Think about the most divisive political issues in our current political narrative – gun control, illegal immigration, marriage equality, and abortion. These are issues with well-defined lines in the sand: You are either for it or you’re against it. Very little nuance finds its way into these conversations.
If you pay attention, many of these polarizing issues only seem to surface during election years.
However, shortly after the post-election confetti is swept up, the campaign yard signs are thrown in the garbage, and the bumper stickers begin to fade in color, these issues go dormant. Most of these issues enter into a state of inertia until the next election cycle, and those argumentative conversations – the ones that ruined your Thanksgiving dinner with the in-laws – subside.
Meanwhile, the hyped up fears about the majority party never come to fruition. Democrats didn’t take your guns away, and the Republicans didn’t limit your access to abortion.
Why is this?
Welcome to the wonderful world of “wedge issues” – where voters are subconsciously recruited to a political tribe through the cunning use of confirmation bias, false dichotomies, and straw man arguments. These issues drive a figurative wedge between two distinct voting blocs.
While many voters fully believe they have voted their conscious on a specific issue, there is only one true winner when wedge issues fill the news: the two-party system. Republicans and Democrats, who often demonstrate more similarities than their true believers like to admit, benefit from the perception that they are at odds with one another.It’s actually quite ingenious how this practice works. Watch for those moments where controversy arises, such as Trump characterizing
Mexican immigrants as drug-smuggling rapists. One side of voters will label the speech as “racist,” while the other side will say Trump is “telling it like it is.”
Either way, each side’s biases were confirmed by the statement and tribal loyalty becomes more entrenched. Left-leaning independents will likely buddy up with their best Democratic option out of fear of a Trump presidency, while the right-leaning may be attracted to this “non-PC straight talk” that agitates liberals.
The media feeds this hysteria by dedicating a disproportionate amount of time to the Donald at the expense of more relevant news, pressing issues, and realistic political candidates.
This time in two years, after Trump has become a faded image in our political memory, we will come to the realization that nothing substantive came from this conversation – no proposals, no legislation, and certainly no change.
Consider the most prominent wedge issue: abortion. Very few political issues are more divisive than the continuous political battle between diametrically opposed sides of “pro-choice” and “pro-life.” These are the Hatfields and McCoys of politics.
According to Gallup, heading into the 2012 election, 45% of Americans considered abortion to be of great importance in shaping their vote. Furthermore, 17% of Americans would only vote for a candidate that shared their view on abortion. This means that a majority of Americans – 62% – voted for a) Obama because of his “pro-choice” stance or b) Romney because of his “pro-life” persona.
Despite the perception that Obama and Romney were philosophical opponents, the two candidates campaigned, voted, and governed similarly over the course of their careers.
Now let’s count how many times Obama battled the anti-abortion special interest groups and caucuses working to deny access to abortions. By my count, there have been no recorded events where an executive order or veto was issued by Obama to safeguard abortion. There has been one executive order, but it was only to reaffirm that federal dollars would not subsidize abortion services" -- something that the pro-life crowd should presumably applaud.
There has been rhetoric in response to Republican-sponsored legislation (that has never really intended to make it to his desk) and the recent confrontation over Planned Parenthood – all hypothetical skirmishes that were mere political stunts.
And if you think things would have been different under Romney, think again. Romney’s “pro-life” credentials were always suspect. On the O’Reilly Factor in 2011, Romney shared the following thoughts on abortion and Roe v. Wade: “The Supreme Court had made its decision. I’m just going to say I will support the law and preserve the law as it exists.”
Romney also refused to sign a pledge – sponsored by the Susan B. Anthony List that was signed by pretty much all of GOP presidential nominees – obligating him to nominate and appoint judges who were strictly opposed to abortion. Arguably the state of abortion rights would not have drastically changed under a Romney administration.
Furthermore, the frequency of abortions actually decreased under Obama. (Not saying Obama is the reason for the decline, but this inconvenient fact should assuage the “pro-life” crowd.) The time and effort dedicated to the 2012 election by single-issue abortion voters – both “pro-choice” and “pro-life” – were futile at best.Wedge issues create false dichotomies. They generate intellectually disingenuous labels that we use to describe ourselves with conviction and gusto. The proponents of these specific platforms are buoyed by straw man arguments that mock viewpoints that their opponents don’t even possess.
Though there are always fringe opinions, there are no “gun nuts” and there are no “gun confiscators.”
We are all guilty of falling for the trap of the wedge. Wedge issues thrive on our emotional reactions, rather than our ability to critically analyze them.
Feelings trump facts in the land of wedge issues. The fact that abortions declined under Obama doesn’t matter; he’s is responsible for “infanticide!"
The fact that “assault” weapons cause a tiny percentage point of gun-related violence doesn’t matter; these lethal weapons must be banned!
The fact that “illegal immigrants” benefit very little from public subsidies and actually contribute to Social Security doesn’t matter; these “parasites” should be deported!
The fact that it would take constitutional amendments to reverse judicial decisions regarding same-sex marriage and abortion – which present a daunting political challenge no politician would willingly initiate given the current trajectory of public opinion – doesn’t matter.
Election coverage favors wedge issues. Consider how much air time has been dedicated to proposals of building a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border versus the ratification of the Trans-Pacific Partnership – a trillion dollar, privately-negotiated international trade agreement that will impact you and your household ten times faster than any fortified invisible line.
TPP is being fast-tracked through Congress with the support of both the president and congressional Republicans. No wedge and no partisan outrage means no coverage.
Though often perceived to be a political virtue, bipartisanship can also produce a cornucopia of questionable policies. From the War on Drugs to domestic surveillance, Democrats and Republicans are joined at the hip more often than mass media outlets would like for you to believe. Always ask yourself this: Who benefits the most from us being divided?