Wedge issue
A wedge issue is a social or political issue, often of a divisive or otherwise controversial nature, which splits apart or creates a "wedge" in the support base of one political group. Wedge issues can be advertised, publicly aired, and otherwise emphasized by an opposing political group, in an attempt to weaken the unity of the divided group, or to entice voters in the divided group to give their support to the opposing group. The use of wedge issues gives rise to wedge politics. Wedge issues are also known as hot button
Politicized issue
A politicized issue or hot-button issue is a social, economic, theological, spiritual, scientific or legal issue which has become a political issue, as a result of deliberate action or otherwise, whereby people become politically active over that issue....

or third rail issues.

Wedge politics are the key to understanding the behavior of both candidates and voters during political campaigns. Among the voters most likely to be responsive to campaign information are those with conflicting predispositions—partisans who disagree with their party on a policy issue. For these cross-pressured partisans, campaign messages from the opposition can be persuasive if they are focused on the incongruent issue. Politicians look for wedge issues to emphasize in the campaign so that they can exploit the very tensions that create the opportunity for campaigns to “matter.” We argue that recent changes in the amount and type of information available about the mass public has increased the use of wedge politics and contributed to more fragmented and polarized issue agendas as candidates now micro-target different issue messages to different groups of voters in an effort to win over cross-pressured swing voters.

Political parties are usually fairly diverse groups though they will always try to project a united front. A wedge issue may often be a point of internal dissent within the opposing party, which that party tries to suppress or ignore talking about because it divides "the base." Such issues are typically a cultural or populist issue, relating to matters such as crime
Crime is the breach of rules or laws for which some governing authority can ultimately prescribe a conviction...

, national security
National security
National security is the requirement to maintain the survival of the state through the use of economic, diplomacy, power projection and political power. The concept developed mostly in the United States of America after World War II...

, sexuality (e.g. gay marriage), or race. Another party may exploit this dissent by publicly supporting the issue, and in effect align itself with the dissenting faction of the opposing party. A wedge issue, when wielded against another party, is intended to bring about such things as:
  • A debate, often vitriolic, within the opposing party, giving the public a perception of disarray.
  • The defection of supporters of the opposing party's minority faction to the other party (or independent parties) if they lose the debate.
  • The legitimising of sentiment which, while perhaps popularly held, is usually considered inappropriate or politically incorrect
    Political correctness
    Political correctness is a term which denotes language, ideas, policies, and behavior seen as seeking to minimize social and institutional offense in occupational, gender, racial, cultural, sexual orientation, certain other religions, beliefs or ideologies, disability, and age-related contexts,...

    ; criticisms from the opposition then make it appear beholden to special interests or fringe ideology.
  • In an extreme case, a wedge issue might contribute to the actual fracture of the opposing party as another party spins off, taking voters with it.

To prevent these three consequences from occurring, the opposing party may attempt to take a "pragmatic" stand and officially endorse the views of its minority faction. However, this can lead to the defection of supporters of the opposing party's majority faction to a third party, should they lose the debate.

Wedge politics in Australia: the Tampa incident

In Australia, "wedge politics" may sometimes be known as dog whistle politics
Dog-whistle politics
Dog-whistle politics, also known as the use of code words, is a type of political campaigning or speechmaking which employs coded language that appears to mean one thing to the general population but has a different or more specific meaning for a targeted subgroup of the audience...

, due to the practice of selective targeting so that only certain people will hear the message being pitched.

A case study of the use of wedge issues in practice comes from the 2001 federal election campaign in Australia
Australia , officially the Commonwealth of Australia, is a country in the Southern Hemisphere comprising the mainland of the Australian continent, the island of Tasmania, and numerous smaller islands in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It is the world's sixth-largest country by total area...

. In early and mid-2001, a great deal of public attention was focused on boat people
Boat people
Boat people is a term that usually refers to refugees, illegal immigrants or asylum seekers who emigrate in numbers in boats that are sometimes old and crudely made...

 (asylum seekers arriving on unauthorised vessels), there having been several widely publicised landings of hundreds of people. On August 24, 2001, a ship illegally bearing 460 such people became distressed, and its passengers were picked up by the Norwegian
Norway , officially the Kingdom of Norway, is a Nordic unitary constitutional monarchy whose territory comprises the western portion of the Scandinavian Peninsula, Jan Mayen, and the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard and Bouvet Island. Norway has a total area of and a population of about 4.9 million...

 cargo vessel MV Tampa
MV Tampa
MV Tampa is a roll-on/roll-off container ship completed in 1984 by Hyundai Heavy Industries Co., Ltd. in South Korea for the Norway based firm, Wilhelmsen Lines Shipowning.-Tampa affair:...


The governing Liberal Party of Australia
Liberal Party of Australia
The Liberal Party of Australia is an Australian political party.Founded a year after the 1943 federal election to replace the United Australia Party, the centre-right Liberal Party typically competes with the centre-left Australian Labor Party for political office...

 took the opportunity to appear tough on asylum seekers. The opposition
Opposition (Australia)
Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition in Australia fulfils the same function as the official opposition in other Commonwealth of Nations monarchies. It is seen as the alternative government and the existing administration's main opponent at a general election...

 Australian Labor Party
Australian Labor Party
The Australian Labor Party is an Australian political party. It has been the governing party of the Commonwealth of Australia since the 2007 federal election. Julia Gillard is the party's federal parliamentary leader and Prime Minister of Australia...

 (ALP) had a slight majority of people strongly favouring more sympathetic treatment, and was hence perceived as internally split. This provoked a fierce debate within the ALP on the relative merits of siding with national opinion (in favour of the Government's actions) or standing on party principle (opposing). But with over 90% of some television polls supporting the government's stance, the leader of the ALP Kim Beazley
Kim Beazley
In the October 1998 election, Labor polled a majority of the two-party vote and received the largest swing to a first-term opposition since 1934. However, due to the uneven nature of the swing, Labor came up eight seats short of making Beazley Prime Minister....

 chose to silence the majority and agree to the tougher policy—though it ended up opposing certain elements of proposed legislation, which the Liberal Party blasted as "weak on border security".

The damage was done, with the party appearing inconsistent and divided. The Liberal Party campaigned largely on a platform of border security and increased its support at the federal election that November despite being the incumbent
The incumbent, in politics, is the existing holder of a political office. This term is usually used in reference to elections, in which races can often be defined as being between an incumbent and non-incumbent. For example, in the 2004 United States presidential election, George W...

. Some who would typically vote Labor voted instead for the Greens
Australian Greens
The Australian Greens, commonly known as The Greens, is an Australian green political party.The party was formed in 1992; however, its origins can be traced to the early environmental movement in Australia and the formation of the United Tasmania Group , the first Green party in the world, which...

 and the Democrats
Australian Democrats
The Australian Democrats is an Australian political party espousing a socially liberal ideology. It was formed in 1977, by a merger of the Australia Party and the New LM, after principals of those minor parties secured the commitment of former Liberal minister Don Chipp, as a high profile leader...

 in protest against what they saw as the ALP's complicity.

It later emerged that the controversial campaign strategists Lynton Crosby
Lynton Crosby
Lynton Crosby AO is an Australian political strategist.Having masterminded four successive election victories for John Howard, he has been described as a "master of the dark political arts," "the Australian Karl Rove," and in 2002 The Age newspaper described Crosby as "one of the most powerful and...

 and Mark Textor
Mark Textor
Mark Textor is an Australian pollster and campaign strategist. He was the principal pollster for former Australian Prime Minister John Howard....

 had an active role in making the Tampa incident a wedge issue for Howard to exploit.

Wedge politics in the United States

Both the Republican and Democratic parties have been accused of using social issues as wedge issues to divide the opposing voting base. For example, some Republican strategists have hoped that African Americans, a traditionally Democratic voting bloc, yet also one that possesses some of the most conservative views on matters of homosexuality, may be more inclined to vote for the Republican Party because of their opposition to gay marriage. Likewise, Democratic strategists have hoped that the issue of stem cell research could be used as a wedge issue against the right, since some Republicans support the research while others are morally opposed to the use of embryonic cells in research.

Reform of the laws regarding illegal immigration to the United States
Illegal immigration to the United States
An illegal immigrant in the United States is an alien who has entered the United States without government permission or stayed beyond the termination date of a visa....

 operated as a wedge issue in 2007. Some Republican legislators, with the backing of President George W. Bush, sought to address the dual issues of ongoing illegal immigration to the United States and the illegal status of an estimated 12 million people currently living in America. Other Republicans bitterly opposed any "amnesty" for illegal immigrants, out of fear that their constituents were unsupportive of immigration reform. Some Democrats pitched in to keep the issue alive as they recognized the issue was deeply dividing the Republican party between advocates of reform and advocates of the status quo. The result was a bitter division in Republican ranks and a stalled bill in Congress; columnist Peggy Noonan
Peggy Noonan
Peggy Noonan is an American author of seven books on politics, religion, and culture and a weekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal...

wrote in January 2008 that President Bush had "destroyed the Republican Party, by which I mean he sundered it, broke its constituent pieces apart and set them against each other", by pushing immigration reform, as well as other wedge issues for the Republicans.
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