Three years ago, the voters of Charlotte, N.C., did something that startled much of the country and many of the city's voters themselves. They elected what was widely described as the first majority-millennial city council of any major American city. The new members themselves generally shied away from that description, but there was no way to deny the significance of what had happened.
The average age of the 11-member council had been reduced from 61 to 45, and most of the new members were in their 20s and 30s. If they didn't like to call themselves millennials, they didn't disguise their contempt for the city's old guard. One of them joked that the best way to think about the new group was as "agents of destruction." They launched a podcast, one of whose musical themes came from the band Rage Against the Machine.
These "Young Turks" also had a wide range of generalized goals. They wanted more public transit, more affordable housing, dramatic action on climate change and, perhaps most visibly, a transparent government that would not only produce podcasts but would stream its meetings live on Facebook. The Wall Street Journal spread the news of this local insurgency to readers all over the United States, along with similar stories about equally young, if somewhat less militant, new officials chosen in diverse cities around the country.
In the years since then, most of the country has largely forgotten about the Charlotte insurgency. But one well-informed and diligent local reporter, Charlotte Agenda's Michael Graff, has followed the phenomenon step by step. He tells a compelling story, some of it surprising, but much of it, when you stop to think, not so surprising at all.
After three years, it's fair to say that the Charlotte militants have done a certain amount of what they wanted to do. They took a step toward building a light rail line to the airport. They voted to increase an affordable housing bond issue. Just this month, they came together to vote for a new mixed-use development on the site of the moribund Eastland shopping mall. That isn't nothing.
But what they have done most conspicuously is squabble with each other, often about issues that didn't exactly seem earth-shaking. They fought over whether to allow a Republican National Convention to be held in their city. They fought over salary increases and longer council terms. They staged angry debates about whether members should be able to participate in meetings via videoconferencing.
By the middle of 2020, virtually all of them were prepared to admit that something was wrong. This came out not only in Graff's reporting but in the things they were willing to say about each other and about their institution. "Council is more divided than ever before," one of the members told Graff. "You don't really get to see the results of your accomplishments as a group," another lamented. Another complained, somewhat naively, that "it's unfortunate there's a difference between politics and government." The mayor pro tem admitted that "we're really not in a good place." And a member who opted to leave after two years perhaps summed it up best: "The expectation that we were going to be this activist council has not been met."
What's perhaps most striking about Charlotte's Young Turks is that so few of their disputes revolved around the large issues that drove them into politics. Some of the arguments were about big ideas, such as how to respond to accusations of police misconduct, but many more revolved around less consequential issues of personal prerogatives. Were salaries and length of terms really the subjects that the Charlotte electorate had empowered them to discuss? Did it really matter whether members would be allowed to participate in meetings virtually? A Facebook comment seemed to capture the aura of dysfunction: "You all are definitely weird to each other."
Of course, there was one simple explanation for what was happening: The agents of change were becoming enmeshed in their own perks, status and political prospects. That's how one local Democratic strategist put it. "Ambitions," he told Graff, "are getting in the way of judgment. They're looking into their own future and using city council as a stepping stone." To a more cynical observer, the whole situation had come to resemble a scene from George Orwell's Animal Farm. Idealistic newcomers, having conspired successfully to oust an unresponsive old guard, had come to behave pretty much the way the old guard had.
BUT APT AS THE COMPARISON MAY BE, it seems a bit myopic to write off the travails of Charlotte's Young Turks as the result of ambition or personal vanity. It suggests some broader observations about what happens to most cadres of idealistic young reformers when they come to occupy the seats of power they fought to obtain. I appreciate the dangers of generalizing from a single case, but I find some lessons hard to escape.
"Change" is a seductive word in American politics: Thousands of candidates at all levels of government ran for office this year proclaiming themselves "change agents," as has been true in every election in modern memory. I know of no candidates who proclaimed themselves apostles of the status quo. "Keep the rascals in" is not a slogan anyone would think to use.
But this temptation is fraught with difficulty. Of all the aspiring office holders who run on a platform of change, many if not most avoid specifying which particular changes they plan to implement. They have trouble prioritizing. We all want change in one form or another; it is dangerously easy to slide into the assumption that the changes we want are the same ones the candidate has at the top of the list.
Change is an especially powerful idea when it is merged with generational turnover. This is true at every level of the political system. Most of us who were around to listen remember how stirring it was for John F. Kennedy to declare in his inaugural address that "the torch has been passed to a new generation — born in this century." The fact that you could be part of this group at the age of 60 did not detract from the power of his peroration.
At the congressional level, Young Turk Democrats in 1974 and Young Turk Republicans in 1994 both rode into power on the promise of generational renewal and achieved some modest incremental change, but soon found themselves more attuned to internal squabbling than to massive reformation. Barack Obama promised generational renewal in 2008, and galvanized a huge audience on election night by proclaiming that "because of what we did on this date in this election, at this defining moment, change has come to America." It wasn't clear just what change he was promising, but even he would admit — does admit in his new memoir — that his years in power did not bring about massive societal change of the sort he hoped for.
THE FACT IS that generations are no more likely to form a cohesive political bloc than any population cluster of 50 or 60 million people. We have developed fantasies about the rebellious baby boomer generation that came into adulthood in the 1960s, and the 1960s were indeed a decade of significant cultural change, but in reality it was a tiny baby boomer cultural elite, not a generational political consensus, that turned America into a different sort of place in those years. Similarly, political thinkers today are fond of asking "What do the millennials want?" but the truth is they don't want any particular thing. There are simply too many millions of them, and they have very little in common but their ages. That's how you end up with the sort of dissension Charlotte's city council has experienced since the "millennial majority" fought its way to control in that body in 2017.
All of this led me to a quixotic search for situations in which a band of Young Turks took over a government and actually delivered on major change. I don't claim to have made an exhaustive study, but I did come up with a couple of plausible ones. Interestingly, they both date back to the same period in American history: the beginning of the 20th century. They both were part of what we have come to call the Progressive Era.
In the late 1890s in Wisconsin, Robert La Follette put together a band of insurgents, many of them in their 20s, and set out to reform state politics. La Follette ran for governor in 1896 and 1898. He didn't make it, but his renegade bunch tried again two years later, won control of state government, and stuck together to enact an agenda that featured, most prominently, the introduction of a property tax that redistributed huge sums of money that railroads had been keeping for themselves.
Robert La Follette (Library of Congress)
A few years later, in California, Hiram Johnson assembled a similar cadre of young insurgents, won majorities in the Legislature and vowed to "tear the state's politics and economy out of the grasp of powerful corporations and place it squarely back into the hands of its citizens." They pushed through the popular election of U.S. senators and instituted laws providing for voter initiatives, referendums and recall of misbehaving state officials. They moved fast, because they were convinced they would only last in power for one term. As it turned out, they were almost all returned to office in the next general election.
Do these brief examples suggest anything about how Young Turks can win in American government? Maybe a couple of things. One is that these rebels need to be very specific about what they want to get done. That's hard enough. Another is that they need to place the success of the group ahead of their own personal goals and ambitions. That's even harder.