A highly divisive political or social issue. A wedge issue can create divisions between a candidate’s supporters or between members of the same political party. This can damage the candidate’s chances of winning elections, since it splits up the vote.
The list of wedge issues is constantly growing and evolving. But some of the more common wedge issues in the US include legal access to abortion and gun ownership, as well as issues related to race or sexual orientation.
There is also a lot of overlap between wedge issues and culture war issues. Any issue that can provoke voters’ passions and get them to the polls can qualify as a wedge issue. Wedge issues are also called hot button issues.
Merriam Webster notes that the term “wedge issue” was first used in its current sense in 1982.
The term may be relatively new, but the phenomenon is hundreds of years old. In the aftermath of the American Revolution, northern abolitionists asked Congress to outlaw slavery. Many southern lawmakers worried that abolition was turning into a wedge issue which could divide the northern and southern states. Concern about the possible wedge is part of the reason why Congress passed the fugitive slave act, historians say.
Today, journalists and pundits complain about wedge issues, which are seen as the tools of manipulative politicians. In 2020, the Washington Post ran a story titled “Power Up: Trump wants masks to be a 2020 wedge issue. But Americans, including Republicans, support them.” The piece argued that the president was trying to divide and conquer by playing on a hot button issue.
Similarly, in 2014 Delaware Online complained that President Barack Obama was deliberately trying to sow discord in the Republican Party by talking about immigration:
President Barack Obama used his post-election news conference Wednesday to make two promises. First, to cooperate more with Republicans, and, second, to use his executive authority to drive a political wedge into the new Republican majority before the end of the year, splintering it before it even takes office.”
Sometimes, it takes two sides to create a wedge issue. In 2016, Newsweek wrote about how race was turning into a wedge issue in the presidential election (“How Donald Trump Made Race the Wedge Issue of 2016”). The article argued that Donald Trump had ignited voters’ passions around racial issues, and that his Democratic opponents were trying to capitalize on the resulting backlash:
…public opinion research shows the billionaire businessman’s more conciliatory rhetoric could improve his standing with one pivotal group of voters—white moderates, and, in particular, white women. Those voters are critical to Trump’s chances of competing in states like Pennsylvania and North Carolina. It’s no coincidence that he shifted tone after polls showed him plummeting in those states this summer. Democrats, however, are mounting a dogged effort to keep Trump’s racially charged history in the spotlight, not so much to protect their advantage with minorities as to keep their edge with white swing voters. This fierce battle to frame Trump’s views on racism and minorities is poised to dominate the campaign through Election Day, making race the wedge issue of 2016.