I’ve been poking around the Web looking for the origin of the political term, “wedge issue,” and I haven’t made much progress. Some sources refer to Philip Johnson, who in 1992 apparently saw the concept of “intelligent design” as a potential wedge by which to open a bigger fissure in the teaching of evolutionary concepts, but he doesn’t seem to have used the term itself, “wedge issue,” then. Here’s one of such sources.
Of course, the concepts of widening gaps between political groups and of splitting political groups have been around forever, figuratively.
For example, in “Just What the Doctor Ordered,” in the Smithsonian magazine (April 2005, available at the Smithsonian site), Beverly Gage shows the extent to which booze, specifically beer, was a wedge issue after Prohibition was instituted. Her amusing opening paragraph goes all the way back to 1758, however, to show how venerable booze plus politics have been in American culture:
“In 1758, young George Washington decided to seek a seat in the Virginia House of Burgesses. He had been stymied in an earlier bid, he believed, by one crucial error: he had not “treated” the voters properly—which is to say, he had not provided them with sufficient alcoholic refreshment. This time, determined to correct his ways, he purchased some 144 gallons of wine, rum, hard cider, punch and beer for distribution to supporters. At more than two votes per gallon, Washington’s effort proved successful, launching a rather distinguished career in American politics.”
Later in the article comes this paragraph:
“Yet the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution did not amount to a complete “prohibition” on all forms of alcohol. It banned only the manufacture, sale or transportation of alcohol ‘for beverage purposes’—in other words, for the pleasure and delight of socializing and inebriation.”
(You have to like the term, “for beverage purposes.”) This lingering distinction between booze as social lubricant and booze as medicine persisted, so that doctors could legally prescribe liquor, a practice that gets represented in novels from the period, including Rudolph Fisher’s excellent detective novel, The Conjure Man Dies, in which a well trained African American doctor prescribes liquor just to try to make a living in post-1929 Harlem. Gage goes on to link liquor-as-medicine in the 1920s to marijuana-as-medicine in the 21s century. If this linkage is predictive, the use of marijuana may emerge from the cloud, so to speak, of prohibition. I have no idea about the extent to which legalizing marijuana is a wedge-issue; about all I can observe is that regular but casual contact with news and opinion seems to suggest it’s certainly much less of a wedge-issue than “government bail-outs” (which just cost Bob Bennett of Utah his Senate seat), gay-and-lesbian issues (marriage, military service), and that old American stand-by, race (Arizona’s new laws).