Following the Kavanaugh confirmation process, I was left with a persistent question: Why did large numbers of the electorate, especially voters who identified as independent, so strongly and publicly align with one of the two partisan positions? It was almost as though any other possible view was not allowed.
The intended result is a fracturing of the group’s voice and an undermining of its collective demands.
The talking points of politicians suggested a simple answer in that the Supreme Court nomination was of primary importance because of a possible judicial shift towards a more conservative court. However, that rationale didn’t address what appeared to be widespread independent voter alignment with dominant partisan viewpoints. To me, this suggested a modified form of wedge politics. To define the term: Wedge politics are high stakes or stigmatized issues framed and presented to a target audience in such a way that they prompt strong emotional responses. The intended result is a fracturing of the group’s voice and an undermining of its collective demands.
But we are in a new hyper-divisive political climate. According to a 2014 Pew Research Foundation study, the two parties, Democratic and Republican, became more polarized over the decade looked at, with partisan members less and less interested in finding a middle ground. Ideologically consistent members of each were found to vote along party lines. It seems correct to assume then that in such a climate, wedge politics used against either party will have little efficacy in shifting its members’ affiliations.
If the Kavanaugh confirmation was used as a wedge issue, and I think it was, then it seems the strategy was modified. Instead of the wedge being directed at members of either major party, it was used against independents. The goal was not merely to fracture the group, but to force the taking of sides. The premise that no other views beyond the two partisan positions would be allowed defined this particular wedge issue, whether intended as part of the strategy or as an emergent property. And so we saw independent voters quickly and willingly aligning with either Republicans or Democrats.
It could be argued that the stage was set and that the use of a wedge issue to split independents was a natural follow-up. For example, the Pew study referred to independent voters who held mixed views as “leaners,” meaning their viewpoints leaned closer to their partisan counterparts than to each other. They were described in the study as closet partisans.
If the two major parties used or allowed the Kavanaugh debate to be a wedge issue targeted against independent voters, what was their incentive since independent voters aligned with both sides? A compelling answer is found in the 2011 paper “Divisive Politics and Accountability,” by European Commission economist Áron Kiss. Kiss makes the case that the division of the independent voters so they align with partisan sides is of strategic interest to incumbent parties. The wedge issue functions in a typical fashion by dividing. In this modified form, however, independent voters are forced, as Kiss puts it, by the wedge issue to align with a partisan side. The incumbent’s base is strengthened and the cost of swaying the remaining independents, who make fewer demands on the politician, is reduced.
Divisive politics also benefits the non-incumbent party, but according to Kiss, this is an acceptable outcome. Similarly, their cost of swaying independent voters also decreases as demands upon the party are lessened. More importantly, the probability of the opposition party winning an election increases as the general state of equilibrium is upset.
In a divisive political climate where the two parties each have the support of about half the electorate, and given the assumption that independents are wild-cards whose voting may be unpredictable, it is of benefit to both parties to force independents to display their alliance to sides; polling accuracy would seemingly increase. Kiss analyzes this splitting of independents in detail, showing that the model works well even if only relatively few independent voters shift to one of the major parties. As a modified form of wedge politics, the Kavanaugh debate was an exemplary wedge issue given the resultant scorched earth terrain of independent voters.
One final thought. Democrats frequently speak of regaining a congressional majority in order to work together or to unify the polarized parties. I doubt this goal, given the benefits of divisive politics. They too know the partisan base voters won’t switch sides in the voting booths. I suspect what both sides want is to continue a form of modified wedge politics. All that is needed in this scenario is a series of well-designed issues that continue to force independent voters to align with one side or the other in a relatively predictable manner.