The 'Most Diverse Congress' Is Really the Least Diverse

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Five months ago, the 116th Congress was sworn into office and quickly hailed as the most diverse in U.S. history. A record 102 women, including the first Muslim woman and the first Native American woman ever elected, added gender diversity. A new generation of Latinos and African Americans expanded ethnic and racial diversity. Twenty-five members are under age 40, including the first two women under 30, which increased generational diversity.

Americans should be proud that Capitol Hill is now populated by elected officials who reflect the mosaic of our culturally rich nation. Yet something even more important is sorely missing: political diversity.

Among the 533 members (two seats in the House are vacant), there are no members who affiliate with any political party other than the Democrats or the Republicans. There are no Libertarians and no members of the Green Party. The only self-proclaimed independents are Bernie Sanders and Angus King. But they aren’t really independents. Both senators caucus with the Democrats and have become reliable Democratic votes; and Sanders has been running for national office for the past four years as a Democrat. This leaves Congress with no true independents at a time when more Americans identify as independents than as either Democrats or Republicans.

Worse, there are fewer moderates than ever in Congress. Since 1951, the portion of Congress considered moderate has declined from 60% to just 12%. Some members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in 2018 and David Brat in 2014, defeated leaders of their own parties by campaigning as extremists in low-turnout primaries. They then entered Congress by cruising through general elections in districts gerrymandered to ensure victory for a particular party. Others campaign as centrists but are then pushed toward the extremes by congressional party leaders. The result is a legislature full of loud, angry voices from the far left and the far right. Few are willing to compromise on anything, and pragmatic moderates either leave Congress or are left to witness the gridlock.

The resulting stalemate means that few laws are passed. The first five months of the 116th Congress produced only 17 laws. Five were simply to keep the government open, while the rest were largely ceremonial or administrative. Campaign promises -- to control skyrocketing health care costs, to prepare for the jobs of the future, and to address our mounting federal debt -- are broken, while the American people suffer.

According to the 2018 Hidden Tribes study, two-thirds of Americans are part of the “Exhausted Majority,” a collection of citizens who do not belong to either end of the political spectrum. This large group is losing trust in our government and growing tired of politicians who refuse to find common ground and solve real problems. They feel justifiably unrepresented despite the supposed diversity of Congress. Two small groups, meanwhile, are dramatically over-represented. According to the study, only 8% of Americans are “progressive activists” and only 6% are “devoted conservatives,” yet these ideologues have exploited broken campaign finance and electoral systems to seize control of our federal legislative branch of government.

This is nothing less than legalized discrimination against the majority.

Party leaders, who have manipulated the political system to benefit the extremes, deserve most of the blame. But the American people and the media are also guilty. We voters have sorted ourselves geographically into politically homogeneous regions, creating fertile environments for extremist candidates. Too few of us show up to vote, particularly in primary elections. Meanwhile, the media rarely airs pragmatic voices and instead showcases partisan warriors who drive up ratings.

For me, the most disappointing sign was the failure of HR 1, the For the People Act, introduced in the House in the opening hours of the new Congress. The promising bill, which contained provisions to stop gerrymandering and change campaign finance rules, could have been a chance to decrease the power of extremists. Instead, its Democratic authors only included initiatives that would benefit their party. They didn’t even bother to solicit Republican co-sponsors. Instead of a real fix for our broken politics, they created a partisan show pony that could not garner a single Republican vote. Sadly, Republicans were content to sit on the sidelines, making no good faith effort to fix a broken system.

We need sweeping, nonpartisan reform to our political system, including term limits, campaign finance reform, an end to gerrymandering, and opening all primaries to independent voters. Polls show that each of these measures is supported by between 65% and 82% of Americans. Collectively, the changes would shift political incentives from the extremes toward the center.

These rules must be changed so that the Exhausted Majority can be represented and Congress can have true diversity.

Neal Simon is the board chairman of the Greater Washington Community Foundation and a board director of Unite America. In 2018, he ran as an independent to represent Maryland in the U.S. Senate. You can follow him on Twitter @NealJSimon.

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