Wedge Issues

Five Wedge Issues for 2014

For many years, conservatives have used “wedge issues” to split moderates from progressives—measures like banning gay marriage, criminalizing flag burning, allowing prayer in schools, and slashing assistance to the poor. They still do that, of course, but in recent years the Tea Party has forced conservatives to emphasize policies with little popular appeal.

It’s time for progressives to promote some wedge issues of our own. To be clear, a progressive wedge issue: (1) pulls Americans to our side, (2) forces conservatives to defend an unpopular position, and (3) is both simple and substantial enough to become a voting issue in the next election.

For a PDF copy of Progressive Agenda—Five Wedge Issues for 2014, click here.

These are proactive policies to introduce in both red and blue states. If you can pass the legislation, do it. If you can’t, use these battles to show voters the differences between conservatives and progressives. Let them see that we are the ones on their side.

#1 Minimum Wage

The most obvious wedge issue in America is raising the minimum wage. In his State of the Union address, President Obama called for an increase in the federal minimum wage from $7.25 to $10.10 per hour. Thirty-three U.S. Senators and 183 members of the U.S. House are sponsoring legislation to increase the minimum wage to $10.10 over two years with an inflation adjustment thereafter. New Jersey, New York and Connecticut all increased their minimum wages in 2013.

A Hart Research poll found that Americans support the progressive bill in Congress—an increase to $10.10—by a margin of 80-20%. Even Republicans favor the increase by a margin of nearly 2-to-1. The Hart poll also found that, when asked whether they would be more or less likely to support a candidate for Congress who favored the minimum wage increase, 51% said they would be more likely and only 15% said less likely. The present political situation is similar to 2005-06 when progressives used the minimum wage very successfully as a wedge issue.

Turning from politics to policy, raising the minimum wage would benefit a tremendous number of Americans—about one-in-four private sector workers who earn less than $10 per hour. These are the very Americans who have been hit hardest by the economic downturn and need help the most.

What you can do:

#2 ObamaCare

The Affordable Care Act (ACA) will be a wedge issue in 2014 whether we like it or not. The entire conservative philosophy is based on the idea that government cannot handle major challenges like quality, affordable health care for all. That is why right wingers are hysterical about the ACA. Its success threatens to destroy their entire “government is the problem” narrative.

It is absolutely essential—for the future success of the progressive brand—that we stop being defensive about the ACA, realize what a powerful progressive wedge issue it is, and do everything possible to make ObamaCare both a policy and a political success.

The fact is, only about 36 percent of voters want to repeal the law, according to a Hart Research poll. That’s just the conservative base, people who will never vote for the progressive. Similarly, a CNN poll shows that 43 percent of Americans support the ACA, 35 percent oppose it because it’s too liberal, while 16 percent oppose it because it isn’t liberal enough. To understand the effect of this law on future elections, one must recognize that the leftists who say they oppose the ACA are not going to use that as a reason to support conservative candidates.

One should also understand that nearly 85 percent of Americans are already insured, and among voters, 90 to 95 percent have health insurance. Their overwhelming concern is for their own insurance, not anyone else’s. We need to point out to these voters that, contrary to the right wing’s “Chicken Little” warnings, the ACA has delivered important benefits with virtually no downside to them at all.

Progressives need to stop sitting on the sidelines and go on the offensive. In the 23 states where conservatives have blocked Medicaid expansion for purely political reasons, denying health insurance to millions of working families, this should be the loudest rallying cry.

What you can do:

  • Use this HHS toolkit to help your own constituents understand and take advantage of the ACA.
  • If your state has not approved the Medicaid expansion, fight for it using Voicing Our Values—To Expand Medicaid.
  • Urge your own jurisdiction, state or local, to direct government workers to help those eligible for benefits under the ACA, including small businesses, and forbid government employees or contractors from willfully lying about or misrepresenting residents’ rights under the ACA.
  • Argue for ObamaCare by using Voicing Our Values—To Defend the Affordable Care Act.

#3 Tax loopholes for the rich

Pollsters like to ask which political party Americans believe is “better” on one issue or another. For decades, polls indicated that voters favored Republicans on taxes because, frankly, people prefer lower taxes. But a historic sea change occurred just before the 2012 election when voters started to say that Democrats are better in “dealing with taxes.”

What’s happening is that, when it comes to taxes, persuadable voters now think that conservatives are looking out for the interests of the rich, not the middle class. About two-thirds of Americans think that both “upper-income people” and “corporations” are paying too little in taxes. Two-thirds favor increasing taxes on households earning over $250,000 a year.

Americans for Tax Reform provides a wealth of information about tax issues. Their polling shows: (a) Voters are now more concerned with tax fairness than lower taxes; (b) the public responds especially well to calls to end tax loopholes for large corporations; and (c) Americans are convinced that the current tax system is rigged in favor of powerful special interests and against the middle class.

Progressives need to press their advantage. There is no state or local tax code that can’t be improved by eliminating some regressive tax deductions, credits or subsidies. We should champion legislation that makes conservatives defend unpopular tax breaks for the rich.

What you can do:

#4 LGBT Rights

Between 1998 and 2012, conservatives used LGBT people as political scapegoats. Right wingers proposed state constitutional amendments to prohibit same-sex marriage, enacting such measures in 30 states. They also sought to prevent LGBT Americans from working as teachers, tried to block them from adopting children, and even tried to prevent the mention of homosexuality in school biology and social studies classes. Even as recently as last year, conservatives fought to keep gay children out of the Boy Scouts.

But the political tide has turned, dramatically. By a margin of about 55 to 40 percent, Americans now favor same-sex marriage. This margin will grow, and quickly, because Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 favor marriage equality by a margin of 73 to 21. At this point voters, by strong margins, oppose discrimination against gays and lesbians.

Some prominent conservatives have started to recognize that their movement is on the wrong side of history and that continued opposition to LGBT rights is political suicide. But as a Pew Research poll of LGBT people found, the political damage is done.

What you can do:

#5 Immigrants’ Rights

Immigration is another issue where conservatives have spent the past many years demonizing Americans for partisan political gain. It is no wonder that both Latinos and Asians overwhelmingly rejected conservative candidates in 2012.

It’s not that persuadable voters are ready to embrace unauthorized immigrants without reservations. Voters remain adamant that such immigrants should not have access to social services like Medicaid and food stamps. But thanks to the efforts of the immigration reform movement, the larger political environment has changed.

In a CBS poll, 78 percent favored and only 20 percent opposed “providing a path to citizenship for illegal immigrants in the U.S. if they met certain requirements including a waiting period, paying fines and back taxes, passing criminal background checks, and learning English." A Quinnipiac University poll found that Americans favor the Senate immigration reform bill by a margin of more than 2 to 1. And the same poll found that only 28 percent—just the conservative base—thinks that “illegal immigrants who are currently living in the United States…should be required to leave the U.S."

Surely, the issue of immigrants’ rights will have a tremendous long-term impact on American politics. Progressives should not hesitate to seek justice for new American immigrants.

What you can do:

For much more discussion of how to talk to voters about a wide variety of issues, see our book, Voicing Our Values: A Message Guide for Candidates, which is available at

For regular tracking of progressive and conservative legislation at the state and local levels, see

For a one-stop web-based public library of progressive state and local laws and model legislation, see

For more information, contact Bernie Horn at or call (202) 248-5349.

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