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Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Ultimate Failure of Wedge Issue Politics

Wedge splits logThe problem with wedge-issue politics is that even when the wedge manages to divide Americans, it doesn't always manage to divide the electorate. This would seem contradictory, but only if you don't think too deeply about it. See, when you create a wedge issue, what you're really trying to do is create a sort of anti-voter -- someone who'll vote against something and for you by default. It's worked with abortion, where the right has convinced people to vote against their own economic interests, because the "pro-business" (read "pro-corporate") candidates they put up are also abortion rights foes. But when the split takes on identity politics -- especially in a negative way -- this strategy may not work out in the wedgers favor.

Take the anti-gay stance of most of the right; there are still gays who vote Republican, but not enough to make the statement "the party has lost the gay vote" untrue. No mainstream Republican anywhere is ever going to be put over the top by a strong showing from the LGBT community.

But they've got the math on their side. Despite the right's rhetoric, gays aren't an ever growing segment of the population. Gay's aren't everywhere, waiting to take over America and destroy families. They're pretty much a fixed percentage. In this wedge issue, Republicans believe they can afford to lose that population, because the single-issue voters they're creating on the other side are so few that they don't really matter. As society changes -- and it will -- we'll hear less and less of Republicans scapegoating gays. But until then, they'll keep fearmongering. People vote against things, not for things. So you're always on the lookout for a group you can portray as the devil. Don't vote for me, vote against them.

But occasionally, some idiot governor and legislature in -- oh, let's say Arizona -- will cook up a wedge that they think works in their state. The stand these fools take may be popular, but nationally, the only single-issue voters it creates are those who'd vote against Republicans. Public Policy Polling explains how Arizona's illegal immigrant crackdown law is playing both nationally and in the state.

There's no doubt that the new Arizona immigration law is popular nationally, but that still doesn't mean the issue's going to work to the GOP's advantage this fall.

When we polled Colorado in early March [US Senate candidates] Michael Bennet and Jane Norton were tied. Last week we found Bennet with a 3 point lead. One of the biggest reasons for that shift? Bennet went from leading Norton by 12 points with Hispanic voters to a 21 point advantage. That large shift in a Democratic direction among Hispanics mirrors what we saw in our Arizona Senate polling last month- Rodney Glassman went from trailing John McCain by 17 points with them in September to now holding a 17 point lead.

See, while Arizona's law may be popular nationwide, that doesn't automatically mean that people will vote for any candidate who takes the state's position. In fact, it's not even working so hot in that state. On the other hand, Hispanics are very worried about the law, so they are willing to become single-issue voters. Like the right's anti-gay stance, the issue is probably creating more anti-Republican single-issue voters than pro-. But unlike gays, the Hispanic population is large and growing. In other words, in looking for a brand new devil for people to vote against, the GOP picked a fight with the wrong bunch.

"This has always been Democrats' belief about immigration politics," writes Ben Smith for Politico, "That among the voters for whom this is a single, motivating issue, whites may get more attention, but Hispanics are more numerous." This seems to have been the case.

But the better lesson here is that being right -- being moral, ethical, tolerant, and wise -- pays off in the long run. Take a look at the olympic-sized pool of hot water Kentucky candidate Rand Paul finds himself in right now. Turns out that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is extremely popular, to the point of being nearly universally supported. When it comes to issues of equality, the good guys always seem to win in the end. If you doubt that, wait for the huge public outcry about gays in the military. It could start any minute now -- but you probably shouldn't hold your breath.

What we see when we look at American history is a process of acceptance. A bunch of people say, "Hey, let's all hate those guys!" a lot of people try it out for a while, see it isn't helping any, and move on. It's not the best process or the way I'd go about it, but it is what it is. And every single time, the people who say, "You know, we probably shouldn't hate the Irish-blacks-gays-Jews-women-Catholics-Hispanics-Chinese-etc.," win out in the end. Every time. My advice would be to skip the stupid step and just get right to the acceptance, but this is the real world and it's got a lot of fearful people. And fearful people vote Republican. So long as that's the case, the GOP is going to be on the prowl for people to be afraid of and the process toward acceptance will take a detour through stupid.

Democrats should always be the ones getting in on the ground floor with tolerance. It's always the best bet in the end and sometimes -- like now, with the GOP trying to whip up anti-Hispanic panic -- the rewards are almost immediate.


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