The Democratic Party's Wedge Issues

By Doctor Comrade

Americans are dissatisfied with the two-party system. A Gallop poll from last September indicated that 60% of Americans believe a third party is needed in American politics. Nationally, neither the Republicans nor the Democrats have majorities that are satisfied with the parties. But despite calls for third (and fourth) parties to be included in national elections, and despite the majority of Americans agreeing that the two-party system is not representative, and despite an overwhelming majority of young people demanding better representation, the two major parties maintain nearly complete hegemony over the electoral process. And at least for the GOP, they've been able to maintain this power using "wedge issues" to force the hand of many voters.

Republicans turned to "wedge issues" to try and preserve their waning voting blocs. Wedge issues are social issues that conservatives have used to hold on to many people who would otherwise vote for Democrats: opposition to abortion rights, gay marriage, affirmative action, and gun rights restrictions have guaranteed that many people would vote against their economic interest in favor of the party that has slashed taxes for the rich and actively campaigned against helping the lower classes.

But wedge issues no longer belong exclusively to the GOP. As liberal hawk Michael Tomasky pointed out, many of those same issues are now liabilities for Republicans and could help Democrats swing elections: "the era of the wedge issue may be over. But wait! Why should it be over? Maybe it’s time for some liberal wedge issues! I like the sound of that a lot." Then he cites broad support for same-sex marriage as a way for Dems to win more votes because "the likely Democratic candidate can cast shame upon the head of her opponent." It may be the tipping point for some libertarian-leaning voters to side with the Democrats over the Republicans on this issue. We may see more positions like this in the coming years, including the legalization of marijuana, single-payer healthcare reform, and substantial increases to the federal minimum wage.

However, these wedge issues for the Democrats entrench the two-party system, endanger democracy, and burden left-of-center voters with loyalty to a party that does not represent them. Slavoj Žižek argued this week that

"this cosy democratic consensus is not healthy for politics and the Left... the Leftist call for justice tends to be combined with struggles for women’s and gay rights, for multiculturalism and against discrimination including racism. The strategic aim of the Clinton consensus is to dissociate all these struggles from the Leftist call for justice... The message of this consensus to the Leftists is: you can get everything, we just want to keep the essentials, the unencumbered functioning of the global capital."

Essentially, if the Democrats get to claim ownership of these social issues--while at the same time doing nothing to address the oppression of capitalism and imperialism--then what they are doing is restricting democracy to a small number of social issues while simultaneously disassociating economic/class justice from cultural/social justice. If voters become beholden to the Democrats because of abortion or LGBTQ rights, then the Democrats are under no obligation to address the systemic crises of capitalism and imperialism.

We've already seen wedge issues piled on the heads of left-of-center people who have decided not to vote for Hillary Clinton. For example, we've heard that we must elect Clinton to ensure nominations of progressive Supreme Court justices to protect advances in abortion rights, same-sex marriage, and LGBTQ rights in particular. Of course, no socialist is criticizing these gains; in fact, we acknowledge how critical these social gains are for the individuals that benefit from them. However, we should not approach this issue uncritically.

Look no farther than President Obama's endorsement of same-sex marriage and his support for the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a trade deal which is opposed by unions and other working-class organizations. Or the Democrats' support for racial justice in the United States while American bombs rain down on Syrians. Or Hillary Clinton's tepid support for increasing the minimum wage in the US after she opposed increasing the minimum wage in Haiti. Žižek summarizes this as a "feelgood election" because "half a million dead children is an affordable price for a military intervention that ruins a country, while wholeheartedly supporting women’s and gay rights at home." So voters may pat themselves on the back for supporting LGBTQ people in the US, while numerous LGBTQ people will die abroad from American airstrikes. Or gay workers will be able to get married just as their jobs are outsourced overseas. Or a woman will be able to have an abortion but will not be able to afford to pay her rent.

These positions force American voters to choose the lesser of two evils in every election. Many will choose to vote for Democrats because at least the Democrats support some civil rights. With only two choices--the socially conservative Republicans who will do their best to erase and reverse gains made for civil rights for minority groups, or the socially liberal Democrats who have positioned themselves as the party of social justice while selling out workers and foreign citizens--no American voter can choose both social and economic justice.

This is capitalist ideology in its most obvious form. The elites control the range of acceptable discourse. They have constricted democracy to a false choice between two pro-capitalist parties, and each party uses social issues as the means by which to guarantee loyalty to their party platform. The Democrats promise to raise the minimum wage, but not to attack the oppression of the wage system. The Republicans promise to abolish abortion rights, but not to fund prenatal healthcare initiatives or women's health programs. Just because the Democrats are right on some issues does not mean they are the party of justice. In fact, these issues blind voters to the ways capitalism is allowed to continue exploiting the working class. The existence of wedge issues demonstrates that American democracy is broken. And Americans already know that, but they feel powerless to change it.

My very short collection of short stories, Prepare Your Defenses, is now available! You can pre-order it for Kindle or purchase the softcover. Click here to read the entire first chapter.