TAR HEEL VIEW: Young independents could lead political pivot to the middle

When it comes to polarization, Phil Berger has a point.

As the N.C. Senate prepared to approve new legislative district maps on Aug. 28, Berger delivered a dissertation on the disappearance of moderate Democrats, blaming far-left politics for the party’s fall from power in the General Assembly.

“It’s easy to understand why gerrymandering has been the bogeyman since they were swept out of power in 2010,” Berger said. “It’s easier to blame the maps, blame a process, blame anything, really, than it is to take responsibility for losing touch with the politics of voters in 75 of North Carolina’s 100 counties.”

Berger said the “North Carolina Democrat” — a moderate political archetype who’s pro-education, pro-business, pro-gun and pro-life — is an endangered species if not extinct.

The Senate president pro-tem’s observation is keen, but Democrats’ lurch to the left didn’t happen in a vacuum.

Republicans, too, have abandoned the middle ground to feast on red-meat social issues that fire up traditionalists but do nothing to move our state forward. Remember the yearlong distraction of a largely symbolic transgender bathroom ban that didn’t even have any enforcement provisions?

Paul T. O’Connor, a syndicated columnist who has covered North Carolina politics for nearly four decades, wrote that both sides have shifted away from the center.

“In the early 1980s, quite a few Republicans were moderates,” O’Connor wrote in a recent column. “They voted, for example, against making the MLK Jr. holiday a dual celebration for Robert E. Lee. Today’s Republicans passed a law defending Confederate statues in the state.”

We don’t think a return to more moderate positions is imminent on either side of the aisle, but statewide trends give us a reason for optimism.

The gap between Democrats and Republicans is shrinking, and unaffiliated voters have surged past Republicans to become North Carolina’s second-largest voting bloc, according to Tuesday figures.

State Board of Elections and Ethics Enforcement data shows 2.6 million Democrats, 2,056,294 unaffiliated voters, 2,055,758 Republicans and 33,474 Libertarians in North Carolina.

Catawba College political science professor Michael Bitzer told the News & Observer that millennial voters are swelling the independents’ ranks. Roughly 40 percent of young voters are unaffiliated.

Many millennials are likely to have center-left or center-right political philosophies. For example, they may be liberal on social issues but favor low taxes and economic freedom. Conversely, some might support cradle-to-grave government health care while opposing abortion and taxpayer-funded gender reassignment surgery.

North Carolina’s political landscape won’t change overnight, but we’re beginning to feel the tremors of a seismic shift that could carve new fault lines in Raleigh.

Millennials are a frequent target of clickbait headlines that use consumer data to suggest their generation is “killing” once-dominant industries, hurting property values by delaying homeownership and frittering away disposable income on trendy artisanal foods.

If they can break North Carolina’s partisan gridlock, they’ll be doing us all a favor. Let them have their avocado toast.

The Wilson Times