Witches’ Brew

With the perfect black-cat-and-broomstick Halloween dateline of Salem, Mass., Saturday’s New York Times reports on the latest twist in interest-group politics–witches as an aroused voting bloc. It seems that a campaign ad for Republican Gov. Paul Cellucci ridiculed his rival, state attorney general Scott Harshbarger, for going to court to protect the religious rights of a witchy sect called Wicca. In protest, Massachusetts witches have formed a coven caucus that demonstrated against Cellucci outside a Monday candidates’ debate. Cheryl Sulyma-Masson, who heads the Witches League for Public Awareness, told the Times, “Witches now understand that we have to have a voice in politics.”

Witches aren’t the only narrow interest group casting black spells and howling at the moon in this election year. In Wisconsin earlier this week, Chatterbox watched in horror as budget-cutting GOP Senate candidate Mark Neumann pandered to a representative of the so-called “notch babies.” These are the ultimate greedy geezers, Social Security recipients who have been loudly protesting for over a decade the purported injustice that retirees born before 1917 receive slightly higher benefits. The reason for the differential is that Congress long ago goofed in calculating yearly inflation adjustments in Social Security. In typical political fashion, Congress timorously corrected their calculations only for future retirees, thereby creating the hated “notch.” The notch babies, of course, believe that they too are entitled to benefit from the slipshod congressional arithmetic.

But there is one large group of voters that is silent in the face of a blatantly discriminatory decision by the federal government to curtail its legal rights. These voiceless victims are the 18-, 19- and 20-year-olds who are not legally permitted to buy a beer because Congress bowed to pressure from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and forced all states to raise their drinking age to 21. In all his years of covering politics, Chatterbox has never heard one young voter ask a congressman or senator why this age group is barred from the bars.

The newspapers are filled with horror stories about the epidemic of hard-core drinking on college campuses. A recent study by the Harvard School of Public Health found that more than 40 percent of college students fit the dread label of “binge drinkers.” But with America in the throes of a latter-day temperance movement, no one bothers to point out that illegality breeds excess. All that it would take to roll back state laws to the permissive 1970s is an epidemic of binge voting by those under 21. But young people today (yes, Chatterbox, is showing his age) seem to prefer getting blasted on illegal hootch at fraternity parties over organizing to assert their political rights. That’s why, in the witches’ brew that is contemporary politics, witches get more respect than 18-year-olds.

Walter Shapiro