In electoral politics
a wedge issue
is a political issue
divisions are very strong, and the issue has an emotional appeal to people who are otherwise essentially apolitical
. Wedge issues have a strong emotional impact
A timely example of this is the Federal Marriage Amendment which is designed to prevent homosexuals from getting married. The issue of gay marriage is ideal from the point of view of the Republican Party for a number of reasons.
First it is an issue that energizes your base. Social Conservatives form the core of the Republican party's foot soldiers. They stuff envelopes, knock on doors, give money and turn out in droves to vote Republican. This is an issue they can count on pastors other than Fred Phelps to tell their constituents to vote Republican. These people see Sodom and Gomorrah returning when gay people enter the mainstream.
This means that the GOP could use gay marriage to ensure that hard core Republicans will be there for George W. Bush in 2004. Many social conservatives and evangelicals have had reservations about the President, particularly on the issue of abortion where he has not done what they would like. Fear of Ellen DeGeneris corrupting America will erase all those doubts.
The issue of gay marriage is also useful because it makes it possible to marginalize the opposition. The fact is that gay people are the last people in America that it's still okay to hate. Very few people today will openly stand up and declare their racism, but lots of people will tell you they hate fags. Which they will promptly justify by saying 'it's in the Bible.'
Others who are less prejudiced remain uncomfortable with the idea of gay marriage. First, of all, it's different. Second, gender roles are deeply entwined in American culture. Comedienne Julia Sweeney's character Pat gets her appeal from the fact that no one can figure out Pat's gender, and from that how they should treat her. Many are uncomfortable around homosexuals simply because homosexuality reverses sexual expectations. To accept gay marriage is to fully allow gay people into the mainstream, and many fear that if America starts down that road they don't know where it will end. That means it scares people, and fear is at the heart of almost all good wedge issues.
This means gay marriage is a good method of driving the undecideds into their camp. Social Liberals and gays tend to vote Democratic, which means their representatives will defend gay marriage. That will make it easy for the GOP to paint Democrats as 'extremists' who are 'outside the mainstream'. It also allows the GOP to attack parts of the Democratic core, such as black Americans. Prejudice against homosexuals is particularly strong among blacks, and the black churches are much more socially conservative than the Democratic Party. Gay marriage is an issue that allows Republicans to attack Democrats where they live. Gay marriage also works a lot better for Republicans than talking about the budget. In fact it gets a lot of Democratic issues out of the news, including Iraq, the budget deficit and the President's military service.
Democratic politicians know this every bit as well as Republicans. They realize that to be too out front in favor of gay marriage risks alienating the political center. But if they do nothing they will anger their political base, which consists of social liberals. Gay marriage hangs Democrats on the horns of a dilemma: take care of their base and lose the political center, or risk alienating their political base when they need them most. Why do you think John Kerry is dancing around the issue, and Democrats prefer to talk of social union?
This made the issue of gay marriage a nearly perfect wedge issue for the Republican party in 2004. it will ensure the full and active participation of their political base, while separating potential Democratic voters from a party they will acuse of being 'out of touch'. That explains why Republican politicians are pushing very hard on the issue right now, because they want to get gay marriage out in front during an election year. But there is danger in this issue, like many others. If Republicans are seen as too mean, or as bigoted the issue may backfire on them in the political center. Many Americans who are uncomfortable with homosexuality do not hate gays, and would deplore any outright bigotry. Many Americans who call themselves religious remain suspicious of fundamentalism. That explains why GOP rhetoric is around 'defending the sanctitiy of marriage, and arguing that 'gay marriage' would end up undermining the institution.
In examining the issue of gay marriage today you see the archetypical wedge issue for a political party. All political parties seek such an issue in their favor. A wedge issue unites your friends, divides your enemies, and pulls the undecideds toward you. It is an issue that inspires political passion. Passion helps you raise money. Gay marriage is not the first, or last wedge issue to come to the forefront. But in 2004, it's probably the best if you are Republican.
mr100percent suggests that in the summer of 2003 British Prime Minister Tony Blair was able to use fox hunting as a wedge issue in Britain. It proved quite controversial, inspiring protests and for a time taking Iraq off the headlines.