As experts on the demographics of political power in America, we at the Reflective Democracy Campaign are avidly following the aftermath of the 2017 elections. November’s remarkable victories by women and people of color inspired a surge of celebratory coverage, and predictions that the 2018 midterms will further disrupt the race and gender status quo among elected leaders.
Yet some observers are less than thrilled. See, for example, the New York Times op-ed by Brookings fellow Jonathan Rauch and political science professor Raymond J. La Raja, who issue a dire warning: The recent wave of challengers running for office is triggering “the amateurization of American politics.” According to the two academics, the post-Trump mobilization of newcomers running for office is evading the careful vetting usually performed by traditional political gatekeepers. As a result, in their eyes, our elections risk becoming “like open mic night.”
Historically, they claim, party gatekeepers filled the candidate pipeline with competent career politicians, whose years of accumulated know-how ensured responsible governance. Sure, they acknowledge, the traditional system had its drawbacks — but it “also performed the single most essential function in politics: weeding out office seekers who are incompetent, extreme or sociopathic.” In the post-Trump mobilization, they worry, gatekeepers are losing their ability to vet candidates based on their ability to govern — and therefore our collective ability to maintain a “competent, responsive political class.”
This line of reasoning is rife with problems, but we want to flag two in particular. The first is the huge and generally inaccurate proposition that we have ever had a competent, responsive political class. Women and people of color were denied the right to vote for most of our country’s history — and those hard-won rights are constantly under attack by — among others — elected politicians fully vetted by party gatekeepers.
As our research has revealed, today’s elected officials are still 90% white and 71% male. Two out of every three elected seats are held by white men. And over half of the members of Congress are millionaires. To whom, exactly, has this alleged competent political class been responsive? To African-Americans who lived through segregation and still face state-sponsored racial violence? To women, who continue to get paid less, experience regular sexual harassment, and have only tenuous control over their own bodies? To the 1/3 of the population that lives in or near poverty?
The second problem we want to emphasize is that the very gatekeepers Rauch and La Raja tout as sober, impartial professionals with good judgment are actively responsible for the profoundly skewed demographics of political power in our country. Despite the visible wins by women and people of color in 2017, the candidates on our ballots today mostly look like the people who already hold office — 90% white, 71% male, 2/3 white men. Who put almost all of those candidates on our ballots? The “parties and professionals” Rauch and La Raja argue we must continue to defer to. If this is what their professional judgment looks like, we’ll pass.
It’s worth noting that sudden concern about qualifications and standards, and a renewed emphasis on the judgment of allegedly neutral professionals, has accompanied the entrance of women and people of color into nearly every field previously dominated by whites and/or men. Whether medicine, the law, science, or higher education, the opening of nearly any closed field has led to hand-wringing about “standards” by those invested in the status quo. Consider, as just one example, the opposition to admitting women to Harvard. In the late 19th century, the president and board of the university argued that the existing (all-male) system of education should not be disturbed, since it was “the result of the wisdom and experience of the past.” Sound familiar?