The Representation Problem Facing America

Why Our Representatives Don’t Represent the American Population, and What We Can Do to Change That.

The US government is facing a representation problem, or more accurately, is still facing a representation problem. By this I mean that the issues which often feel as though they are said and done — gender, racial, and even sexual equality — are far from being brought to fruition in the ways they are meant to.

Within today’s congress, women are one of the most underrepresented groups despite having had some number of female representatives for over a century now. They make up only about a quarter of the current congress, despite being more than half of the general population. The Hispanic population makes up 18% of the population, but only about 8.6% of congress are Latinx. 

The trend continues: 11% of congress is black compared to more than 13% of the population. Asian Americans are almost 6% of the population, but have only a 3.2% representation in congress. There are eleven LGBT members of congress, amounting to about 2%, despite even conservative estimates saying that more than double that identify as LGBT (estimates of the LGBT population notoriously have a difficult time quantifying closeted individuals). 1.1% of the country is Muslim, despite only 0.6% of congress being so.

Regardless of political stature, the virtue of a democracy is that every voice is heard. In an ideal world, this would ultimately result in every subgroup or minority having a proportional representation in congress (for example, there being 51 female senators, rather than 24), but that clearly isn’t happening. This ideal sort of democracy is the entire thing we should strive for not just as a political aim, but because it is morally right. 

How It Happens

There are plenty of factors that go into reinforcing a straight white male supermajority. Some of them are historical, and will (in theory) slowly wear off as time goes on. Others are based in subconscious bias that says, for example, that because we have always had men as presidents, they are somehow a more reliable or secure choice (clearly a fallacy in itself).

The more manageable issue, though is the electoral one. The structure of our democratic republic is set up so that each congressman represents about 700,000 people, with each senator of course representing their entire state which vary widely in population. With our vote, we have influence only over the house races in the district we live in — no other. 

The issue with this is when minority groups don’t make up a majority within that population. Hispanic people may make up 18% of the population, but if 90% of the Hispanic population lives within fifty house districts, those Hispanic people will never have the power in numbers to elect the 18% they might deserve. LGBT people might make up around 5% of the population, but that is spread out as roughly the same proportion nationwide, meaning they will always have a minority in every single race. 

New York’s 14th district

This means that the districts where minorities are more likely to win tend to be those districts that feel represented by the minority. Consider New York’s 14th district, which is made up three quarters by non-white people. A group like that feels highly represented by someone like Hispanic Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. From a purely demographic standpoint, she is less likely to win even an equally democrat district that is majority white. 

Women are the only group here that have basically the same cut of the population nationwide, but they’re the whole reason a quarter of congress is female in the first place. Women vote at a rate of roughly 4% higher than men, meaning they show up at the polls, but that doesn’t mean they always have a woman to vote for in the first place. Some reports have shown that 70% of congressional races do not include a woman in the race, with only 2% of districts having more than one woman in the election.

The Problems

One of the main problems upfront is that women and minorities tend to vote for Democrats, and they tend to run as Democrats. What this means in effect is that districts where Democrats don’t win, they are more often represented by white men. 

For example, women who run as Democrats tend to win their primary elections, and even tend to win general elections more often than women who run as Republicans, but they also usually win those elections in places that already leaned left to begin with. 

It should be made clear that this isn’t to say Republican women don’t win elections — in many cases they most certainly do. In fact, 2020 was heralded as “The Year of the Republican Woman” by many as the amount of congressional Republican women more than doubled, going from 13 to 28 in a single election. In some cases, as was the instance for Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma’s 5th district, Republican women even beat their female Democratic opponent. 

Regardless of political party, though, there are social obstacles too. According to polling from 2019, 94% of Americans would vote for a woman for president, with only three-quarters of Americans saying they would vote for a gay/lesbian person for president, and only two-thirds saying they would vote for a Muslim person for president. Obviously the role of president and the role of a member of congress are vastly different, but this just proves the theory that people will choose to not vote for someone based on a single characteristic of that person that has no real-world impact on their ability to govern. 

The Solutions

Though updating voting rights is a crucial part of solving much of this problem (e.g., making sure black people really have 13% of the vote), it isn’t a long term fix for anything, and it doesn’t even really solve the initial problem as much as it just makes the solution a little clearer.

There are two parts of the solution to this problem that we can actively partake in. 

The first part of the solution is a messaging one: we have to promote the idea that everyone has an equal capacity to govern. Even after significant progress has been made in the realm of civil rights since the original signing of the constitution, stigmas surrounding minorities and women persist that don’t actually prove to be true.

We have to get on board with the idea that just because a lesbian woman might not represent you in identity, that doesn’t reduce their ability to argue for the things you believe in. We might disagree on the details of legal abortion, but we have to tear down the idea that women generally support abortion more than men do (because they don’t). We have to take a broad look at the reasons people might find some candidates unfit for office due to their identity, and ask if that actually has any bearing on their ability to represent you, because it almost always doesn’t. 

The second part of the solution is taking an active role in supporting those campaigns for minorities and women that are qualified for their jobs. This doesn’t just mean voting for a representative in your district that represents a minority — in fact, that kind of identity politics isn’t helpful for anyone in the end. 

What it really means, rather, is putting money and volunteer time towards candidates who are truly qualified to represent their district, but might not have the demographic math on their side. A middle-eastern woman in Iowa can be completely and entirely qualified for her job in the US House of Representatives, so we have to make sure that we help her win that race with the full knowledge that it’s an uphill battle for her. 

(A side note on money in politics: There is often an icky feeling that is related to the often sickening amounts of money put into politics in the US. While in many ways this is certainly valid, donating to campaigns outside of your district is a different form of democracy protected under the first amendment. Your vote is one way to make a difference in your district, but your time and money is how you can make a difference outside of it.)

Congresswoman Stephanie Bice

This also takes the role of working to have those minority candidates on both sides of the ticket. Returning to the example of Stephanie Bice in Oklahoma, she went counter to the probabilities afforded to her. She’s an Iranian-American, Republican woman — from a demographic standpoint, she isn’t likely to win in Oklahoma. Yet after six years in the state legislature she is entirely qualified for the role that she ultimately won as a US Representative.

The point is that often times minorities don’t win races because they aren’t supported on all sides, not because they have some inherent aptitude for loss or because they aren’t qualified. Both sides of the ticket have a responsibility to find and run qualified minority candidates in an effort to even the scales that have been tipped in favor of the white man since the founding of the country. 

What We Can Do

The first thing we can do is to make sure we are actively paying attention to our own individual language, our own messaging per se, and verifying that we aren’t contributing to stereotypes that reduce chances for women and minorities. Additionally, correcting others when you hear them contributing to those stereotypes is important to making sure people realize their own subconscious biases. Almost no one actually wants to be racist, sexist, or xenophobic in any way; they just don’t often realize that’s what they’re doing when they make comments they probably shouldn’t make.

As cliché as it might sound, getting involved is the other major thing we can all do. We can’t all do everything or help everyone, but finding a single candidate that you really like as a candidate and who represents an under represented minority group — even if that candidate is out of your district or even out of your state — and donating your time and money to ensuring they get into office is a huge deal. You don’t have to sacrifice your beliefs to help someone who deserves a job they’re running for, you just have to be willing to find that person. 

Underrepresentation is a problem, but what is even more problematic are entire swaths of the country being represented by people that don’t relate to their lived experiences. The perfect world that has demographics being represented in congress to the percentage point might never come, but we can each do our part in making sure that the moral arc of history bends towards that justice.

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