The Wedge Strategy is a strategy in forensic rhetoric, applied by former UC Berkeley law professor Phillip E. Johnson, and by his disciples in the Christianist movement, to a wide range of Christianist activism on cultural, political and social issues. The Wedge Strategy takes its name from the shape of the intersection of two sets in a Venn diagram:
Before it was applied by Johnson to Christianist activism, the Wedge Strategy was used, under different names, by other intellectually marginal ideological movements. Under the name of "Popular Front," it was widely used, during the Red Decades of the 1930s and 40s, by Communist parties and Communist-controlled "Popular Front" organizations.
In the Venn diagram of the Wedge Strategy, set A is the set of implications of the ideas, principles, worldviews and ideologies held by a targeted individual such as a judge, or by most members of a targeted population or group. For example, set A might be the prior worldview of Americans targeted by Communist activism during the Red Decades. This prior American worldview was strongly individualistic, with an implied antipathy toward all collectivist and totalitarian movements.
Set B is the set of implications of the ideology that is being promoted by means of the given Wedge Strategy. In the case of "Popular Front" activism during the Red Decades, Set B would be the implications of the ideas being advanced by the Communist Party and promoted by its newspaper, The Daily Worker.
The Wedge consists of concrete issues ("Wedge issues") on which A and B, for their different reasons, may agree. For example, individualists ("A") opposed all manifestations of collectivism and totalitarianism. They despised the Communist Party and its "Daily Worker," and equally despised German National Socialism and its American version, Father Charles Coughlin's Social Justice movement and its eponymous periodical, "Social Justice." The Communists also opposed the "Social Justice" movement, their main competitor among people inclined to favor collectivist totalitarianism of either kind. This made opposition to Coughlin's Social Justice movement a useful wedge issue in the Communists' strategy.
The wedge strategy is an efficient political tactic. A wedge issue can give the advocates of marginal ideology B a relatively easy victory. As long as A's remain unaware that a wedge strategy is being used against them, B's will face no opposition from A's on such issues. B's may even find allies and co-workers among adherents of A. They will be able to convince some adherents of A that they are "not as bad" as their common enemy - for example, that Communism is not as objectionable as National Socialism.
In ideological strategy, wedge issues legitimize the consideration of principles drawn from ideology B as a guide to public policy. In the forensic context, a judge who agrees with the conclusion of a wedge-issue argument, but cannot identify the tacit principle on which his agreement with this conclusion is based, may accept the argument of ideology B as the recorded reason for his verdict. In public debate, if A is held by a significant fraction of its adherents tacitly rather than explicitly, the B's' wedge strategy will legitimize the doctrines of B among adherents of A: if we agree with them on issue after issue, then there seems to be no contradiction between their ideals and ours. They might even be the good guys, and their ideas may deserve to be heard, and to be included in the national consensus on legislation and public policy.
The same mechanism may gain adherents for B. Some A's might convert to B. Others will suppress criticism of B in the interest of the common cause. With criticism of B suppressed, B will have an improved shot at gaining adherents among the previously undecided.
Wedge strategies are covert. Even an otherwise consistent, principled advocate of A, who merely fails to recognize that a wedge strategy is being used against him, can be fooled by a wedge issue. To the extent that he uses his time and resources to work for a wedge issue endorsed by B, he will not spend his time and resources working toward those goals of A that conflict with B. Working together with advocates of B toward a common goal on the wedge issue, he becomes less likely to work against them on other issues. Even as he continues to think of himself as an effective worker for A, he actually works for B. He becomes what the Communists of the Red Decades called a "fellow traveler" - and, in private, "a useful idiot."
The principled response to a wedge issue, is to reject all participation in organizations and actions led by advocates of B. Once a wedge issue is in play, rational advocacy, of the principle of A that is being exploited by the wedge issue, must address and include some of the implications of A that are contrary to B, and that activists for B will shy away from and oppose.
In April 1940, Dashiell Hammett invited Ayn Rand to a fund-raising event for a Popular Front organization campaigning against Coughlin's "Social Justice." Rand's reply to Hammett ended like this:
.... I do welcome anyone fighting against Coughlin's "Social Justice." But when you give a party to fight both "Social Justice" and The Daily Worker, count me in and I'll give you $7.00 per ticket, let alone $3.50. Not until then, Comrade, not until then.
I will call this the Ayn Rand defense. How would this defense be applied in 2008?
Wedge strategies are now the chosen instrument of an active Christianist movement. A neighbor is collecting signatures on a petition to the board of our local Public Library District. The petition asks that tax funds, money collected at gunpoint from mostly Christian taxpayers, should not be used to buy books that the Christians object to. The petition seems reasonable. It does not ask that "objectionable" books already on library shelves be removed. It does not ask the library to reject voluntary donations of such books from individuals and private organizations. It only proposes that Christian taxpayers should not be forced, at gunpoint, to pay for the propagation of ideas that they detest. What could possibly be wrong with that?
What is wrong is that it would insert consideration of religious correctness - ideology B - into public policy. So I might take my cue from Ayn Rand and say something like this:
I do welcome anyone who fights against taxes. When you ask me to sign a petition to bar the use of tax funds for buying books that you consider blasphemous or obscene, and equally to bar the use of tax funds for buying additional copies of the Bible, or of the writings of St. Augustine, preferably by setting the libraries free from any tax subsidy whatsoever - then not only will I sign, but I will help you circulate that petition to the rest of the neighborhood and the town.
Not until then, Comrade (or maybe "Brother,") not until then.
(In Wedge Strategy, Part II, I will consider several variants of the wedge strategy and how they can be countered.)