Syrian Refugees are America's Newest Wedge Issue

The fight over the Syrian refugee crisis after the Paris terror attacks represents a new--and hopefully shortly-lived--wedge issue in the United States, as highly partisan tails wag the dogs of each party and saturate the dialogue of American policy with emotional but unproductive vitriol.

So what's going on?

Americans are pretty agitated after the Paris bombings. About 30 governors have declared that they will refuse to accept any of the 10,000 refugees that the president is proposing be settled in the US in the next year. 

Those 10,000 refugees represent a very small portion of the total foreign refugee population (at 4.5 million), but would be a six-fold increase in the 2,000 that the US has accepted over the past 4 years since the war began. (Outside of the Middle East, Germany has taken the most at 38,500, followed by Canada at 36,300. The US stands at #8 of Western nations in its total Syrian refugee population. The vast majority of Syrian refugees are in neighboring countries.) 

There are worries among these Republican governors that accepting refugees allows ISIS to sneak terrorists into the country.

The President and many other officials believe that US refugee screening processes are likely sufficient for screening out potential terror threats at a level that is stronger than screening tourists that could also perpetrate terror attacks. 

But there is little in the way of intelligent debate or discussion surrounding how best to balance humanitarian efforts for refugees and national security--at least in the public sphere.

What do the polls say?

Here's a snapshot from the most recent Bloomberg poll.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of Republicans oppose accepting Syrian refugees and the majority of Democrats support it.

Bloomberg also polled about Islam in general, asking whether it as an "inherently peaceful religion" or an "inherently violent religion." The results are here, but the poll is framed in a way that forces people to take such a poorly-informed and unnecessarily fundamental stance (that Islam is "inherently" anything at all) that it's possibly worse than useless.

This is a classic wedge issue.

The emotional and highly symbolic attention and rhetoric that dominates this issue, along with its comparatively small scope, makes it clear that we have a wedge issue afoot. Presidential candidates--as well as Governors and Congresspeople seeking re-election--benefit from grandstanding and stoking outrage that they hope will turn into support.

Those that have been caught into supporting one faction or the other are, ultimately, talking past each other. The left accuses the right of being motivated primarily by racism and Islamophobia; the right accuses the left of being naively blind to a real security threat. 

Wedging from the left:

President Obama responded to the Governors' declarations of not accepting refugees by saying that they are "afraid of widows and orphans."  But comments aside, Americans from all political persuasions sat quietly as the US accepted only 2,000 refugees over a 4-year period throughout the war (which is 0.7% of the total population that has made it to Europe, and 0.0004% of the total refugee population). As soon as the right camp declared it did not want to take more, it suddenly became morally abhorrent to not increase the current, very small, lot.

Wedging from the right:

Politicians like Ted Cruz took advantage of Obama's comments, calling them "lunacy" and saying that the President "seems more upset" about Republicans trying to protect the country than he is about ISIS terrorists murdering innocent people. But comments aside, the Republican gubernatorial "revolt" is purely symbolic: governors do not have the political authority to deny the resettlement of refugees in their states, and it's likely that they know this. They're simply posturing. 

Wedging distracts us from the big picture:

The security question with respect to Syrian refugees is a complicated and unclear one. It should go without saying that there's no magical ISIS-radar to tell whether a refugee is an ISIS member in disguise, but ISIS members can also get to the US through other means, like tourism, if they have not yet been identified by US or European security agencies.

ISIS has claimed that it is sending troops to Europe--perhaps in the thousands--and the Paris attacks seem to suggest that they've sent at least a few. But given that ISIS also recruits heavily from Europe, this may just be a bluff. So any politician, pundit, or friend on Facebook that claims to have the real story is (wait for it) just wedging you.

But why is this all a distraction? Ultimately, it's a pretty small question in the big picture.

In the United States, a terror attack similar to Paris causing 129 deaths would pale in comparison to the approximately 14,000 murders that occur annually domestically. If our aim is to limit the number of Americans killed by violent death, there are larger priorities. If it's to reduce premature death, there are far higher priorities even than domestic violence

What about those 10,000 refugees? Let's look at the numbers: there were 17 million people in Syria in 2014; about 4 million are refugees that have fled, and about 7.5 million are "displaced," or domestic refugees. Of that 17 million, only about 150,000 have gone to Europe or other Western-hemisphere countries.

The war, now in its 5th year, will continue to create refugees. Though those that make it to the shores of Greece and elsewhere in Europe are in dire straits, those stuck in Syria--unable to flee--are far more numerous and in far worse condition. The SOHR estimates that 250,000-340,000 have been killed; it is difficult to quantify the misery for those that are still alive in Syria. The question, of course, that's not being asked in any of this, is, "how do we actually end the war in Syria?" 

For both the issues of humanitarianism and security, quibbling over 10,000 refugees and the risk of a terror attack is ultimately a somewhat symbolic distraction, but an effective wedge issue for politicians hoping to rouse their partisan bases. 

Why this is the new norm in the United States:

This kind of response, in which Americans seem to leap to one pole or another on an issue as soon as it arises, is what we now consider "normal" in American politics. 

This is due largely to political incentives: in the past 20 years, politicians have grown increasingly dependent upon the partisan hard-liners in their parties as the middle ground has fallen out of the political dialogue entirely.

This process will repeat itself ad nauseam in the United States until the balance of power changes, and that requires undermining the power of these wedge issues. In short, few critical problems in the United States can be solved until the political incentives change for politicians that benefit from the emergence of wedge issues. 

And that requires work from each of us. Understanding the power of these wedge issues, and what we can do to undermine that power, is the crux of our book Wedgedcoming out Monday.

And it couldn't come at a better time.


Erik Fogg

We do politics, but we don't do the thinking for you.