Viewpoints

Representative democracy?

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If Facebook is to be believed, 62 percent of our readership is male. Of those, 43 percent are over the age of 35 and 29 percent of those? Are over the age of 45. Our internal readership data shows an even wider spread, with 26 percent of our readership identified as female and 70 percent as male (sex was unlisted for 4 percent).

Now I didn’t major in math, but I’m pretty sure those numbers mean that, if you’re a reader of American City & County, “the House” is betting you’re a male over the age of 35. And speaking of The House…

Our current Congress is being lauded as the most diverse this nation has yet seen. As of January 2013, our governing bodies included 98 women (House plus Senate), with 19 percent of the House comprised of racial minorities. The Senate even boasted its first Buddhist! (The House, not to be bested, has Tulsi Gabbard, a female Pacific Islander and a Hindu.)

But before we go breaking out the celebratory pompoms, let’s take a closer look at what these landmark strides in diversity actually show – if 19 percent of the House is made up of minorities, that means a whopping 81 percent of the House identifies as white (which is better than the Senate, which remains 94 percent white.) And, if 98 women serve in the respective governing bodies, that means women represent 18.3 percent of our nation’s Congress – an alarming statistic when you consider that women, according to the 2012 U.S. census, make up 51 percent of the U.S. population.

Ladies (what few of you are reading this) and gentlemen, we purport to live in a representative democracy, yet, when we look at our “representatives,” nearly all of them (at the national level at least) are – as ever – white men.

While demographic data is more difficult to compile and compare across local levels, the Census Bureau reports that, in 2012, there were 10,644,265 full-time and 3,317,003 part-time local (city and county) government employees. And while I am certain that these local folks are more representative of the populations from whence they come, I can’t help but wonder why, every time I and my staff select a leader for an award or feature in the magazine, the face we see – when we finally see the face (which is after merits have been considered and compared across “blind” submissions) – that face is, much more often than not, white. And male. And over the age of 35.

There are many, varied explanations for this. There’s a solid argument that seniority of position is often linked to time spent in the job, and thus older leaders are more likely to “make the cut” than their younger, less experienced counterparts. But even when making similar allowances for discrepancies in sex and race, the numbers just don’t add up.

Statistically speaking, in a true representative democracy, a solid half of our leadership would be female, and around 35 percent would be members of a racial minority.

Sadly, even at the local level, this does not appear to be the case.

At American City & County, we strive, as much as is possible, to highlight achievements based on criteria that exist in a racial, sexual and age-blind vacuum. Simply, we try to pick the best person presented, based on merit. I love laboring under the belief that the electorate does the same.

But while the best person for the job deserves all accolades his/her performance warrants regardless of race, sex or age, I have to wonder at what appears to be the proliferation of one particular demographic among our nation’s leadership. And at how effective that demographic might be in accurately “representing” the needs, values and concerns of other demographics…

When it comes to representation, does every person – every population set – truly have an equal voice?

Are we, as a nation, objectively giving everyone a fair shake, accounting for disadvantages and triumphs in the face of obstacles? Or do we continue to perpetuate a cycle that allows only a certain kind of cream to rise to the top?

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Discuss this Blog Entry 1

on Apr 23, 2014

Do different physical characteristics indicate fundamental differences of concern to government? Aren't we all human beings with the same rights and responsibilities? Shouldn't people be able to choose who they want to represent them? Does (should) government do anything that is not universally applicable to all persons regardless of their physical characteristics (protect individuals from violations of their physical safety, property, contract rights, etc)?

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What's Viewpoints?

It features the Editor's Viewpoints and contributed commentaries.

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Derek Prall

Derek Prall is a professional journalist who has held numerous positions with a variety of print and online publications including The Public Manager magazine and the New Jersey Herald. He is a 2008...

Jason Axelrod

Jason Axelrod is an award-winning journalist who has reported for The Seattle Times, The Arizona Republic, the Phoenix Business Journal and Mother Nature Network, among other outlets. Jason...
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