In our upcoming book, Wedged, (Coming November 2015) we will be discussing the root causes, effects, and some examples of a process in American politics we call "Wedging." This set of political tactics has increased partisanship in US politics and broken down political dialogue.
We wanted to prime the pump of conversation by sharing our working definitions of wedging tactics, the wedge in American politics, and the actors involved. Enjoy, and leave some comments on whether these definitions resonate for you!
Wedge Issue (Noun):
Wedge issues are political issues used deliberately by politicians to mobilize their base through anger and fear, and by media outlets to capture devoted customers through the same emotions. The unintended and dangerous consequence is that reliance upon these issues “wedges” the electorate into two very different, distant, emotional camps. But because the wedging tactic is effective in an individual election, it continues to be relied upon.
We define wedge issues as having a few particular characteristics. They’re often highly emotional, difficult to debate with facts, and linked strongly to a sense of personal and group identity. Often, but not always, they’re ultimately low on the list of voters’ total priorities in government. Sometimes they’re not even relevant to the job description of the politician using them to potential voters: for example, individual states had jurisdiction over same-sex marriage law, but national politicians use it as an issue to energize their base supporters.
Generally, think of wedge issues as those about which we’ll spend a lot of time carrying banners and shouting at each other, but where slow or little progress towards consensus or solution is made.
Some good examples of wedge issues:
● Abortion & birth control
● Gay marriage
● Gun control
● Religious expression
● Moral “decay” / behavior, pornography, etc
Wedge sub-issues (Noun):
These are wedge issues. They exist within the aegis or umbrella of a large, complex issue in American politics that is a bigger priority for Americans. Because complexity and nuance are threatening to the politicians and media that depend on high emotional engagement to survive, they choose sub-issues that are susceptible to wedge tactics and focus on those.
Wedging (Verb): The deliberate process of pushing wedge issues to the front of the national dialogue in order to increase emotional engagement. Most often performed by politicians seeking votes and campaign contributions for elections, political media outlets seeking loyal viewers, or highly partisan political groups seeking followers or donations.
Wedge Tactics (Noun): [Straight from book]
Seven common tactics are used in order to create, reinforce, and take advantage of a wedge issue. These tactics are used by politicians, media outlets, advocacy groups, and ideologically extreme Americans to take control of the national dialogue.
1) Inflated Issues. The issue is made out to be world-stoppingly important: a matter of fundamental human rights, of our core values as Americans, of a very deep right-and-wrong. The stakes are made out to be very high, and any incremental movement or compromise is painted to be total loss on the issue, as it would create a slippery slope or domino effect towards defeat. Though we don’t rank wedge issues as most important when forced to choose between them and other issues, they are made to feel highly important when we discuss them, and we are made to feel that we cannot give any ground, even on the parts of the issue we do not care as much about.
Examples: Even though government functionality, the economy, and healthcare are the top priorities for Americans, it is most common to hear that disagreement issues like abortion and gay marriage are those that will prevent someone from voting for a candidate. Abortion is a matter of murder vs. the fundamental rights of women. Guns policy is a matter of inalienable constitutional freedoms vs. the lives of children.
2) Tribe Rallies. Simple arguments, bumper-sticker one-liners, and team identifiers dominate messaging. These are not intended to change the minds of others that disagree, but to create a sense of tribal identity among supporters. The issue is tied to the cultural identity of the demographic group that’s being courted for the vote. This reinforces the emotional commitment of supporters and maintains social pressure not to break rank.
Examples: Camps pick simple identifiers for themselves that don’t allow for any nuance, like “pro life” vs. “pro choice,” “pro gun” vs. “anti gun,” “pro love” vs “pro family.” These groups are designed to reinforce the group identity of the camp rather than improve understanding of the issue and pursue solutions.
3) Cherry-Picked Data. Because complexity and nuance are a threat to a highly emotional narrative, wedging relies on the manipulation and careful selection of data to create so called “analyses” that support one side of the argument. Highly complex phenomena are broken down into simple graphs that claim to fully explain the problem with a single, simple variable. This provokes our natural confirmation bias and makes us more certain that anyone disagreeing with us is a fool.
Examples: Events in the US are often compared to other countries, without incorporating the size of the American population. A correlation is presumed to be causation. Variables are deceptively defined and labeled. An event like the Newton massacre is used to show that we should ban all guns; a person stopping a robbery with a gun is used to show that we should all carry concealed weapons.
4) Symbolic Battles. Legislative or court battles over ultimately trivial, low-impact, or tangentially-related sub-issues are touted by supporters as great victories or grave defeats. Such battles reinforce a sense of progress, threat, and pride among supporters, and give politicians activity that they can point to during campaign season when they have not made substantial progress in other fields.
Examples: The battle over whether gun magazines can be limited to 14 vs. 10 bullets, or whether the cosmetic features of ‘assault weapons’ should be allowed, ultimately affect a very small number of Americans but are made out to be critical pieces in the greater fight.
5) Enemy Groups. The opposition to each camp’s position on the issue is painted as stupid, evil, or both. They are made out to be enemies with bad intent that must be defeated, and painted to share none of our core values to prevent the temptation to work towards consensus. This taps into our sense of righteousness, fear, and natural human tendency to be motivated by having an enemy to fight against. When the opposition is evil, one does not require curious investigation.
Examples: With abortion, each side paints the other either as murderers of babies or oppressors of women. With gay marriage, the sides are painted as oppressing fundamental civil rights or attacking the moral foundations of our society. With gun control, the sides are painted as either attacking the Constitution or encouraging murder and violent crime for corporate profit.
6) Sensationalized Events. Specific events in the news are pounced upon and editorialized in order to reinforce messaging. Each camp in a wedge issue wages a war of narrative, trying to successfully frame the event in the eyes of their camp as an example of the truth of their position. Though they are quickly forgotten, each event leads to a surge of energy and emotion for the camp. Rather than looking at a big picture, politicians and media can cherry-pick isolated events that stoke senses of fear, violation, and injustice.
Examples: Despite the small number of victims compared to other violence in the US, highly visible shootings (like those in schools) garner massive attention and cause each side of the guns issue to release a flurry of messaging. Every proposed change in taxes, no matter how small, sparks a fight. Amid the Confederate flag controversy, quite suddenly private individuals or institutions choosing to sell or not sell it, wave it or take it down, made enemies.
7) Permanence: Perhaps most importantly, the most successful wedge issues are those that are framed to be unresolvable. With demands that are intentionally vague and designed to not be fully addressed by new legislation, each camp is able to keep wedge issues at the forefront of the minds of their supporters.
Examples: An issue like abortion will never be fully resolved unless there are 0 abortions, or unless there are no barriers at all--between those two extremes, there is always room to fight. Taxes can be fought over endlessly unless the government is dissolved. Inequality can be fought over until everyone has the exact same amount of money. None of these will ever truly go away on their own.
The Wedge in American Politics (noun):
The outcome of wedging tactics, The Wedge is the current state of American political polarization. Partisan extremes have a highly disproportionate share of voice and attention. The tenor of American dialogue has moved nearly exclusively to war-fighting. Politicians are unable to work together and have come to work along party lines on every issue due to their mutual antipathy. A sensible middle ground has dropped out of politics entirely, disenfranchising itself from being able to influence politics.
The Political Industry (noun):
The elements and organizations in the United States that depend on emotional political engagement to succeed, and use wedging tactics to engage citizens. This industry primarily includes politicians, political media and pundits, and advocacy organizations. Politicians depend on emotional engagement in order to cultivate votes, campaign contributions, and volunteer hours. Political media need readers/viewers that are loyal and advertise for them by sharing emotional articles or videos on social media. Advocacy organizations need volunteers and donors.
Wedged Partisans (noun):
American citizens that have succumbed to the false binary of American politics, as painted by wedge tactics. These people are highly engaged and emotional, and are unwilling to explore issues with others that disagree with them. Their emotional fervor pressures others in their social groups to be “with us or against us.” They end up using the same wedge tactics as the political industry, and unwittingly propagate and exacerbate the wedge in American politics.