Over the weekend, a spat erupted on Twitter between veteran political operatives and two opinion writers at the McClatchy papers in the state. Ford Porter, communications director for Governor Cooper and Dallas Woodhouse, former executive director of the North Carolina GOP, both questioned the experience of Sara Pequeño and Paige Masten, two twenty-somethings who write for the opinion pages of the News & Observerand Charlotte Observer, to be writing serious political analysis. I understand what Porter and Woodhouse are saying, but I think their criticisms are misguided and a bit short-sighted. They would probably do better to listen to what these writers are saying than just criticizing their takes.
We face a generational divide as wide as any we’ve seen since the 1960s. Young people are more politicized than they’ve been in decades. In both 2018 and 2022, people under 30 voted in larger numbers than they have in decades. They will shape the political landscape moving forward. Democrats, in particular, depend on their participation for success now. Republicans will need to better understand them if they hope to stay competitive in the future.
Pequeño and Masten might sometimes sound naïve to people like me, Porter, and Woodhouse, but they better reflect the views and political perspectives of people of their generation than veteran opinion writers who came of age in the late 1900s. Their views are certainly as valid as any of those writers. I read a whole lot of conservative writers and regularly think they’re nuts, but I also understand that they reflect the opinions of a lot of people that I don’t know and with whom I disagree. Their views are valid no matter how ridiculous they sound to me.
Instead of criticizing the young writers for their age and experience, a more respectful approach would be to challenge them in the medium in which they live and write. I write a blog because I want to people to hear what I have to say. Porter and Woodhouse certainly have access to platforms as influential as the ones that host Pequeño and Masten. An argument based on ideas has more value than a criticism based on age and experience.
That said, I have my own criticism of younger voters, or not younger voters per se, but progressive political observers who pin their hopes on a huge turnout of younger voters. While we’ve seen a large increase in the number of younger voters, their voter participation pales in comparison to voters over 40. As Pequeño notes, North Carolina has seen a 14% increase in voters 18-24 since 2018, but their turnout rate probably won’t reach 25% while voters over 65 probably voted at a rate closer to 65%.
According to exit polls, voters 18-24 gave Beasley a margin of 11 points while voters over 65 gave Budd one of 13 points. Those younger voters made up less than 10% of the electorate and the older voters made up almost 30%. The math is bad for Democrats if they believe younger voters are the answer to their problems.
Pequeño argues that Democrats need to appeal more to younger voters if they want them to vote. I agree that Democrats need to have a message and agenda that appeals to younger voters, but I don’t believe that it will increase younger voters’ turnout much. They’ve been lagging their elders’ turnout levels by between 20 and 40 percent since 18-year-olds were given the right to vote in 1972. If they aren’t going to vote when they’re getting drafted to fight failing wars, then I don’t think issues facing the country today are going to drive up turnout dramatically.
To win in North Carolina, Democrats need to keep those young people engaged and not lose them to third parties or Republicans. They also need to win swing voters and cut into their losing margins with older voters in more rural areas. They are threading a needle with a brand that has been severely damaged with a segment of the population, but I believe progress is possible.
Three issues cut across all of those groups. Democrats should start now with an agenda that includes legalizing marijuana, free community college, and protecting the right to an abortion. Those issues engage younger voters and appeal to the middle, especially younger voters from working class families.
Legalizing marijuana is no longer stigmatizing. People who oppose it strenuously enough to determine their vote probably aren’t going to vote Democratic anyway. Some people who support it, in particular veterans looking for treatment for pain and PTSD, have been leaning Republican for years. It’s both good politics and good policy.
Free community colleges should be a no brainer to a state that’s attracting as many cutting edge companies as North Carolina. Technical training is largely subsidizing industry so it’s also an economic development tool. Democrats can also acknowledge that not everyone needs a four-year college degree and technical training can lead to a middle class income for a lot of young people without incurring student debt.
Finally, abortion proved to be a very salient motivator in this election. While North Carolina didn’t see the gender gap that emerged in other states, Republicans in the legislature will be under pressure from their base to put sharp restrictions on women’s rights this session. Democrats need to pushback hard against their efforts to curb abortion rights and start to consolidate their support among women, especially those of childbearing age.
Anybody interested in politics should be reading what younger writers are saying. Disagree with them as much as you disagree with anybody else, but their views are legitimate and more likely reflect the views of their peers. The best way to understand people is to listen to them and Democrats, in particular, need to listen to young people. I don’t agree with pundits and others who claim that younger voters are the saviors of democracy, but I know that Democrats do better when they vote. Right now, they are more politicized than they’ve been in decades. Democrats need to keep their engagement because if they lose interest, the party will need to make up the difference somewhere else and, in North Carolina, I don’t know where that would be.