The 115th Congress will be the most racially diverse in the history of the United States with record numbers of Hispanics, African-Americans, and women of color serving in the next legislative term. Although the 115th Congress will be the most diverse, it does not say much given the United States’ historical tendency for racial homogeneity in government. A number of women who will be serving will remain the same even though a record 14 new women won seats. Moreover, the number of women serving in the House will decline by one seat, which stands to be somewhat of a loss when one considers that women make up 50% of the United States. Additionally, Hispanics will have a record number of congressional seats across both chambers with 34 serving in the house and four acting in the Senate. Coupled with the record number of 49 African-Americans and 15 Asian Americans, an emphasis on how Congress will represent the people persists. Even with the record numbers across the board, this Congress, like others before it, remains fundamentally unrepresentative of the people by race religion and gender. The question remains; does lack of representation in Congress undermine the essence of our democracy?
One must just take one quick glance at the whole of the United States Congress and realize that there exists a persistent problem. The problem has to do with representing the people who reside in the United States accurately and not just politically. The United States Congress should be representative of the people and those who live in the United States. Women in the United States make up more than half of the population at 50.8%, yet they are set to only make up 19.4% of the incoming 115th U.S Congress. In other words, the incoming U.S Congress looks to represent old white male America just as it has since its inception. Women are set to have 104 members or 19%, already being significantly lower than the overall population. In addition to the misrepresentation of women, the U.S Congress also doesn’t represent the people of color in this country.
Hispanics and Latino Americans amount to 17% of the population making them the largest ethnic minority, despite the U.S Congress lacking proportional representation. Indeed, the next Congress will have a record 38 seats for Hispanic representatives. In addition to the record number of Hispanics winning congressional seats, African-American seats are increasing from 46 to 49. These figures are nominal increases that will do nothing to help mitigate the problem of political representation and accurate representation of the population.
An example of misrepresentation is Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, who Donald Trump recently named his pick for Attorney General. Jeff Sessions, a hardline conservative from Alabama, was denied a federal judgeship due to his “Ku Klux Klan” remarks where he thought they were “okay until he learned that they smoked marijuana.” Likewise, during his time as U.S Attorney and Senator, he has lauded efforts to restrict civil rights provisions. For instance, he praised the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Section 4b of the Voting Rights Act in the controversial Shelby County v. Holder case. Also, he propagated ultra-conservative policies ranging from the virtual dismantling of gun control measures to stringently restricting abortion rights. Moreover, Jeff Sessions does not hold the same vision or, most importantly, the same policy views of those whom he is supposed to be representing. In his case, Sessions makes it all too easy to show that his views are not representative of the people as a whole and instead reflect more of a personal, conservative political agenda.
Jeff Sessions represents the ideological philosophy that has taken hold in the mostly conservative state of Alabama. Ideological representation manufactures itself into being what representation looks like for most states around the country, though it is a common trend in the south. To put it simply, while the representation in Alabama might be accurate in the ideological sense, Sessions has rewarded the state with conservative policies. It further goes to show a senator fulfilling his personal conservative agenda as opposed to setting the example of putting forth policies that benefit and represent the country as a whole.
It is important to realize that these are not all members of Congress, as there are a few people who do accurately represent the people of their state as well as the nation. One of these politicians is Keith Ellison who represents the 5th district in Minnesota in the House of Representatives and is the first Muslim to be elected to Congress. Andre Carson will join Ellison in returning to represent the Muslim community in the 115th Congress. Keith Ellison and Andre Carson serve those in the African-American community while providing a breath of fresh air for the Christian dominated Congress. In addition to his background, Ellison represents the working class via his support for legislation that would benefit those in LGBTQ, Hispanic, and working class families in general. The next Congress will have 39 non-Christian lawmakers with Jewish, Hindu, Buddhist, and Muslim lawmakers making up 30, 4, 3 and 2 seats, respectively.
The demographic that jumps out when first looking at it is the lack of religious diversity within Congress. Over 98% of Congress affiliates themselves with a religious group and one would think that there would be more of a diverse group. An overwhelming majority of legislators, about 57% are either Protestant or Baptist, with the rest of Congress being 31 % Catholic, 5.2% Jewish, and 3% Mormon. As stated above they’re only two representatives of the Muslim community, those two lawmakers being Keith Ellison and Andre Carson. Muslims make up about 1% of the population, which stands to be the third largest denomination in America.
While Keith Ellison and Andre Carson are not a part of the LGBTQ or Hispanic community, they can still act on the people’s priorities by providing them substantive representation. Functional representation is when an individual or thing acts for others by bringing their perspectives and priorities to deliberation and decision-making. In this way, the argument shifts so that legislators and politicians do not necessarily need to identify with the people they represent.
In sum, the problems that augment under-representation among the population and Congress have, for the most part, been rendered moot because of the immense progress we have been able to make in the country since its conception. This claim is the foundation of the allegation that the U.S Congress does not need to represent its people by population accurately as long as they get the work done. While in a paradise that might work, the U.S Congress has myriad problems and has done little to account for persistently disproportionate representation. For many people, the lack of diversity will not tarnish the romantic vision of American democracy. However, in reality, a lack of diversity not only further marginalizes minority populations but also foolishly ignores an untapped well of talent and utility.
Disparities in representation between the population and Congress harm the very function of how American democracy works. Without the accurate representation of the people, how can the United States and its inhabitants expect Congress to bring forth real solutions if they cannot even relate to the people who represent them? It goes beyond the ideas of each political party; it is about having a truly representative democracy of the people and for the people. Even with all the progress the United States Congress and Senate have made, it has happened minimally and sluggishly over the last few decades. Unsurprisingly, it seems that the more the nations push for diversity, the more it is met with backlash and scrutiny. The most compelling evidence being in the numbers, 80% of Congress is still old white men, how do we expect ethnic groups and especially women to feel real progress has been made when we have gone from 100% white men to 80% in the last 200 years. As our population continues to grow and different groups continue to search for accurate representation, there has to be even more of a push towards greater diversity and equality.
The 115th Congress will have nominal increases regarding women and racial minorities, though it will still be comprised mostly of white males, mostly on the Republican side. The Republicans will have 11 House members and three senators that come from minority groups, as compared to the Democrats who will have 81 House members and six senators. To understand these nominal increases, one must look at what the 114th Congress was able to achieve. The 114th Congress had the most Asians, Hispanics, and African-Americans ever. Hispanics made up 7% of the Congress, while African-American and Asian/Pacific Islander made up 8.8% and 2.5% respectively.
The total percentage that minorities made up in Congress was about 18.3%. With Hispanics making up 17.1% of the population, African-Americans 13.2%, and Asian/Pacific Islanders at 4.8%, one would argue that these groups are accurately represented in Congress. However, the problem is not with the percentages of these groups and Congress but with the growing rate of minorities overall in the country. The Census Bureau recently reported,”More than half of the nation’s children are expected to be part of a minority race or ethnic group,” by 2020, about all children under the age of 18. In their report, they also stated that the minority population is expected to rise to 56 percent of the total population by 2060, compared to just 38 percent last year. With new data coming in showing the rapid growth of the minority groups in this country, the same can not be said with how our Congress has progressed over the last 200 years. If the nominal increases are to persist at the same pace the have been, the problem will only worsen. While, legislators and politicians do not need to descriptively represent the people, which is when the person stands for others by being sufficiently like them, it is important to express the need for more diversity in a place where laws and policies can affect the majority of Americans and those of a particular race. The Congress each year should grow to be more diverse than the last, but if the standard has become one legislator more at a time, America will never truly achieve the vision of a representative Congress.
While the current Congress stands to be the most diverse in its history, there is much to be done in overhauling our political culture. When lawmakers do not reflect the people, they cannot be expected to represent their interests adequately. When certain minority groups are not accurately represented in Congress, by extension their interests are not being heard. After all, democracy is supposed to allow all people to be heard and their interests fairly represented and sought after by the lawmakers they put in office. When those same lawmakers do not embody the growing diversity of America, undermining the essence of our democracy becomes a fait accompli.
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Rutgers Student studying Political Science & Government with a minor in Journalism who has an interest in the intersection of journalism and political movements.