Camille Paglia wants to see it happen. So does InstaGlenn, who adds that it’d be particularly smart for Republicans to take the lead on this since it would help ingratiate them to otherwise chilly left-leaning young voters. I remember reading his op-ed on this subject last year and nodding along, but the more I think about it, the more unsure I am. Would a Republican effort on the drinking age help them win young adults?
First, here’s Paglia:
Learning how to drink responsibly is a basic lesson in growing up — as it is in wine-drinking France or in Germany, with its family-oriented beer gardens and festivals. Wine was built into my own Italian-American upbringing, where children were given sips of my grandfather’s homemade wine. This civilized practice descends from antiquity. Beer was a nourishing food in Egypt and Mesopotamia, and wine was identified with the life force in Greece and Rome: In vino veritas (In wine, truth). Wine as a sacred symbol of unity and regeneration remains in the Christian Communion service. Virginia Woolf wrote that wine with a fine meal lights a “subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse.”
What this cruel 1984 law did is deprive young people of safe spaces where they could happily drink cheap beer, socialize, chat and flirt in a free but controlled public environment. Hence in the 1980s we immediately got the scourge of crude binge drinking at campus fraternity keg parties, cut off from the adult world. Women in that boorish free-for-all were suddenly fighting off date rape. Club drugs — ecstasy, methamphetamine, ketamine (a veterinary tranquilizer) — surged at raves for teenagers and on the gay male circuit scene.
Okay, but how likely is it that lowering the drinking age by a few years would spark a cultural transformation in which American parents are suddenly pouring wine for their teenagers at dinner? Letting people drink at 18 might demystify alcohol a little but it’s hard for me to believe it would put a big dent in college binge-drinking, which is also a (sub-)cultural phenomenon. Alcohol laws barely exist for underaged college kids as it is; dropping the last remnants isn’t going to revolutionize the practice.
I’m more sympathetic to Glenn’s fairness argument, that it simply isn’t just to tell an 18-year-old that he’s adult enough to die for his country if need be but not quite adult enough to crack a Bud in front of a cop without getting arrested. If Republicans want to repeal the law for that reason, I’m all for it. But is this a political winner? Here’s what Gallup found when it polled the subject:
Remarkably consistent. A more recent poll, from 2010, also found the public heavily opposed, 27/69. But surely the numbers are different among young adults, no? They’re the coveted demographic, after all. The data:
There’s more support among young adults (especially among 18-20-year-olds, I’d bet) than there is among the wider population but even they’re overwhelmingly against lowering the age. Question, then: Would the GOP lose more older voters in pushing to lower the drinking age than they’d gain among the minority of younger voters who support lowering it? Remember, it’s older people and married couples (i.e. the parents of teenagers) who comprise much of the Republican base these days. Making a play for their kids with a measure like this — which is, after all, a boutique issue — carries a real risk of alienating them.
On the other hand, there’s a caveat to these numbers: Since 2007, when Gallup’s poll was taken, the public’s become vastly more agreeable to the idea of legalizing marijuana. It may be that, as they’ve liberalized on that drug, they’ve also quietly liberalized on teenage drinking and the big pollsters simply haven’t picked up on it yet. It’d be worth knowing that, just to see if a push on the drinking age is more viable than it used to be. But even that could be tricky. If the GOP’s older, married base is (a little) more open to legal weed than they used to be, might they be less open to letting teens drink in the belief that drug liberalization is now moving too fast? And is it even fair to extrapolate opinions on kids drinking from opinions on adults using pot? Lots of people sympathize with the idea that an adult should be free to put what he wants in his own body, but when you start pushing that principle on teenagers, they might get nervous.