Who Really Rules America?

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

The 114th Congress is the most diverse in history. But still, four out of five members are white and four out five members are male. In the previous session, of the Americans serving in the House of Representatives, theoretically the most representative institution in the United States government, 89 percent of Republicans were white and male. Among House Democrats, the share is less staggering, but still nearly half — or 49 percent — of all lawmakers were both white and male. In total, that means of the 432 lawmakers serving in the lower house of Congress, (three seats were currently open) nearly half were white men. But, by comparison, just 31 percent of U.S. residents are non-Hispanic white males, according to 2013 Census estimates. More importantly, the United States population is drastically changing. As of March of last year, Latinos became the largest single racial/ethnic group in California — making the state only the second in the nation, after New Mexico, where whites are not the majority and Latinos are the plurality. And, in March, the government announced that for the first time in history, ethnic and racial minorities make up around half of the under-5 age group in the United States, meaning non-Hispanic white Americans are expected to become a minority group over the next three decades.

That reality should indicate that the United States must “recognize the importance of young minorities for the growth and vitality of our labor force and economy,” as William H. Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution who analyzed the census data back in March, told the Associated Press. And data should suggest to U.S. lawmakers and political institutions that they must take care to represent the changing population — which, inherently, has much more varied political goals, needs, and beliefs.

But if you think that lawmakers are well aware they represent a politically, religiously, socially, and ethnically diverse people, then you are (mostly) wrong. A fundraiser thrown earlier ahead of the 2014 midterms by Representative Steve Southerland, a Florida Republican who ran for re-election against Democrat Gwen Graham and lost, is perhaps the perfect example. The invitation sent to BuzzFeed described the event as meeting of a “small group of concerned men.” Attendees, who were limited to men, were bid to “tell the misses not to wait up” because “the after dinner whiskey and cigars will be smooth & the issues to discuss are many.” Southerland’s invitation also included his rationale. “Good men sitting around discussing & solving political & social problems over fine food & drink date back to the 12th Century with King Arthur’s Round Table,” it read. And while his campaign fundraiser may be among the most flagrant examples of House Republicans’ tendency to exclude minorities, it is emblematic of the GOP’s serious and long-term problem: its inability to elect more than a few female or minority candidates.

Of course, a number of Republicans have identified this problem. “I think Republicans will not win [the presidency] again in my lifetime unless they become a new GOP, a new Republican Party,” Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul — who is contemplating a run in 2016 — said during a February 2014 interview with conservative radio host Glenn Beck. “And it has to be a transformation. Not a little tweaking at the edges.” Most importantly, the GOP needs to be inclusive. “There are many people who are open among all these disaffected groups, who really aren’t steadfast supporters of Obama or an ideology,” he explained. “I think they’re open to listening, but we have to have a better message and a better presentation of it.”

In the closing months of 2014, when congressional midterm elections were less than fifty days away and the massive political machine that drives presidential elections was heating up, politicians turned their attention to their electorates; and political analysts calculated the costs of ignoring the growing diversity of the American voter base, a issue that will continue to be important in the upcoming presidential election. The last elections has served as a case study of the degree to which the shifting ethnic and racial makeup of the United States determine elections. In 2012, voters propelled Barack Obama into the White House for a second term and caused Republicans to lose 2 seats in the Senate and six in the House of Representatives. And, as Brookings Institution’s Frey noted in 2013, Republicans cannot count on primarily white voters to retake the White House. “Even assuming high 2004 turnout rates and [the strong] 2012 Republican voting margins for whites, they cannot win unless they also peel off more votes among minorities,” he wrote. “In this regard, demography indeed becomes destiny.”

But it bears remembering that “in spite of the long-standing elite opinion that ethnicity should not play any role in politics, that voters and politicians should act without regard to ethnic factors, in fact ethnicity has always played an important part in our politics. This is what we should expect in a country that has always had forms of racial and ethnic discrimination, and in which civic and university and corporate elites, for all their tut-tutting about ethnic politics, have often been more hearty practitioners than ordinary people of ethnic discrimination,” as Hoover Institute’s Michael Barone wrote in his analysis of the role of race, ethnicity, and politics in American history. After all, “Over the long course of our history politics has more often divided Americans along cultural than along economic lines — along lines of region, race, ethnicity, religion, and personal values. This is natural in a country that has almost always been economically successful and culturally multivarious, in which economic upward mobility has been the common experience and in which cultural and ethnic identities have often been lasting and tenacious.”

After the 2012 elections, Republican lawmakers took stock of the party’s position. Sure, the Republicans won a massive victory; despite demographic disadvantages and capturing 1.4 million fewer votes than Democratic candidates, the party maintained a majority in the House. Democrats, however, celebrated a different statistical victory, a victory of greater long-term importance the retaining the House majority. For the first time in history, women and minorities accounted for a majority, 53 percent, of the Democrat party’s electorate. By comparison, share of the Republican caucus comprised of women and minorities voters shrank from 14 percent to 11 percent. That success was not lost on Democratic lawmakers; in the days following the 2012 election, California’s Democratic Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi commended her caucus — with its sixty-one female, forty-three African-American, and six LGBT representatives — calling it a “picture of America.” And Rep. Steve Israel, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said the Republican Caucus “looks like a re-run of the show ‘Mad Men.’ Our caucus looks like America.”

The past two years has seen the demographic gap widen; to fill vacant seats, eight special elections have been held, and all six of the Republican victors were white men, five of whom defeated women. Meanwhile, both Democratic winners were women, who defeated men.

There are several explanations for why House Democrats mirror more closely the broader American people they represent more than their Republican colleagues.

Data suggests that Democratic voters value demographically representative government more than Republican voters. For example, a July survey conducted by Gallup asked, “Do you think this country would be governed better or governed worse if more women were in political office?” Seventy-five percent of Democrats responded that government would be better, while just 10 percent it would be worse. But Republicans expressed much less enthusiasm, with 45 percent saying more women in leadership would improve government and 19 percent answering government would be worse. These numbers show that, even though Republicans do not necessarily weigh female candidates’ gender as a negative, it is not be seen as a bonus when deciding between equally qualified candidates.

Redistricting has also been instrumental in creating the modern Democrat and Republican parties. Democrats typically live in more densely inhabited, urban districts, while Republicans tend to be scattered across more rural areas. The results of this so-called geographical bias is that Republican voters are spread across many districts and the electorate is so concentrated that votes are “wasted” on candidates who could win with a far fewer votes. The Democrat’s overwhelming dominance of major urban areas outweighs the somewhat smaller majorities Republicans hold in the rest of the country when sheer numbers matter, as in Senate races and presidential elections. But, the fact that Democrats have created national majorities and state majorities by gaining new voters in already Democratic-leaning congressional districts, not by winning over new regions, means the party is at disadvantage in House races. And redistricting has ensured that minorities have been packed into heavily Democratic districts.

Several particular moments in U.S. history have seen the effects of redistricting dramatically reshape the U.S. government. The single largest decrease of white men’s share of the Democratic electorate came in 1992, when — as the result of the strengthened and renewed Votings Rights Act — majority black districts began to proliferate in the South, allowing for the election of a number of African-American lawmakers. And, the years between 1977 to 2006, saw a wave of women enter Congress; these 134 women were not only the largest and most diverse group of female lawmakers, but they accounted for 58 percent of all the women who have served in the history of Congress.

As Gallup research shows, Democrats are not just supportive of women in Congress, but a number of left-leaning organizations work to ensure more women are elected. EMILY’S List, or “Early Money is Like Yeast,” an organization founded in 1985, helps pro-choice Democratic women running for office take advantage of the national network of donors. Meanwhile, Emerge America — a campaign training organization for Democrat women — claimed to have 232 alumnae running for office last year. Republicans do have analogous groups. Maggie’s List was founded in 2010; She-PAC was created in 2012; and, last year, the National Republican Congressional Committee launched “Project GROW,” or Growing Republican Opportunities for Women. But these organizations seem to be less effective at assisting women entering politics. According to Rutgers University’s Center for American Women and Politics, just ninety-three Republican women are running for House in the 2014 midterms, down from 108 in 2012. And only a small number are favored to win.

When considering the problems of the Untied States’ representative government, the arguement cannot exclude polarization and the role money plays in politics.

An April 2014 political science study — “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” which is scheduled to be published in the fall 2014 issue of Perspectives on Politics — offers evidence that American voters as a broad group are correct to assume they have little influence on policymaking. Princeton University Professor Martin Gilens and Northwestern University Professor Benjamin Page, the study’s authors, found that “the preferences of the average American appear to have only a minuscule, near-zero, statistically non-significant impact upon public policy.” The paper also argues that the policy preferences of economic elites and business-dominated interest groups little reflect the views of common Americans, and when the two views diverge, the economic elites and business interests are typically the winners. In fact, the collective preferences of “economic elites” (a group is comprised of citizens at the 90th percentile of the income distribution) were fifteen times as important.

Meanwhile, growing polarization means compromise between the two parties is near impossible. Now, Republicans and Democrats “are more divided along ideological lines — and partisan antipathy is deeper and more extensive — than at any point in the last two decades,” according to Pew Research. The result is known as the partisan gap. No overlap politically means compromise is near impossible, as Washington’s current state of stagnation makes obvious. “With Democrats and Republicans more ideologically separated than ever before, compromises have become scarcer and more difficult to achieve, contributing to the current Congress’ inability to get much of consequence done,” explained Pew Research, introducing its examination of congressional polarization. It is the inability of Congress to craft the compromises necessary to advance important legislation that has pushed the public’s confidence in the institution so low and contributed to the legislative body’s poor job approval rating. And the summation of political polarization of the American electorate, a partisan legislative branch, and stagnation in Washington is far from a government representative of the “average” American citizen.

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