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Mellman: Who's most underrepresented in Congress?

Mellman: Who's most underrepresented in Congress?
© Greg Nash

What segment of American society is most underrepresented in Congress? Guess.

Minorities? Black Americans comprise 11 percent of the Congress and 13 percent of the population, for 2 points of underrepresentation.

Latinos more so. They are about 9 percent of Congress, but nearly 19 percent of the population — a gap of some 10 percentage points.

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Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders constitute about 6 percent of the population and 3 percent of Congress. That’s just a 3 point gap, though looked at differently, Asians, like Latinos, get only half the representation they would if legislators were chosen at random.

Despite decades of concerted effort, women remain seriously underrepresented. They’re 51 percent of the country but just 27 percent of the Congress — a representation gap of 24 points.

About 4.5 percent of Americans are estimated to be LGBTQ, but only about 2 percent of Congress is openly gay.

Muslims are 1 percent of the population and half a percent of Congress.

We still haven’t gotten to the most underrepresented segment of the American public.

It’s those without a college degree.

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Some 67 percent of Americans do not hold a college diploma, according to the Census Bureau, but in Congress that number shrinks to just under 2 percent — a gap of over 65 points.

It’s likely there’ve always been more lawyers than blacksmiths in Congress, more teachers than teamsters.

But things have changed, dramatically. In 1945, about 60 percent of Congress had a college degree, far more than in the general population, but far fewer than today’s 98 percent.

“So what?” we should ask.

The answer is that a Congress that reflects America may look better to the American people and may produce better outcomes for them.

Most Americans harbor serious doubts about whether Congress represents them.

Our geographically based system assumes people who live near us — say in the same (non-gerrymandered) congressional district — can better represent us than someone who lives far away.

That may be true, but geography is far from the only meaningful criterion.

Alexander Hamilton argued occupation was important: “Will not the land-holder know and feel whatever will promote or injure the interests of landed property? ... Will not the merchant understand and be disposed to cultivate as far as may be proper the interests of the mechanic and manufacturing arts to which his commerce is so nearly allied?”

How do the two-thirds of Americans without a college degree feel when they look at a political system that almost completely excludes them? We don’t know exactly, because, as far as I can tell, pollsters (all of whom sport college diplomas) have never even thought to ask.

Thanks to research by professors Nicholas Carnes and Noam Lupu, we do know Americans overall believe a factory worker would understand their problems better than a business owner.

Might Democrats be more effective reaching out to non-college voters if some of our candidates finished their formal education where most Americans did?

The sad fact for a Democratic Party that seeks to represent middle- and working-class people is that six of the nine members without a college degree are Republicans — and the GOP has been winning non-college voters. Direct causal linkage? Doubtful. But the fact seems telling.

Would more non-college members of Congress change the body’s policy outputs? Quite possibly.

Countries with greater legislative representation of the working class seem to produce more egalitarian and redistributive policies.

Another Carnes analysis found that if the class background of members of Congress reflected that of our country, one to three additional pieces of progressive economic legislation would pass every two years, and he doesn’t even consider the likely increase in the number and variety of bills that would be proposed to help working Americans.

We have lots of imbalances to redress in our political process. Many groups are significantly underrepresented. But the segment that may be most politically disadvantaged is the one that gets the least attention — perhaps because it is so disadvantaged.

Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has helped elect 30 U.S. senators, 12 governors and dozens of House members. Mellman served as pollster to Senate Democratic leaders for over 20 years, as president of the American Association of Political Consultants, and is president of Democratic Majority for Israel.