R-E-P-R-E-S-E-N-T: Democracy, Is What It Means To Me

By Colby Qualls

The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect views of the Journal, the William H. Bowen School of Law, or UA Little Rock.

“Our representative democracy is not working because the Congress that is supposed to represent the voters does not respond to their needs. I believe the chief reason for this is that it is ruled by a small group of old men.” – Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress

Representation matters. Whether it be on-screen (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/why-on-screen-representation-matters_us_58aeae96e4b01406012fe49d), in the classroom (https://www.theroot.com/how-race-matters-in-the-classroom-1790893823), or in the workplace (https://hbr.org/2016/11/why-diverse-teams-are-smarter), ensuring that those of diverse backgrounds are represented will often lead to better outcomes, especially for members of minority groups (See, e.g., https://www.brookings.edu/research/the-importance-of-a-diverse-teaching-force/). The importance of representation was not completely lost on our Founding Fathers either. In fact, the Revolutionary War was largely waged over representation, as evidenced by the well-known refrain: “no taxation without representation” (http://history.house.gov/Institution/Origins-Development/Proportional-Representation/). Concerns of representation also helped frame the debate after the war leading to the structure of American government, particularly the legislative branch.

How representative is the current American government though? Well, though the current U.S. Congress is one of the most racially diverse in its history, only 19% of members are nonwhite while about 38% of the American population is nonwhite (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/02/the-changing-face-of-congress-in-5-charts/). Even though women are about half the American population, they also only comprise about 19% of Congress (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/02/the-changing-face-of-congress-in-5-charts/). In terms of age, this Congress is also one of the oldest in its history (https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R44762.pdf). In fact, there is a 20 year age difference on average between an American and his or her representative (https://www.quorum.us/data-driven-insights/the-115th-congress-is-among-the-oldest-in-history/175/). Congress then can be fairly characterized as “a white old boys club” (https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/the-fix/wp/2014/09/03/why-politics-is-still-dominated-by-old-white-men/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.58f3a272930e). However, this problem extends beyond Congress. Representation on the state level, for example, is arguably even whiter. The nonwhite composition of all state legislatures was around 14% in 2016 while the nonwhite composition of Congress was around 17% that same year (https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/26/the-real-problem-with-diversifying-congress-state-legislatures-are-even-less-diverse/?noredirect=on). To break that down even further, though Latinos and Asian Americans accounted for 20% of the population, they accounted for less than 6% of state legislators (https://www.washingtonpost.com/amphtml/news/the-fix/wp/2016/01/26/the-real-problem-with-diversifying-congress-state-legislatures-are-even-less-diverse/?noredirect=on).

It is no great secret that today’s politicians and legislative bodies are not popular. More recently, Congress’s approval rating has been hovering between 15% and 19% (https://news.gallup.com/poll/237176/snapshot-congressional-job-approval-july.aspx?g_source=link_NEWSV9&g_medium=TOPIC&g_campaign=item_&g_content=Snapshot%3a%2520U.S.%2520Congressional%2520Job%2520Approval%2520at%252017%2525%2520in%2520July). Though there are a number of reasons for such a low approval rating, part of the disapproval can be attributed to the fact that nearly 79% of Americans believe that members of Congress are “out of touch with average Americans” (https://news.gallup.com/poll/185918/majority-americans-congress-touch-corrupt.aspx). In fact, close to 55% of Americans believe that “ordinary Americans” would be better suited in tackling the issues in Congress than current politicians (http://www.people-press.org/2015/11/23/beyond-distrust-how-americans-view-their-government/). Based off current trends and projections though, this average American is much younger and more racially diverse than the current Congress. For example, millennials are expected to replace Baby Boomers as the largest adult generation in the U.S. by 2019 (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/). This generation is also “the most racially diverse adult generation in American history” (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/03/31/10-demographic-trends-that-are-shaping-the-u-s-and-the-world/). Some studies seem to confirm the average voter’s hunch regarding effective representation. Legislators who are more similar to their constituents tend to better represent the interests of their constituents (https://journalistsresource.org/studies/society/race-society/when-why-minority-legislators-matter). In addition, governments that look more like their citizens have more stable policies (https://www.hrw.org/news/2011/06/24/why-women-politics-matter). As mentioned above, the perception of ineffective representation had played a part in the American Revolution.

Fortunately, there are some promising signs in terms of better representation. Though Congress has a long way to go, it is currently the most racially diverse group in its history (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/02/02/the-changing-face-of-congress-in-5-charts/). Across the board, a record number of women are now running for office (https://www.bloomberg.com/graphics/2018-women-candidates/). More millennials are also running and scoring some high profile wins, like the primary win by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and the special election win by Conor Lamb (https://youthradio.org/journalism/congress-is-old-about-to-get-younger/). Organizations like “Run For Something” are cropping up to support and recruit more diverse candidates (http://time.com/4974562/amanda-litman-run-for-something/), and there has been a significant uptick in youth voter registration in a number of states (https://targetsmart.com/analysis-after-parkland-shooting-youth-voter-registration-surges/). Though these developments alone will not guarantee a perfectly representative government overnight, they are laying the groundwork for future leaders who will look more like the Democratic nominee for the governor of Georgia, Stacey Abrams (http://time.com/5349541/stacey-abrams-georgia/).

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” – Shirley Chisholm

The legitimacy of our government relies on the democratic consent of the governed and their faith in our governmental institutions (http://thefederalist.com/2018/02/07/sorry-liberals-america-not-democracy-better-way/). As it stands, Americans are continuing to lose their faith and are forfeiting their consent. Compared to voter turnout in other democratic, developed states, the United States ranks as one of the lowest (http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/05/21/u-s-voter-turnout-trails-most-developed-countries/). Until more citizens are actively participating in the democratic process, whether running for office or voting, governmental institutions are less likely to resemble and represent the full diversity of our population. E pluribus unum is often recognized as an unofficial motto of the U.S., and it means “out of many, one” (https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/saving-e-pluribus-unum-in-our-schools-and-colleges_us_57bb0555e4b07d22cc3903a1). However, for that one to be strong and vibrant, it must come from, and be truly representative of, the many.

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