Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Politics: Consensus on Wedge Issues

PLACERVILLE, CALIFORNIA - One of the things that has long driven me crazy about politics in the United States is that politicians of both major political parties have tended to campaign on hot-button or wedge issues that energized fundraising and voter turnout, but were unlikely to be acted upon by those politicians. Meanwhile, important issues--often related to the economy--would not be campaigned on, and since action is rarely if ever actually taken on the wedge issues, effectively a lot of political energy that could have gone toward issues that could have been acted upon was wasted.

In the current political climate, this may be finally starting to change. A combination of changing demographics and the current focus on the economy has led to a growing consensus on the wedge issues used by both Republicans and Democrats. The example that people seem to like to focus on is gay marriage. Statistically, gay marriage is a non-issue for younger people; those below 30 overwhelming favor the legalization of gay marriage even in so-called "red" states. So, there are a lot of people saying that it is only a matter of time before a clear consensus exists in favor of gay marriage ( even reports a plurality in favor already nationally). The issue is unlikely to be useful to Republicans for anything besides energizing their base; it won't be a winning issue on election day.

However, it's not just Republican wedge issues that are going away. Democrats in the mountain west and elsewhere are running on a platform of gun control. There are now enough of them elected that despite the Democrats' clear numerical advantage in both the House and Senate and having the presidency, there has been no serious effort to bring forth significant gun control legislation. This wedge issue is effectively gone as well; those with a relatively broad interpretation of the second amendment have won.

Even the quintessential wedge issue, abortion, may be fading. Republicans seem to be reaching the realization that not taking seriously their pro-choice candidates has helped decimate their ranks of moderates. Meanwhile, President Obama continues to use conciliatory language towards those who don't believe in abortion. The net effect is that neither party talks much about abortion and the status quo of widely varying accessibility of abortion by state and region continues to exist.

Canadians haven't wasted much time on any of these topics in recent years. Abortion and gay marriage are clearly legal, and while gun laws get some attention, especially from the Conservatives, the reality faced by gun owners hasn't changed much after three years of a Conservative government. If the trends in the United States are toward a growing consensus on these issues (even if each consensus is very different than the Canadian one), then maybe that will be one stop toward "good government" that is demanded by the Canadian populace in the United States. In any event, one hopes that the focus on more important things, like the economy, will not just be a passing fad but will instead prove a permanent part of the US political culture.

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