To accomplish their economic agenda conservatives have historically used race, crime, abortion, and gay marriage as divisive wedge issues. It’s the same today. Indeed, government at every level is under attack by the forces of organized wealth and their political enablers who despise a US government that works for the people, and have no compunctions about using every wedge issue they can dream up.
As an example of how this works, here’s gambler–Bill Bennet, back in the 1980’s describing how school vouchers can fracture the New-Deal Democratic coalition. This passage is illustrative because the same dynamic applies with other wedge issues.
“Former Reagan Education Secretary William Bennett understood what was missing from the voucher political chemistry: minorities. If visible elements of the Black and Latino community could be ensnared in what was then a lily-white scheme, then the Right’s dream of a universal vouchers system to subsidize general privatization of education, might become a practical political project. More urgently, Bennett and other rightwing strategists saw that vouchers had the potential to drive a wedge between Blacks and teachers unions, cracking the Democratic Party coalition. In 1988, Bennett urged the Catholic Church to “seek out the poor, the disadvantaged…and take them in, educate them, and then ask society for fair recompense for your efforts”–vouchers.”
Think of wedge issues as a means of guerrilla warfare, all to advance a conservative economic agenda. Rick Perlstein, the superb chronicler of the modern conservative movement, explains that modern American conservatives, who he describes as the New Right, used whatever they could find to exploit, including–“…all the pent-up venom of a generation of lower-middle-class people who feel betrayed and exploited.” One of the leaders of the new right, Howard Phillips, articulated their strategy– “We organize discontent.”
The backers of these movements cared little for the social issues. What they cared about was low taxes and minimal interference in their business affairs by the federal government. It’s the same thing today, using social issues to advance a conservative economic agenda. Do you really think the Koch brothers give rats-ass about gay marriage or abortion? They have the same concerns business owners did when FDR enacted the New Deal economic reforms that created the American middle-class. They resent the intrusion of government into their affairs now just as they did then. One of the best economists you never heard of wrote a very influential paper explaining this hostility to government intrusion. Michael Kalecki’s Political Aspects of Full Employment, is worth examining to see what has changed and what is still the same. Kalecki was a Polish economist in the Keynesian tradition, who realized that many of the arguments made against full-employment were political in nature rather than economic.
“…discipline in the factories’ and ‘political stability’ are more appreciated than profits by business leaders. Their class instinct tells them that lasting full employment is unsound from their point of view, and that unemployment is an integral part of the ‘normal’ capitalist system.”
It’s all about power and control. Having government enact policies that aid average Americans is an affront to the people that own this country. In the modern way of doing things government is supposed to subsidize corporate power and let the market take care of the social good. Both parties agree with only the details of how this happens dividing them.
Wedge issues are so damn effective because one political party, the Republicans, have mastered the art of fear, appealing to the 20 or 30 percent of Americans who are reactionary. These people are, in a word, afraid. Republican politicians cynically exploit these fears by ominously warning of hordes of ISIS terrorists joining forces with Mexican rapists, or something. Sorry for the graphic visual but I listened to Fox News for a minute when my mom was here last week.
The Democrats are so vulnerable to wedge issues because they’ve abdicated their role of representing American workers who are under siege with rising inequality, loss of full time jobs and a whole host of economic insecurities. Mark Ames goes further and makes it abundantly clear that wedge issues in America are effective in a large part because of spite and that conservatives understand this better than progressives, who want to pretend that in the absence of economic populism American’s just want to do the right thing.
“What if Americans are not a likeable people? The left’s wires short-circuit when confronted with this terrible possibility; the right, on the other hand, warmly embraces Middle America’s rank soul and exploits it to their full advantage. The Republicans know Americans better than the left. They know that it’s not so much Goering’s famous “bigger lie” that works here, but the dumber and meaner the lie, the more the public wants to hear it repeated.”
Democrats need to get back to economic populism and forget about being nice. Americans know they’re being screwed and they need a villain. Bill Curry, says that Democrats can tap into voter discontent, but they better start talking like Bernie.
“As I’ve written here before, the country agrees with Democrats on nearly every issue now under debate — and by margins often exceeding 60/40. The list includes not just progressive economic policies like a minimum wage and paid family leave, but climate change, gun safety, gay marriage, the lifting of the Cuban embargo, all of the president’s immigration reforms, every tax proposal and nearly every budget priority. We say we’re polarized, but on these big issues we’re as near to consensus as we ever get. Voters who agree with Democrats vote Republican because of their fury at the condition of their government. Democrats are the party of government. If the Democrats won’t fix the government, voters won’t let them near it.”
Update: It’s about to get worse.
“As an unprecedented shift in public opinion brought about the legalization of gay marriage, a vigorous counter-current has been intensifying under the banner of “religious freedom”—an incredibly slippery term.”