Commenting on the Democratic debacle on election night 2002, James Carville remarked that the Democrats have to understand that people won’t believe you’ll fight for them if you won’t fight for yourself. It’s an insight that Howard Dean, at least, appears to have taken to heart. But is that posture enough to defeat George Bush in 2004? Probably not. It’s not just their greater combativeness that has given Republicans an electoral edge. They have been much more adept than Democrats at articulating neat, clean positions and yoking them to a larger social vision that speaks to people’s hopes and anxieties and that contrasts sharply with the worldviews attributed to their opponents.
Republicans are so bold, in fact, that it doesn’t even matter that the policies they advance to embody those positions do exactly the opposite of what they claim–as in “No Child Left Behind” or Medicare reform to provide prescription drug relief or “middle-class tax cuts.” They can count on the compelling nature of the larger vision they invoke, their disciplined insistence on their message, the reality that most people aren’t policy wonks who will study the fine print, and the complicity of cable news networks to neutralize opposition.
A key part of this strategy is defining wedge issues that divide the electorate in ways that will deliver a voting majority. A good wedge issue works because it can fasten a broad constituency to an apparently simple program that resonates symbolically with widely shared concerns and notions of a properly ordered society.
For decades now, Democrats have generally confined their use of wedge issues in defense of the remnants of the New Deal social contract and the more recent advances of the civil rights and women’s movements. Not since the Medicare debates of the mid-1960s have Democrats attempted to mobilize a national consensus around a new social right that applies to all Americans. It surely is more than a coincidence that during this same time period, the public image of the Democratic Party has shifted from the “party of the people” to the “party of special interests,” the label devised by its opponents. It certainly doesn’t help that the Democratic defense of those battered programs is often pro forma and concessionary.
Republicans have been so successful at this strategy that the term wedge issue naturally evokes their kind of divisive politics. However, building electoral majorities always boils down to distinguishing interests and mobilizing some against others. In fact, one reason the Democrats have lost so much ground to the GOP is their reluctance to draw sharp distinctions in the electorate, to press an us-versus-them agenda that mobilizes the large majority in support of humane public policy against the narrow interests of corporations and the rich. (Remember how Al Gore backed off in 2000 after Republicans whined that his one tepid populist speech was unfairly promoting class warfare?)
This campaign season offers a real wedge issue that has the potential to reverse this trend for any politician bold enough to see its significance: free higher education. Make every public institution of higher education free for all who meet the admissions standards. No means testing, no service or work requirements, no minimum or maximum ages. Just make it free for all.