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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

wedge issue

(1980’s | journalese? politese?)

I haven’t been able to come up with older synonyms for “wedge issue.” Exploiting political divisions is a very old strategy, and it’s not like no one ever conducted campaigns that way. There were bread-and-butter issues, or kitchen-table issues, but those had more to do with pushing people together than with driving them apart. (Recently, the phrase “bridge issue” has sprung up in climate activism to denote the opposite of a wedge issue.) The rise of the wedge issue marks a deterioration in our politics, to the point that some mainstream candidates openly espouse ripping the country in two. In the old days, you had to play lip service to unity, but that’s over, which is why so many formerly unacceptable utterances, and deeds, now pass unremarked.

The wedge issue, named for a tool designed to split wood, first made its presence felt in the late eighties, when political strategists, or the people who reported on them, began using the phrase to refer to controversial questions that cause voters to take sides, so those already on your side will stay there and the other guys will turn on each other. In 1999, Thomas Edsall wrote, “The ideal wedge issue performs two basic functions: It unites strong partisan supporters on common ground with swing voters, and it fractures the opposition.” The British chestnut, “thin end of the wedge,” used especially in political discourse, is related. But a wedge issue works its malice much faster; it’s more like a bomb than a slow-spreading poison. And while the nation may not have been quite as polarized then as it is now, there were plenty of sharp disagreements, so wedge issues were not hard to find. The phrase was first used in quantity leading up the 1988 presidential election, and Republicans typically were credited with wielding them, though Democrats followed suit as soon as they figured out what was going on.

Back then, wedge issues were associated suspiciously often with Lee Atwater — roughly the equivalent of Steve Bannon today — though I don’t know that he ever used the term in public. Atwater generally avoided the obvious trappings of white supremacy — he wasn’t quite as bad as David Duke — but his understanding of politics was noxious all the same. His skill as a campaign strategist stemmed from his ability to scare enough voters away from the rival while holding his side together with rage and loathing, and he was distressingly good at it. Political thuggery and dirty tricks have a long and rich tradition in America; Atwater was more effective than most. He died young, but he sowed the wind, and now the whirlwind is reaching tornado proportions.

Within the realm of party politics, wedge issues have their own remorseless logic: find your opponents’ weaknesses and exploit them. But another way to think about politics requires noticing the great divides between the one percent and the rest of us. There aren’t that many super-rich people out there; they are vastly outnumbered. Yet they get their way a very high percentage of the time, and one of their best tricks is the wedge issue. When minorities want to maintain power, they must divide their subjects in order to conquer them. The smaller the minority, the deeper and starker must be the divisions. Our opponents are not the people on the other side of the abortion divide, but the ones on the other side of the wealth divide, who enrich themselves at unprecedented velocity, only to make life harder and more uncertain for the rest.

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