of course is just icing for the Democrats anyway.
How could Hillary Clinton and her party use this, exactly? That gets a little harder to say. The thing that makes a wedge issue a wedge issue is that, historically anyway, it’s been about fear. The blacks are coming. The gays are coming. The anti-gun nuts are going to be pounding on your door, warrant in hand. As has often been said, it’s the best motivator in politics.
The crucial psychic element of fear-mongering is that you have to persuade the majority that some minority is “taking over” and they, your majority, will soon be the trampled minority unless they act. That’s what gets the blood cooking in the old amygdala. (What?! Microsoft Word doesn’t recognize amygdala?!) Conservatives are much better at this than liberals are, and in any case, if liberals tried this it just wouldn’t make sense or work. Everybody knows that the anti-same-sex-marriage side is losing fast, so fear is a non-starter here.
No, the psychic ingredient of the liberal wedge campaign has to be something else. And of course it has to resonate with people on some level, be in tune with what they’re actually thinking. So, what are people (not just liberals, but average, quasi-informed people) thinking about conservatives right now? I’d suggest it’s that they’re just out of it. Out of touch with the times. Holding us back.
Certainly this is so with respect to same-sex marriage, although the problem is hardly limited to that by a long shot. One issue I’d really love to see Clinton and the Democrats plop down smack in the middle of the table this election is the way conservatism today just strangles opportunity for middle-class people, and for young people in particular, in the name of their messianic tax-cutting.
TPM ran a great piece Friday on how the Republican governors who are running for president are destroying their higher-education systems in the name of cutting state income taxes and never, ever raising another tax of any kind. Bobby Jindal has cut taxes six times in Louisiana, which has produced a $1.6 billion shortfall. To plug the gap, he’s cutting higher-ed funding by as much as $600 million, which is 82 percent of state higher-ed aid. Scott Walker’s half-a-billion dollars in tax cuts in Wisconsin have led to a $2 billion shortfall, so he’s slashing higher ed by $300 million.
These, too, are wedge issues, if you ask me. Republicans send their kids to college too. Yes, they like their tax cuts. But I would assume that they don’t like whopping tuition hikes, or their kids having to drop out of college altogether, any more than Democrats or independents do. If the Democrats can connect these dots in the right way—on this and a whole range of Warrenesque “household economics” issues—they can peel off a decent chunk of voters who have been traditionally Republican.
Republicans will still roll out their wedge issues, but it seems that the pickings are pretty slim. Fear just isn’t selling. To borrow from A.J. Liebling’s nice line about sweet Louisiana corn, fear just doesn’t travel well anymore outside the right-wing base. Muslim-bashing may be the exception to that, but even that won’t work without a triggering event of some kind. Republicans might actually have to talk about issues. Which of course is even worse for them.