Can marijuana be a wedge issue for democrats?

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Photo by Panos Sakalakis on Unsplash

Republicans are better at exploiting wedge issues than Democrats

In a way, you can understand where conservatives are coming from. To them, it seems like the world is completely out of control. The traditional image of an American family — 2 parents, married man and woman, church-going, patriarchal, white-centric — seem to be going the way of the dodo bird. These used to be social norms, society’s accepted way of doing things. Any behaviors that did not comport with those norms was viewed as abnormal, “weird,” “unacceptable.”

How things have changed. Now, only the most well-educated get and stay married. Most working class and poor families either involve cohabitation or single-parent households. The marriage norm is no longer the accepted way to have a family.

Similarly, by far the largest religion in America is people who are not part of an organized religion, at 38.6%. By contrast, evangelicals constitute 25.4% of the population, and Catholics 20.8. Mainline protestant religions — you know, the famous WASPS — only claim 14.7% adherence. And the number of unaffiliated is growing. These trends are consistent across just about every demographic group.

Change has come fast too. I remember the 1980s, when it was still accepted to make gay jokes. Not so much anymore. Now gay marriage is the law of the land, and we have a married gay man running for President. Literally, if you had told me this would be the case just ten years ago, I would have thought you were crazy.

Similarly, I remember watching the show House where the eponymous character tells an African-American politician that “they don’t call it the White House for nothing.” Of course, we know what happened just a few years later.

Now women are running for President and a transgender person wants to use the same bathroom as you. To a conservative who wants to count on a normative social order, this is chaos. Time to turn back the clock. To make America great again!

This kind of social disruption has given Republicans a key strategy that they have used to maintain power despite the fact that they represent the minority views on most issues. Where Democrats keep trying to remind the majority that they represent the majority views on Social Security, Medicare, healthcare, taxes, etc…, Republicans peel away from the Democrats enough people who support these issues to win elections using to “wedge issues.”

A wedge issue is an issue that divides your opponents enough to help you win a close race. The classic wedge issues are social issues. Where some working class families might otherwise support Democratic policies, scaring them about “crime” might drive them over to the Republican side. This tactic has been frustratingly effective.

When Democrats refer to Republicans engaging in “divide and conquer” politics, this is what they are talking about. In truth, though, Democrats make that statement because they are frustrated at their frequent inability to blunt such tactics.

Perhaps instead of criticizing Republicans for such tactics, we should engage in wedge issue politics ourselves. Exhibit 1: marijuana.

Legalizing marijuana is broadly popular in America at this point. Indeed, an increasing number of Republicans even favor this policy. Key swing including Michigan, Florida, Arizona and Pennsylvania have legalized medical marijuana, and the people who rely upon it are activated by this issue. They may share many views with Republicans, such as immigration, for example. But if you threaten their access to medical marijuana, watch out!

Michigan in particular is an opportunity for Democrats. Ballot initiatives passed twice with big margins favoring the legalization of marijuana. Despite this fact, the Republican-controlled legislature continues to make it difficult for people to access the substance. Clearly, the Republican position runs counter to the majority here.

In Macomb County in particular, the ballot question passed in 2018 by ten percentage points. Note that this is the Michigan county that helped Trump win the state, giving him a margin of 48,000 votes in a state he won by only 10,704. This is one of those key working class suburban counties that were critical to Trump’s 2016 victory, and that he must win big to be re-elected. Targeting medical marijuana users and advocates in these counties with a message that “Republicans want to take away your marijuana” could flip enough voters back to the Democratic party that Trump can no longer win.

My wife was quite taken by a conversation she heard on the radio in which the local radio personalities were openly discussing their marijuana use. I have been involved in some marijuana litigation, so I am regularly approached by neighbors — neighbors who would otherwise be apolitical or even conservative — asking about the state of the marijuana laws. This is an issue where Democrats can peel away Republican-leaning voters.

This issue could ultimately be the equivalent of the gun issue for Republicans. Most gun owners tend to be working class. Support for stronger gun laws is correlated with higher income and education. As a result, many of the second amendment activists would otherwise benefit from the Democratic economic policies. But they support Republicans out of fear that Democrats will take away their guns.

Gun control advocates regularly point to polling showing that a majority of Americans support tougher gun laws. But that doesn’t matter. People who support tougher gun laws make their voting decision based upon a number of issues. People who fear Democrats will take their guns vote only on that issue. I would wager that people who want access to medical marijuana might feel the same way.

I have long been puzzled by Democrats’ unwillingness to capitalize on this issue. But then again, Democrats are frequently behind the curve on some of these once-divisive issues. Neither Obama nor Hillary Clinton, you should remember, were initially in favor of gay marriage. It took the Supreme Court to legalize it.

Perhaps for once, we should be ahead of an issue rather than racing to get to the front of a parade.

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Mike is an Assistant Professor of Management for Legal and Ethical Studies at Oakland U. Mike combines his scholarship with practical experience in politics.

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