Saturday, January 5, 2019

The People’s House for real: The 116th Congress begins

THIS IS WHAT American democracy looks like, whether the American Republican president likes it, or believes it, or not:

A Native American lesbian mixed-martial artist with a law degree from Cornell University. A Latina now the youngest person elected to Congress in history. Two Muslim women. Two former CIA officers. The first black congresswoman elected from Massachusetts. The first Korean-American elected to Congress in a generation. The first Ecudorean elected to Congress in a forever. And more. And more.

The members of the 116th Congress were sworn in on Thursday, Jan. 3. What came together in the House of Representatives was the most diverse congressional representation of the American population in the history of the country. They wore hijabs and Kente cloth, pantsuits and pueblo dresses. They’re African American, Muslim-American, Native American, Palestinian American, LGBTQ-American, Young American ... American American.

And they’re impressively, refreshingly women Americans. Some 89 Democratic women took their seats last week in the House. They will be led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who resumed her position as the Speaker of the House, replacing the lamentable Paul Ryan as speaker, the first to reclaim the office in more than half a century.

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What’s more important is the geographic breadth of the Democratic recapture of the House last November. It wasn’t centered on any one part of the country. Sure, Ayanna Pressley, who is African American, won a congressional seat representing the People’s Republic of Massachusetts — perhaps to be expected. Likewise Jahana Hayes’ victory in neighboring Connecticut.

But a deeper dive into the new House makeup tells a story that should have Democrats more widely encouraged. Kyrsten Sinema won a Democratic seat in deep-red Arizona. Sharice Davids won her seat in Congress hailing from Kansas (the Pantone-red state where the Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach did all he could to curb or hobble minority voting in the midterm election).

The Senate demographic is about as white as it’s ever been; the GOP gained seats in the midterms. But the House more fully illustrates the evolution of our hyphenation nation. MSNBC made that clear last week in a graphic that put all these firsts in perspective.

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IN A STARTLING measurement of inclusion in the 116th Congress, MSNBC determined that the diversity reflected in the new House of Representatives is as close as it’s ever been to a full-on representation of the country as a whole.

Women, who represent 51 percent of the national population, account for 23 percent of representation in the House. African Americans, 13 percent of the population, make up 12 percent of House membership.

And in a heartbreaking triumph, Native Americans — a tender 1 percent of the population — account for one-half of 1 percent of the House (thanks to Davids of Kansas, and Deb Haaland, newly elected to the House from New Mexico.

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This didn’t come from nowhere. Democrats have been nurturing this transition, cultivating it steadily in off-year elections and state races in recent years. It didn’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez was prescient, telling us this would happen more than a year ago when he referenced two statehouse victories that amounted to a seismograph for what happened on Jan. 3.

“The last time Democrats won the governors race in Virginia and New Jersey, in the same year, was 2005,” Perez told the Washington Examiner in November 2017. “You know what we did the following year? We took the House of Representatives! That’s what we’re going to do next year.”

That confidence was thoroughly justified. Unlike the aftermath of the 2014 midterms, when the Democrats lost the Senate, there’s been a serious effort by Democratic leaders and grassroots organizers to get things right this time.

Truly populist candidates like Pressley, Sinema, Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race, Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial contest, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York congressional race lead the way as candidates who engaged people as full-throated, unapologetic Democrats making no apology for carving out the distinctions between themselves and Republicans — and building on those distinctions, asserting both their identity and their legacy.

And people bought in, in unprecedented midterm numbers. Even when candidates didn't win (Abrams and Gillum fell short, but by the smallest of margins), they made their cases well, often in states that Republicans have historically taken for granted.

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AND THAT may be the biggest, most enduring takeaway from the 2018 midterms, and the new House of Representatives from those elections: Democrats have learned the hard way that nothing should be taken for granted.

No more conceding states and electorates because history says a Democrat can’t win. Spread the field. Expand the map. That’s the message Dems got in 2018. It’s knowledge they’ll build on for 2020.

School’s in session. For the freshman class of 2018, that means the obligatory first-days-of-school shenanigans, the inevitable first blush of victory. But once they know where the bathrooms are, once they master the dance of creating legislation, the new House of Representatives will be about business, being what it’s never been before: substantively inclusive, demographically reflective, the People’s House for real.

Image credits: Ladies of the House: @BarbaraLee. Badass ladies of the House: @AOC. House diversity snapshot: MSNBC. Stacey Abrams selfie: Stacey Abrams. Pelosi sign: Twitter.

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