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How does a democracy get anything done when the electorate is heavily polarized? On the issues that seem to most divide Americans—gun-ownership, abortion rights, and the significance of race in politics, to name a few—it feels like everyone’s opinions are already made up. But savvy politicians know that what seem like solid voting blocs can be split into pieces using wedge issues. In today’s issue, Abdallah Fayyad looks into the history of wedge issues, and finds that, while they do divide us, they can be powerful forces for social change.

Join us on Monday, December 11, at 1:00 p.m. EST, for a conference call with The Atlantic’s Adam Serwer. We’ll talk about his essay “The Nationalist’s Delusion.” (If you want a crib sheet, check out his annotation of the article.)

A Brief History of Wedge Issues

Abdallah Fayyad takes us from the 1960s to today.

If Roy Moore wins next week's Alabama Senate race, some analysts are likely to boil his campaign down to one issue: abortion. Indeed, the allegations against Moore of sexual assault has his supporters not only defending him, but also charging that his opponent, Doug Jones, supports “killing unborn children.” The tactic of using emotional issues like abortion to divide the electorate into two sharply defined sides reflects an unloved yet widespread strategy in American electioneering: wedge politics.

Wedge politics involves treating Aristotle’s “Law of the Excluded Middle” as universal. If one side of an issue is right, then the other must be wrong—there is no in-between. Controversial topics like abortion, gun control, or confederate statues are polarizing, forcing people to choose a side, for or against. Voters may feel debates about wedge issues leave no room for nuance. But wedge issues, despite sometimes annoying the electorate, have proven to effectively galvanize support in a two party system.

They may degrade the quality of public discourse, but a skillful use of wedge issues can also help make change in areas that otherwise seem intractable, political scientists told me. By turning an otherwise dormant issue into a vitally important dividing line, wedge politics force the nation to have a debate, and politicians to make clear where they stand.

Seth McKee, a political science professor at Texas Tech, believes that civil rights in the 1960s became the country’s most powerful wedge issue, one that ultimately changed the structure of American politics. “In 1964, you had a Democratic president, Lyndon Johnson, who championed the Civil Rights Act and you had a Republican opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, who voted against it,” McKee said. “It immediately sent a signal to black and white Americans, and we saw a massive shift of Southern black voters in favor of the Democratic Party.”

The Civil Rights Movement, of course, didn’t change history all in one election cycle. While the intensified momentum behind issues like integration, voting rights, and affirmative action in the presidential election drove the Democrats to support the civil rights agenda at the national level, some local Democrats found themselves on the other side of the wedge. White Southern Democrats were still racially conservative, and George Wallace, the Democratic governor of Alabama who famously said, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever,” mounted a third-party presidential campaign in 1968 and won 46 electoral votes from the Deep South.

But even for those leaders who opposed it, civil rights became an inescapable topic. Their answers on the issue had electoral consequences. “Wedge issues can produce incremental change in areas that can’t easily be fully addressed,” Omar H. Ali, a professor at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told me. “They can create a conversation that’s important—to the extent that it can even be beneficial. When politicians can’t gloss over it, you get people to hop off the fence.”

Ultimately, wedge politics isn’t about changing people’s minds; it’s about targeting people who have yet to form an opinion on something. “Candidates don’t think they can get you to be pro-choice if you’ve been pro-life your whole life,” D. Sunshine Hillygus, author of the book The Persuadable Voter: Wedge Issues in Presidential Campaigns, said. “What candidates or parties attempt to do is manipulate the salience of a divisive issue as a way to change the likelihood that people will make a decision on the basis of it.” An issue that voters had not really formed an opinion on is suddenly framed in a way that makes it one of the most important topics of an election season.

That is where the gun-control debate in the U.S. is today. Many gun-control advocates feel hopeless about their cause because supporters of gun rights have effectively and significantly increased its importance to a portion of the electorate. As Justin Robinson argued in the Masthead, Americans who are for and against expansive gun rights have trouble even talking to each other. But wedge politics may offer a way to break the logjam, especially if organizers target smaller-scale issues rather than attempting to win over their die-hard opponents. If one side of the debate aggressively supports or opposes background checks or registries, for example, then people who haven’t been motivated by the broader debate may feel compelled to come off the sidelines, especially when these types of ideas have wide margins of support.

But the use of wedge politics can have significant and harmful consequences. The strategy often demands negative advertising and shortsighted politics. After the Affordable Care Act passed, for example, opponents used intense rhetoric (“death panels”!) to drive opposition to the law and were rewarded electorally. But that came at the cost of hyper-partisan politics. When it came time to craft their own policy, Republicans were faced with constituents who had come to see a complex issue in black or white terms. “Policy issues are never all this or all that, there is a lot of nuance and gray area,” Ali said. This kind of oppositional approach to politics—where parties adopt the Law of the Excluded Middle—is unhealthy for the republic, Ali says, and inhibits good governance.

Despite these effects, politicians see wedge politics as irresistibly effective in an ever-more-polarized electorate. It’s often the losing side that drums up wedge issues to gain support, just as the Republicans did with health care. But when the nation is forced to reckon with a divisive issue, one side will eventually pull the debate in their direction. And that, to some, might be enough for a win.

Abdallah Fayyad is the projects fellow at The Atlantic.

Today’s Wrap Up

  • Question of the day: We’d love to hear more examples of the skillful use of wedge issues. What’s been a memorable time in your political life that someone has taken an issue and reframed it in a way that changed your position?
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