Commentary

Representative democracy should represent everyone, but doesn’t

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When I was young and under the scourge of thinking I knew it all now, I made an argument with my father claiming that the will of the majority ought to prevail, such was the crux of democracy. My father countered, “Shouldn’t the needs of the minority be protected?” His answer blindsided me. I wasn’t sure of which minority he spoke — he was a ride-or-die conservative who long held that his party needed to dominate and fix America as if there was only one way to do that. He didn’t mean to, but his contrarian response broke something loose in my thinking.

In a democracy every citizen matters. Americans have an imperative to ensure every constituent gets fair representation.

Representative democracy is the tense endeavor of active compromise between the will of the majority and the rights of everyone. When healthy, it gives voice to and represents the smallest segments of its population. To accomplish this, we need to elect persons who actively work to know and understand the perspectives of all constituents, not just “play to the base” or their party.

For instance, if every Hoosier county had its own representative, they would be invested in resolving problems of their own county. The more that our representative identified as a Montgomery County resident rather than just a party member, the better compromises they would work out with other representatives. “We’d really like to get this industry into our county because most of our workforce is trained for it, and it’s reliable.” Of course, they’d make deals, compromises, but we’d have better outcomes because they knew our resources, our values, our needs for the future.

This is the tension of identity politics.The better we identify with each other, the better we represent each other. It is flawed because it is impossible to slip entirely into another person’s skin. This tension makes a case for Americans to elect more inclusive representation so that all Americans get representation.

Who gets to speak in the halls of Congress improves how we tackle addiction, poverty, healthcare, business ownership, education, etc. Yet, of the 12,415 people who have served in our national Congress, only 163 (about 1%) have been Black; 363 (about 3%) have been women; about 20 Congress people with Native American tribal affiliation; and 77 Asian- or Pacific Islander Americans.

Consider this. We know that farmers in Congress improve agricultural policies. What if a Black farmer represented on the Congressional agriculture committee? Black farmers are being stamped out of agriculture as fast, or faster, than other small family farmers.They know the concerns of farmers, the values of rural folk, the experiences of being a minority, the stress of small business ownership. That one person could serve the concerns of many communities. We just have a small issue: our democratic institutions have been manipulated to suppress rather than include such voters and representatives. A quick history lesson, by the numbers, shows this.

From the first Congress until after the Civil War, no African Americans served in Congress. Hiram R. Revels (R-Michigan) was the first in 1868. Right after the Reconstruction Act of 1867, 700,000 Black Southerners were registered to vote, and 17 delegates were sent to Congress. Then in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction and withdrew federal troops from the South. By 1900, only a few thousand (less than 5%) Black people eligible to vote remained on the registers. From 1900-1960, only seven Black men served in Congress. Representation for women did not mirror the population either. The first woman to serve in Congress was Jeannette Rankin (R-Oklahoma) in 1917. The first Black woman was Shirley Chisolm (D-New York) in 1968.

Disproportionate representation was not because one group of people had better ideas, or represented minorities just fine. Rather institutional procedures — Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering — determined how we are represented. Jim Crow may be gone, but gerrymandering remains. If you’ve ever written or called your Congressperson, only to be dismissed as if you are not one of his constituents, perhaps it’s because our democracy needs to fix representation: ending gerrymandering. Then we can vote in leaders who listen to and represent us all.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

Representative
democracy should represent everyone, but doesn’t

When I was young and under the scourge of thinking I knew it all now, I made an argument with my father claiming that the will of the majority ought to prevail, such was the crux of democracy. My father countered, “Shouldn’t the needs of the minority be protected?” His answer blindsided me. I wasn’t sure of which minority he spoke — he was a ride-or-die conservative who long held that his party needed to dominate and fix America as if there was only one way to do that. He didn’t mean to, but his contrarian response broke something loose in my thinking.

In a democracy every citizen matters. Americans have an imperative to ensure every constituent gets fair representation.

Representative democracy is the tense endeavor of active compromise between the will of the majority and the rights of everyone. When healthy, it gives voice to and represents the smallest segments of its population. To accomplish this, we need to elect persons who actively work to know and understand the perspectives of all constituents, not just “play to the base” or their party.

For instance, if every Hoosier county had its own representative, they would be invested in resolving problems of their own county. The more that our representative identified as a Montgomery County resident rather than just a party member, the better compromises they would work out with other representatives. “We’d really like to get this industry into our county because most of our workforce is trained for it, and it’s reliable.” Of course, they’d make deals, compromises, but we’d have better outcomes because they knew our resources, our values, our needs for the future.

This is the tension of identity politics.The better we identify with each other, the better we represent each other. It is flawed because it is impossible to slip entirely into another person’s skin. This tension makes a case for Americans to elect more inclusive representation so that all Americans get representation.

Who gets to speak in the halls of Congress improves how we tackle addiction, poverty, healthcare, business ownership, education, etc. Yet, of the 12,415 people who have served in our national Congress, only 163 (about 1%) have been Black; 363 (about 3%) have been women; about 20 Congress people with Native American tribal affiliation; and 77 Asian- or Pacific Islander Americans.

Consider this. We know that farmers in Congress improve agricultural policies. What if a Black farmer represented on the Congressional agriculture committee? Black farmers are being stamped out of agriculture as fast, or faster, than other small family farmers.They know the concerns of farmers, the values of rural folk, the experiences of being a minority, the stress of small business ownership. That one person could serve the concerns of many communities. We just have a small issue: our democratic institutions have been manipulated to suppress rather than include such voters and representatives. A quick history lesson, by the numbers, shows this.

From the first Congress until after the Civil War, no African Americans served in Congress. Hiram R. Revels (R-Michigan) was the first in 1868. Right after the Reconstruction Act of 1867, 700,000 Black Southerners were registered to vote, and 17 delegates were sent to Congress. Then in 1877, Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction and withdrew federal troops from the South. By 1900, only a few thousand (less than 5%) Black people eligible to vote remained on the registers. From 1900-1960, only seven Black men served in Congress. Representation for women did not mirror the population either. The first woman to serve in Congress was Jeannette Rankin (R-Oklahoma) in 1917. The first Black woman was Shirley Chisolm (D-New York) in 1968.

Disproportionate representation was not because one group of people had better ideas, or represented minorities just fine. Rather institutional procedures — Jim Crow laws and gerrymandering — determined how we are represented. Jim Crow may be gone, but gerrymandering remains. If you’ve ever written or called your Congressperson, only to be dismissed as if you are not one of his constituents, perhaps it’s because our democracy needs to fix representation: ending gerrymandering. Then we can vote in leaders who listen to and represent us all.

 

The League of Women Voters, a non-partisan, multi-issue organization encourages informed and active participation in government, works to increase public understanding of major policy issues and influences public policy through education and advocacy. All men and women are invited to join the LWV where hands-on work to safeguard democracy leads to civic improvement. For information, visit the website www.lwvmontcoin.org or the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County, IN Facebook page.

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