Since 2014, the Reflective Democracy Campaign has asked the fundamental question: Who Leads Us? We’ve dug into the demographics of political power in America, and what we found made national headlines:
- White men hold four times as much political power as all other Americans.
- Voters want elected leaders who reflect the American people, but neither party is fielding the candidates who would make that a reality.
- Four out of every five elected prosecutors are white men. In a criminal justice system that disproportionately targets African-Americans and Latinos, 95% of prosecutors are white.
The 2016 Presidential election broke open the issues of race, gender, and political representation in powerful and often very raw ways. The candidate who openly spewed bigotry and appealed to hate moved into the White House, white supremacists and woman-haters by his side. Enormous harm will be inflicted on women, communities of color, immigrants, and working people — not just in the U.S. but also abroad. But as a society we are still who we were before Election Day: 50% women, 38% people of color, and persistently defiant in the face of repression and fear. The need and demand for elected leaders who look like the American people and share their life experiences will continue to grow.
Justice for All?
Perhaps the most pitched battle over reflective democracy is taking place in the world of criminal justice, where citizens are organizing to elect prosecutors who reflect their communities and share their values. The New York Times recently took a look at five of those reform-minded prosecutors — who, it’s worth noting, look pretty different from most state and district attorneys. Among them is State Attorney Aramis Ayala, newly seated as Florida’s first black elected prosecutor, whose story highlights what it means to challenge entrenched power.
After announcing that she would not seek the death penalty in capital murder cases — a decision well within her prosecutorial discretion — Ayala was removed by Florida Governor Rick Scott from the case currently before her and twenty one others. The governor’s action has prompted debate and litigation over whether Scott has unconstitutionally undermined the will of the voters and abused his executive powers, perhaps also catalyzing a movement to end the death penalty in Florida.
Meanwhile, a new book by Fordham law professor John F. Pfaff, Locked In, argues that mass incarceration — and its mass injustices — are caused mostly by prosecutors, who hold far more power than judges, and operate without almost no transparency or oversight. As a review in the New Yorker asks, “So what makes for the madness of American incarceration? If it isn’t crazy drug laws or outrageous sentences or profit-seeking prison keepers, what is it? Pfaff has a simple explanation: it’s prosecutors. They are political creatures, who get political rewards for locking people up and almost unlimited power to do it.”
As the dialogue on mass incarceration unfolds, our data on the unchecked power and distorted demographics of prosecutors are more relevant than ever.
The Old Boys’ Club is getting old
A new study of how Americans view decision-makers reveals that no one likes all-male decision-making bodies — and men mistrust them even more than women do! “Male dominance corrodes citizens’ faith in their political institutions,” the authors conclude, echoing our own poll results, which found that voters, regardless of party identification, want to see more women and people of color in office. Instead, they see a Congress that looks and operates like an old boys’ club.
That’s why the Reflective Democracy Campaign is supporting cutting-edge efforts to break down the structural barriers that prevent a diverse cross-section of Americans from seeking office. When women and people of color run, they win at the same rates as white men. The challenge is getting them on ballots, which are tightly controlled by political parties, donors, and other gatekeepers, who continue to put forward candidates who look very little like America.
Which leads to the question of structural reform…
From Rwanda to Sweden, many countries take a structural approach to balancing gender and race/ethnicity among their elected leaders through targets, quotas, and other systemic remedies. Does it work? You decide. While the US Congress is 20% female, women constitute 64% of Rwanda’s parliament, and 44% of Sweden’s. You can compare women’s political representation across the globe in this UN study.
Recently the Campaign co-hosted a first-of-its-kind transatlantic meeting of feminist activists in Brussels, Belgium to compare American efforts at gender parity with solutions deployed in other countries. With record numbers of American women interested in running for office in the wake of the 2016 election, it’s a hopeful moment for reflective democracy. But unless we tackle the structural barriers that stand in the way — gatekeepers, money, and our election systems — we’ll be stuck with the status quo.