Hillary Clinton is poised to make history, as she will likely become the first woman to win a major party’s nomination when the Democrats hold their convention. The moment she claimed victory Tuesday was celebrated as a breakthrough for women and political representation.
But while Clinton’s declared victory was historic and diversity within government positions has improved, experts say much more is needed before the U.S. government is truly representative of the people.
Women, people of color, and those who aren’t affiliated with a religion continue to be severely underrepresented in major party presidential politics, as well as in Congress, governorships, and state legislatures. As ThinkProgress previously reported, white males make up 31 percent of the population but control 65 percent of elected offices in the United States.
Debbie Walsh, director of the Center for American Women and Politics, says America’s white male-dominated government means a variety of perspectives are ignored.
“People who are in office bring with them all their life experiences, and it’s crucial they have different life experiences so policies are more inclusive of all sorts of people, not just white, male lawyers,” Walsh told ThinkProgress.
Here are some ways American politics still lag behind in representing the overall makeup of the country.
Breaking the Glass Ceiling (Or Not)
Clinton may have broken the glass ceiling in the presidential primary, but representation of women in American politics is still dismal.
The current Congress is mostly male, as men make up 80 percent of the seats in Congress while woman occupy only 20 percent. This lags far behind the 51 percent of the overall U.S. population that is female.
The lack of diversity in state legislatures is especially problematic because about three-quarters of the members of Congress held government positions in their states before being elected, effectively making state legislatures one of the largest funnels bringing in new member of Congress.
The powers that be tend to be male and recruit people who are like them
In addition, women make up just under 19 percent of mayors in cities with more than 30,000 residents.
Walsh said the lack of women in government positions means certain issues aren’t brought up as much. “Women are more likely to [prioritize] issues affecting women, families, and children,” Walsh said. She added women are more likely to believe the government should operate more transparently.
Third parties have a better track record regarding gender than the major parties. While, before Clinton’s win, no major party had ever tapped a woman as its presidential nominee, the Green Party has nominated women to run for president in the last two elections. In 2008, the Greens nominated Cynthia McKinney, a black woman. This year, the party appears poised to once again nominate 2012 candidate Jill Stein.
Overall, research shows that women are less likely to run for political office than men. Walsh explained part of the reason for this is that women need to be encouraged to run more than men do. This becomes a problem because those recruiting candidates to run for office tend to be men, Walsh said.
“Women don’t get recruited to run in the same way men do,” Walsh said. “The powers that be tend to be male and recruit people who are like them.”
A Whitewashed Government
While the election of President Obama represented a major step forward, people of color are still vastly underrepresented in presidential campaigns. For example, Hispanics make up 17 percent of the U.S. population, but no Hispanic has ever been the nominee of a major party.
There is also a lack of racial diversity in Congress. In the Senate, there are 94 white members, three Hispanic members, two black members, and one Asian member. In the House of Representatives, white lawmakers occupy nearly 80 percent of the seats, while black members hold just over 10 percent of seats and Hispanic and Asian representatives make up 7.8 percent and 2.3 percent of the seats respectively.
The diversity in both chambers of Congress lags far behind that of the country’s overall population, as white men make up just 31 percent of the population but control 80 percent of seats in Congress. The 114th Congress is actually the most diverse Congress in U.S. history, but all that really proves is how little diversity there was in the previous 113.
Sayu Bhojwani, president and founder of the New American Leaders Project, which attempts to increase the number of immigrants in leadership positions among other goals, told ThinkProgress racism plays a role in how voters see candidates. “I think there is a vision in the American imagination of who is an American and who is a leader and who is entitled to be a leader and that image is a white male,” Bhojwani said.
State governments are even more lacking in diversity, as 46 out of 50 governors are white. In state legislatures, white members occupy 86 percent of the seats. In addition, a 2016 report by Bhojwani’s New American Leaders Project found Asian Americans and Latinos, the two largest immigrant groups in the country, control less than six percent of state legislative seats despite making up 20 percent of the overall U.S. population.
There is a vision in the American imagination of who is a leader and that image is a white male
As with women, people of color are less likely to run for office than white people. Bhojwani said some of the reasons for this are challenges of economic and educational stability within immigrant communities and communities of color, as well as the cost of running for office.
She also said the way districts are drawn plays a role in lack of representation for diverse communities. “If you have a predominantly male, predominantly Christians in office and they are the ones drawing the lines for their future district, they are obviously going to draw the lines in their favor, which is not necessary in favor of newcomer candidates.”
Bhojwani added that there are negative repercussions on young people of color because of the lack of diversity in government. “By not having leaders who reflect our diversity, we don’t create the kind of environment where young people of diverse background feel that they have role models, where diverse Americans feel that they are part of the democracy and part of the government,” Bhojwani told ThinkProgress. “So it creates a greater sense of social and psychological isolation among minorities.”
One Nation Under Christians
According to a Pew Research Center study from November of 2015, 23 percent of people in the U.S. don’t affiliate themselves with a religion. Yet only four out of 44 presidents have been religiously unaffiliated, and none since Rutherford B. Hayes.
Outside presidential politics, religion is another area where Congress lacks diversity, as only one member of Congress is religiously unaffiliated.
“One of the things we have seen in our surveys is that the American public says one thing they like to see in candidates for office is strong religious beliefs,” Alan Cooperman, director of religious research at Pew Research Center, told CNN in 2015. Cooperman noted that a 2015 Pew survey showed the quality that most negatively impacted voters’ decision to support a candidate was that candidate not believing in God.
However, belief in God seems to mean belief in Christianity. Almost 92 percent of members of Congress are Christian compared to 73 percent of American adults. Of the 301 Republicans in the current Congress, just one is not Christian. There are only two Muslim members of Congress despite an overall Muslim population of 3.3 million in the U.S.
The religiosity of politics also carries over to the state level. An overwhelming 48 out of 50 governors identify with a religion. It is trickier to identify the religious beliefs of state legislative members, as the religious affiliation of 42 percent of members is either unspecified or unavailable. But of the 58 percent that did specify a religious affiliation, 54 percent identified as Protestant or Catholic.
Barriers Knocked Down, Still Plenty to Go
So while Hillary Clinton has knocked down a major barrier by becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee, lack of representation for women, people of color, and religiously non-affiliated individuals is still very much alive and well.
At both the state and national level, white, Christian men continue to hold a near monopoly over governing positions, leaving other groups severely underrepresented in bodies of government that make crucial decisions impacting their lives every day.