Lockdown, a word most often associated with prisons, has become commonplace on college campuses. The horror struck UNC again on Wednesday when law enforcement reported concerns that an armed person may have carried a gun in the Student Union. State troopers with long-nosed rifles patrolled the campus, a startling sight. This has become a defining trauma of Generation Z’s coming of age.
In response to young people’s pleas to end the carnage, Republicans have become utterly intransigent. The party is more pro-gun than ever. Every time a shooting scars a campus, the unified response from virtually every Republican officeholder is to scapegoat mentally ill people, perhaps mixing in a preposterous jab at “woke society.” They are not only refusing, absolutely and without exception, to address an existential concern of young people in this country. They are aligning themselves more fervently than ever with a belligerent white-male tribe that demands an absolute right to the ownership of a gun.
This may seem puzzling, that a political party with a losing record should snub a new generation of voters. But there is precedent behind this seeming madness. In our history, politicians have reacted to the rise of new voters in one of two ways. They have either adjusted to the presence of enfranchised citizens, or they have, in effect, counterattacked. Conservatives are choosing the belligerent road.
The South is often the purest encapsulation of American hope and pathology. In the area of new voters, it’s had the most dramatic history. Interestingly, arch-racist North Carolina Senator Furnifold Simmons attempted to win over women voters in his 1930 campaign for Senate; knowing that he had campaigned against woman suffrage for decades, they were unamused. But Simmons’s opportunistic inclusion strategy has been the exception in Southern politics. More often, Southern conservatives have sought to silence the voices of recently enfranchised voters who’d spent generations on the margins.
Back up to Reconstruction. A wave of new voters–Black men–had entered the Southern electorate in the wake of emancipation and the 15th Amendment. These men immediately transformed Southern life, opening schools, liberalizing elections, entering the workforce, and uniting families. Theoretically, the white Southern elite could have accepted this transformation as the verdict of history and made efforts to win Black-male votes. Instead, in a terroristic campaign employing fraud and violence, they forced Black men back onto the margins and solidified a system of legal apartheid that would keep the South in the dark world of oppression for 100 years.
A less sanguinary, but equally malevolent, campaign of backlash is occurring in the Republican Party right now. The rise of Millennials and Gen Z has represented the greatest racial transformation of the country’s electorate since Reconstruction. These generations are far more diverse than any previous cohort of Americans, and with their entry into the electorate has come a broad diversification of the American voter pool. Republicans, since 1964 the party of the white South, have declined to appeal to these people. Instead, they have targeted Black, brown, and young voters with the precision of a laser beam. They are attempted to force the genie back into the bottle so old-school white Anglos can rule undisturbed.
In North Carolina, Republicans have shuttered voting sights on college campuses, attempted to ban college IDs from counting toward discriminatory voter ID rules, introduced a bill that would ban college students’ parents from claiming them for tax purposes unless the student voted at their college address, and generally attempted to exclude young people from political life in every way they could. At the same time they’re taking positions on the pivotal issues of Gen-Z life–gun violence, climate, the dignity of the individual–that could not be more repugnant to most Zoomers and their relative elders in the Millennial generation. The message they are sending is perfectly unambiguous: The Republican tribe will rule.
Alexander Jones is an original contributor to PoliticsNC.