FEBRUARY 7, 2019 / SYLVIA GAIL KINARD /
The 116th Congress is considered the most diverse in modern history and as a representative body that’s a good thing. According to Researcher Katherine Phillips, the mere presence of social diversity makes people with independent points of view more willing to voice those views and (hopefully) others more willing to listen.
The Founding Fathers envisioned three co-equal branches of government: Executive (President); Legislative (Congress and Senate) and Judicial (Supreme Court). Of all the branches of government, Congress has the greatest capacity for directly reflecting the distinct differences of all the people that comprise this great nation.
The United States Congress has 535 voting members and six non-voting members representing Puerto Rico, American Samoa, Guam, the Northern Mariana Islands, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington DC. 435 Representatives and 100 Senators in all.
Nevertheless, it is the new House of Representatives which has most fully embraced this opportunity for diversity with a membership that includes 102 women, 56 African-Americans, 44 Hispanics, 25 Asians, 4 Native Americans, 8 LGBTQ and two Muslim women.
Given the country’s history of slavery and segregation, we often think of diversity and inclusion in stark racial terms. However, this new Congress sharply brings into focus differences of age, ideology, religion and gender, which are equally important.
Age. Intergenerational conflicts that have long played out at Thanksgiving tables between Baby Boomers, Gen X and Millennials, have taken center stage at the nation’s Capital. The new Congress is the youngest, with 22 members born after 1980, including New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; who, at 29, is the youngest woman ever elected to the House.
The country has, perhaps, not seen such a generational power shift since the draft protests against the Vietnam war. However, this time, the conflict is ignited by economic insecurity fueling the push for universal health care, free college tuition and a desire to see fresh (younger) leadership guiding the ship of state.
Religion. Only three members of the House are Muslim. The religious majority in the House is predominately Christian (88%) with representatives that are also Jewish, Mormon, Buddhist, Hindu, Unitarian and Catholic. The country’s post-9/11 relationship with Muslims has been complicated, reflecting its concern that Islamic fundamentalism remains a national security threat.
Gender. The 116th Congress is notable for the record number of women represented in its ranks. Moreover, in the persons of President Donald Trump and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, the nation is poised to witness an epic gender showdown, unrivaled since the 1973 “Battle of the Sexes” between Billie Jean King and Bobbie Riggs.
Ideology. The 116th Congress is the most ideologically diverse since the Whigs and Tories duked it out during the American Revolution. Ideological rivalries exist both within and between the two major parties in the form of “Blue-Dog” Democrats, Democratic Socialists, Democratic Progressives, Democratic Centrists, Tea Party Republicans, Mainstream Republicans, Conservative Republicans and Trumpsters.
While, Professor Phillips may be correct in her assertion that the “mere presence” of diversity gives individuals the freedom to be themselves and others the freedom to listen, there must, however, be systems that will facilitate such free-ranging exchanges of ideas and help us to actually listen. If the new Congress is to truly embrace its ideological diversity, it must examine internal governance structures that tend to err on the side of tradition.
Diversity means the state or condition of being different, based on the metric that is being measured, such as race, gender or ethnicity. However, diversity in 2019 is not just about skin color – it is about everything. The experience of diversity efforts in other segments of American society such as the military, corporations and academia suggest that simply including or hiring members from underrepresented groups does not change the strategic goals or internal systems of these organizations.
Although clearly a step in the right direction, electing more women and people of color won’t change the direction of our country without intentional effort to embrace and leverage that diversity into meaningful change.
As noted by Yale researcher Kenji Yoshino in his book Covering: The Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights: “the benefits of diversity will remain elusive if members of minority groups are only accepted when they conform to and reflect the values, cultural norms and aspirations of the majority.” Therefore, the mere presence of previously under-represented groups in our political system, will not reflect a true integration of diverse ideas and viewpoints if a rigid hierarchy blocks them from making meaningful contributions.
Congress is governed by a seniority system that can prove frustratingly inflexible. If this is indeed a historical moment, where the axis of change meets the anvil of destiny – then the opportunity to truly form a more inclusive and diverse vision of America is possible, but only if political leadership is willing to share power in unfamiliar ways.
That may prove challenging, as evidenced by a recent legislative vote. January 2, 2019 witnessed a showdown between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and several new Congressmembers over a “pay as you go” rules provision. Many newcomers believed the rule would make implementation of their progressive agenda, such as Medicare for all and tuition free college, harder and refused to vote for it. Indeed, 15 members then refused to vote for Pelosi to be Speaker, even though she would become the first female Speaker in the legislative body’s history.
Hierarchical systems, like Congress, have internal structures that consolidate its institutional ego by keeping all power at the top. Although Pelosi prevailed, and will undoubtedly continue to do so, such “top-down” leadership does little to leverage the true promise and power of diversity.
The first congress met in 1789 and over 10,000 people have served in the House and over 1,300 in the Senate since then. The power of diversity represented in the 116th Congress, must be unleashed, if it is to lead the nation in overcoming our present challenges.
In developing a rationale for their Declaration of Independence, our founding fathers noted gravely that: “Prudence, indeed will dictate that Governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes…” Indeed, we can and must continue to move our nation forward by altering political systems that do not serve us best. These changes may include a need to:
- Flatten bureaucratic systems. Congressmembers, who’ve waited patiently in line for years – maybe unsympathetic for the need (or urgency) of giving younger, freshman representatives a seat at the decision-making table. And while it may be tempting to say “wait your turn” the Republic can ill afford a wholesale reliance on a structure which dismisses innovation and new ideas, simply because they bubble up from the bottom. We must find opportunities to allow the new kids on the block to play.
- Deconstruct the Box. The challenges of immigration, climate change, rising global authoritarianism requires more than just “thinking outside the box.” It may require a deconstruction of the box to redefine our priorities, problems and solutions.
By electing a more diverse legislative body, the citizenry has already indicated its belief that the challenges facing the nation require a collective wisdom that goes beyond traditional boundaries to embrace the power reflected in our demographic diversities of race, gender, class, ethnicity. The election of 2018 was a vote to deconstruct the legislative box, but such an outcome is not an inevitable consequence of diversity – without intentional action – a fusion of these new ideas.
Diversity is not just about electing people who are “different” it is a process of infusing institutions with non-traditional values and experiences which help move the institutions beyond the limitations and strictures of its past and re-shape its institutional box in new and exciting ways.
Fusion requires courage. It requires abandoning the known for the unknown. The nation was reminded that cultural courage would be needed to move the nation forward during the January 19, 2019 confrontation between Nathan Phillips and Nick Sandmann in Washington, D.C.
Each was in the nation’s capital for a reason that reflected their culture and values. Mr. Sandmann, a student from Covington Catholic High School, was attending a March for Life rally, while Mr. Phillips, an elder of the Omaha Tribe was in the Capital for an Indigenous People’s March. And, there were the members of Black Hebrew Israelites – a group with whom the students had initially clashed.
Mr. Phillips, stated that he beat his drums and chanted to bring a spirit of peace. Mr. Sandmann said his stance was meant to show that he would not be intimidated. Opportunities were missed, but that does not need to remain so. We all can learn new pathways forward, with an appreciation and acceptance of another’s past.
The 116th Congress will be challenged to deconstruct and redefine what our government box should look like. It will be challenged to let go of internal systems that no longer serve us, while remaining true to our foundational principles and ideals. Given the rich diversity of its members, its new vision for America should indeed create a more perfect union.