A wedge issue is a social issue, often of a divisive or controversial nature, which splits apart a population or political group. Wedge issues can be advertised or publicly aired in an attempt to weaken the unity of a population, with the goal of enticing polarized individuals to give support to an opponent or to withdraw their support entirely out of disillusionment. The use of wedge issues gives rise to wedge politics. Wedge issues are also known as hot button or third rail issues.
Political campaigns use wedge issues to exploit tension within a targeted population. A wedge issue may often be a point of internal dissent within an opposing party, which that party attempts to suppress or ignore discussing because it divides "the base." Typically, wedge issues have a cultural or populist theme, relating to matters such as crime, national security, sexuality (e.g. gay marriage), or race. A party may introduce a wedge issue to an opposing population, while aligning itself with the dissenting faction of the opposition. A wedge issue, when introduced, is intended to bring about such things as:
- A debate, often vitriolic, within the opposing party, giving the public a perception of disarray.
- The defection of supporters of the opposing party's minority faction to the other party (or independent parties) if they lose the debate.
- The legitimizing of sentiment which, while perhaps popularly held, is usually considered inappropriate or politically incorrect; criticisms from the opposition then make it appear beholden to special interests or fringe ideology.
- In an extreme case, a wedge issue might contribute to the actual fracture of the opposing party as another party spins off, taking voters with it.
To prevent these consequences from occurring, the opposing party may attempt to take a "pragmatic" stand and officially endorse the views of its minority faction. However, this can lead to the defection of supporters of the opposing party's majority faction to a third party, should they lose the debate.
Lew Rockwell argues that if the state is unleashed to solve the problem of child exploitation, "The power will not be used to solve the problem, but rather to intimidate the population in ways that people will find difficult to object to":
|“||The goal of the state is to find some practice that is universally reviled and pose as the one and only way of expunging it from society. The best example today is child pornography, a grim and ghastly industry that every decent person would like to see eradicated from the earth. But in the name of doing so, the state invades everyone's privacy, controls speech, interferes with families, and otherwise uses the issue as a wedge to eliminate every freedom.||”|
- Rockwell, Llewellyn H. (30 April 2008). But What About the Children?. Mises Daily.