Outdated paternalism alienates Generation Y

The California Legislature this month finally passed Senate Bill 2X-7, which would raise the legal smoking age in the state to 21. Assuming the governor signs the bill, California will follow Hawaii as the second state to have enacted such a law. In both states, the anti-smoking measures were overwhelmingly supported by Democratic lawmakers and generally opposed by Republicans. Similarly, left-leaning editorial boards from The New York Times and The Washington Post have uniformly expressed support for the bill or have separately advocated raising the smoking age.

This, to me, is unsettling. More than that, it’s problematic for the future of the Democratic Party. I have supported Democrats almost exclusively for the entirety of my voting life (about 13 years, at this point) and have done so despite the party’s tendency to meddle too much in individual decision-making. That’s because even as I’ve watched with frustration as the party has sought to regulate everything from seat belts and soft drinks to video games and title loans, I’ve agreed with its overall agenda of creating a more equitable and stable society — especially when the only alternative was a party that consistently showed hostility to anything that would alter the status quo.

But over time, I’ve found my misgivings about the party have grown.

Legislation like SB 2X-7 is emblematic of why. Eighteen-year-old adults can enlist in our military and die for our country. They can marry and have children, and they can enter into contracts in which they incur literally hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt (think school loans). To say that these adults are nonetheless incapable of making their own health decisions is, to me, hypocrisy of an astounding magnitude.

I find myself increasingly unwilling to abide that sort of hypocrisy. I’m a relatively pragmatic person and I know better than to expect perfection from any candidate or party. (Yes, I’m talking to you, Berners.) But my allegiance to the Democratic Party cannot withstand many more assaults like the one caused by this type of silly, overreaching paternalism.

And I am not alone. My generation (Gen Y, roughly) has grown up in an era of over-criminalization and hyper-regulation, and we are less and less tolerant of this old way of governing. No one thinks smoking is a good idea. That’s true of many things, yet for a variety of reasons we do them anyway. Those are the decisions we make as autonomous adults, and it isn’t the purpose of government to tell any adult — even the youngest — that his or her personal value hierarchy is wrong.

This is hardly a novel insight, but my generation seems the only one placing any emphasis on it of late. Maybe it’s because we’re at just the right point between the insouciance of youth and the stability of middle age. Whatever the reason, Gen Y understands better than most that the best way to ensure that young adults don’t make bad decisions is to let them make those bad decisions and then learn from them, as many of us did. So it isn’t at all surprising to me that virtually everyone hovering around the 30-year-old mark who I’ve asked about the California bill has responded with some variation of “Really? That’s just dumb.”

That doesn’t bode well for Democrats in California. The Democratic Party has enjoyed near complete dominance in the state legislature and municipal governments for decades, but if it continues to define itself with charades like SB 2X-7, I’m confident it will lose many of us along the way.

Mass Democratic attrition seems like a remote possibility in the age of Donald Trump, I know. But that age will end. When it does, it’s possible that a more reasonable Republican Party will emerge as a viable opposition. And a truly reformed Republican Party — one that wasn’t hostile to science and showed some concern about wealth inequality without spending its time telling (mostly poor) people how best to live their lives — could very well count people like me among its new membership, heralding the end of Democratic dominance in California (and elsewhere) for the foreseeable future.

So wise up, Democrats, or fade into irrelevance.

Matthew Pritchard is a graduate of Berkeley Law School and currently works as a federal public defender in the Southern District of California.

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