The Power of a Congress that Looks like the People

"Congress was designed to be a direct channel for people to speak to power, and when we only allow these spaces of power to be occupied by a specific demographic, we do a disservice to the promise of democracy."

After days of negotiations and 15 long-winded votes for a Speaker, the 118th U.S. Congress was finally  sworn earlier this month  as the most diverse delegation in U.S. history. The Capitol has welcomed leaders who have redefined what elected representation can and should look like, from age, to race, to sexual identity, and beyond. The result of this diversity? Legislation, power and change that will shatter generational obstacles for minority communities. 

In 2020, the 117th Congress was branded as “The Most Diverse Class Yet,” a benchmark that this new cast of leaders is set to surpass on an intersectional level. In California, Robert Garica (D) will join the state’s delegation as the first openly gay immigrant to sit in the legislature. In Pennsylvania, Summer Lee (D), a lawyer and a former labor organizer, will serve as the state’s first Black woman sent to Washington. In Florida, Maxwell Frost (D), a 25-year-old community organizer, has won his race making him the youngest lawmaker in congressional history. 

The power of these shifts in elected identity go far beyond politics, they are moments of history that kick down barriers that have stood for centuries.  Kristal Knight, a Democratic strategist and host of the Kristal Knight podcast, explains the impressions these candidates can have on the state of our democracy, 

“Firsts are always important when it comes to politics,” said Knight. “When we see young people, women, LGBTQ+, and minority candidates become the first in their states to win, we see the expansion of democracy. America is multicultural and our elected bodies should reflect the whole of the country, not just those who have enjoyed power for decades.”

The scales of power have long tipped disproportionately in favor of the most historically privileged classes of Americans. A 2020 election data analysis done by the Reflective Democracy Campaign revealed that white men represent 30% of the population but hold 62% of elected offices. The legislative arm should be a true and vibrant reflection of the American people, and this is not a nation of singularity. This is a country built from the trauma of the marginalized, the culture of the immigrant, and the stories of the oppressed. As Congress makes decisions that will indefinitely alter our way of life, we must press the issue of representation, who is holding a gavel and who is left to wonder if their time will ever come. 

This reality is personal, not only for me but for all Americans who have waited to see themselves in their representation. Over the past several years my community has been increasingly targeted for choosing to live openly as LGBTQ+ people. And while members of the queer community fall victim to violence every day, our suffering has been used as a political weapon by both parties. Far-right leaders have pushed dangerous homophobic rhetoric, while liberals have used allyship as political leverage despite not taking a hard stance in defense of the queer community. As I sat down with LGBTQ+ leaders like Jim Obergefell, State Rep. Brianna Titone, and Mayor Annise Parker, there is a common thread amongst their stories, that there is no power like the power of your presence. Having the representation of these groups actually on the House floor, in committee meetings, and face-to-face with colleagues is the only way that legislation can truly address these systemic issues. 

“Even the greatest ally, or the most understanding advocate, can’t truly understand the lived experiences of another. Our ability to be in places where we can speak to the reality of our lives is invaluable,” explains Annise Parker, President and CEO of the LGBTQ Victory Fund

 From racial and ethnic minorities, to religious groups, to women and beyond, those voices are critical to have at the table. Without them, it is impossible to have legislation that takes into consideration the populations that it will directly affect. As we consider the future of the Reproductive Freedom for All Act, legislation that would codify reproductive rights, only 27.5% percent of Congress identifies as female. Meaning that less than one-third of decision-makers will actually have a stake in the issues that this legislation directly affects. 

Congress was designed to be a direct channel for people to speak to power, and when we only allow these spaces of power to be occupied by a specific demographic, we do a disservice to the promise of democracy. These “firsts” of the 118th Congress are small steps toward a more actionable, more relevant and more practical composition of U.S. government.