May 25, 2018
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When Congress looks like old white men shouting, we have a problem

Troy R. Bennett | BDN
Troy R. Bennett | BDN
In this 2015 file photo, House Whips Ellie Espling, R-New Gloucester (left) and Sara Gideon, D-Freeport, are pictured in Augusta.
By Shauna Shames, Special to the BDN
Updated:

The U.S. is a country of astonishing diversity, but its political leaders continue to be disproportionately older white men. Following the defeat of our nation’s first viable female presidential candidate, and with new movements — for gun control and against sexual harassment — springing up, more women than ever are considering running for office. Minorities and young people are stepping forward, too. It is up to all of us, in both major political parties, to recruit, train, and support this critical next generation of political candidates.

First, the facts: Our national population is more than half female, but women hold only about a fifth of seats in Congress, a quarter of state legislative seats, a fifth of large-city mayorships, and an eighth of state governorships. Maine bucks the national trend to some degree (boasting a sitting female senator and a state Legislature that is a third female), but it still cannot claim parity. Nationally, people of color are almost 40 percent of the population but only 11 percent of elected officials. And the average age in Congress hovers near 60, even though the millennial generation is larger than the baby boomers.

Elective officeholding change has not kept pace with demographic and social changes of the past few decades. The upshot is that women, people of color, and younger people are underrepresented in formal political institutions. And it matters; even completely well-meaning older white men may not understand, prioritize, or think about the issues of concern to underrepresented groups. Equality in a democratic sense does not require perfect proportionality, but it does require that inequalities rotate rather than persist. The fact that women, people of color and young folks have been underrepresented for centuries means that there is something wrong with our political institutions.

The problem does not seem to be voter bias; generally when women run, they win at rates equal to or better than male counterparts. And people of color have done quite well especially in majority-minority districts (although some studies still suggest some racial voter bias). The largest problem, our research suggests, is getting nontraditional candidates to run in the first place.

As my own extensive research finds, candidates who do not fit the older white male “mold” think they will face higher costs if they run for office. Unfortunately, they are right. Women, young people, and people of color often do not raise as much money as older white men (or if they do, it is because they work twice as hard), and are less likely to be recruited to be candidates in the first place by party leaders. Women, and especially women of color, are far more likely to see the political sphere as biased against them.

But perhaps most tragically, these untraditional candidates, and especially those of the millennial generation, often do not see electoral politics as a good way to make change. Those in Congress or state legislatures not only look like “old white men shouting at each other,” in the words of one of my interviewees, but all that shouting does not seem to accomplish much. Only about a third of all women in my survey of law and policy graduate students, and a quarter of women of color, thought politics could solve important problems.

But recent events may be changing minds. An unprecedented number of women seem to be running for office in 2018 and 2020, spurred by a combination of Donald Trump’s election and the #MeToo campaign. Although the costs still look high for nontraditional candidates, I like to think they are starting to see that there are problems only politics can solve, and that we need people like them elected and not just shouting from the sidelines. The articulate rage and determination of the Parkland high school students this past week seems to have ignited a youth political movement for gun control; I fervently hope many of these young people will run for office.

Current events only provide the backdrop, though. On a daily basis we still need to recruit, train, and support would-be candidates. Groups like Run for Something, Ignite, Emerge, She Should Run, Right Women Right Now, Ready to Run, and many others are a great start. All of us can and should funnel people to these and other political training organizations, reminding the leaders in our daily lives that their skills are sorely needed in formal politics. It is up to all of us to start closing these long-lasting political divides that harm our democracy and make our country look out of date (we rank 99th in the world for women’s representation!).

Our future depends on it.

Shauna Shames is an assistant professor of political science at Rutgers University-Camden and author of “Out of the Running: Why Millennials Reject Political Careers and Why It Matters.” She will discuss her book at 5:30 p.m. March 5 at the Bangor Public Library and 5:30 p.m. March 6 at the Abromson Center at the University of Southern Maine in Portland. The Scholars Strategy Network, League of Women Voters of Maine, and the University of Maine Margaret Chase Smith Policy Center are the event sponsors.

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