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The Misleading Makeup of the New Congress

Sure, this is the most diverse Congress ever—but what does that really mean for our politics?
January 3, 2023
The Misleading Makeup of the New Congress
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 13: Incoming Democratic Leader Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-NY) (C) calls on a reporter while speaking alongside Rep. Ted W. Lieu (D-CA), incoming vice chair of the House Democratic Caucus (L-R), Rep. Pete Aguilar (D-CA) incoming Democratic Caucus chair, and incoming Whip Rep. Katherine Clark (D-MA) during a press conference with incoming House Democratic Leadership at the U.S. Capitol on December 13, 2022 in Washington, DC. Leadership spoke about legislative priorities in the coming session, the state of the U.S. economy and gun violence ahead of the anniversary of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

The 118th Congress convenes today, with Democrats retaining control of the Senate and Republicans assuming the House majority by a slim margin. Once the session’s organizational details are hashed out—in particular, the election of a speaker of the House, which could be settled quickly or be contentiously dragged out—the House is likely to embark on a set of hyperpartisan adventures such as impeachments (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas is reportedly a likely target) and showy investigations into GOP punching bags Hunter Biden and Anthony Fauci.

The demographics of this Congress, however, also contain stories worth paying close attention to. It will be the most diverse in history, with nonwhite members composing a quarter of its members. The total number of veterans in the House and Senate will, for a second consecutive Congress, be at a post-WWII low. And it will have the most black Republicans serving at once—five—since the end of Reconstruction. But it would be wrong to extrapolate from those demographic facts any assumptions about how this Congress will act or what policies it will focus on.

The new Congress will have 140 members who are racial or ethnic minorities—113 Democrats and 27 Republicans. It’ll have its largest number of Hispanic and openly LGBTQ members. And yet, it will be greeted by a laundry list of culture grievances wielded by a Republican House majority still captured by Trumpism. Looking to make a name for themselves, GOP up-and-comers will likely double down on the vile assertion that LGBTQ Americans are grooming children. You can expect a spate of proposed bills purporting to address the manufactured threats of critical race theory, sexual orientation, and gender identity discussions in schools. (These fights will also continue to be fought at the state level.) Paradoxically, the single word you are likely to hear thrown about more than any other during this most diverse Congress in history is “woke,” with Republicans using it as a pejorative cudgel while Democrats spend considerable energy defending against it.

The explanation for that seeming paradox is that the congressional racial diversity is almost entirely on the Democratic side of the aisle. More than half of the Democratic freshmen in the 118th Congress are not white, and it’s the home of all but one of Congress’s LGBTQ members. (The exception, newly elected George Santos of New York, has lied in nearly every line of his bio and every bullet on his resume.) This is an obvious, longstanding, and yet underappreciated facts about U.S. politics: One of our parties is much more diverse than the other, and at the level of congressional representation, it’s especially lopsided. When essentially just one side of the aisle is racially diverse in a dysfunctional political system, it becomes an element of partisan difference that makes good governance much more difficult and feeds into caricatures of the Republican party as laden with overt racists and of the Democratic party as eager to usher in the electoral replacement of white people. In this way, our multiracial makeup is transformed into an existential threat. The resulting political incentive is to turn Americans against one another as the surest path to gain and maintain power.

One of the few remaining places where a multiracial America is proven possible is in the military, which provides institutional norms and common purpose that facilitate the bridging of differences. The incoming Congress is woefully short on veterans, with just 18 percent of members having previous service in the military. This is a small uptick from the 117th Congress, which had five fewer veterans, a record low. Compare this to seven decades ago when 70 percent or more of each incoming House class were veterans, a level the Senate maintained during the long post-WWII stretch from 1953 to 1993.

With so few veterans, you might imagine the incoming Congress might be more willing to critically analyze defense spending. But counterintuitively, the opposite may be true. Last month, the lame-duck Congress passed an $858 billion defense bill—$45 billion more than President Biden requested and an 8 percent increase over the previous fiscal year’s budget. It may be that, in a legislative body with a dearth of veterans, supporting exorbitant defense spending is one way legislators can signal their allegiance to the nation’s most trusted public institution. A study of American defense spending from 1952 to 2000 showed that military experience did not have an independent effect on legislators’ position on defense spending. Yet, legislators with military experience were more likely to support defense spending in the face of external threats. This latter point helps explain some of the fissure in the Republican party over aid to Ukraine in its war with Russia.

The presence or absence of veterans in Congress doesn’t seem to have much of an impact on the role of defense spending as the sacred cow of American politics.

Maybe the historically high number of black Republicans—four in the House and one in the Senate—holds some hope for our polarized politics? Sadly, here too, the news isn’t promising. Following a record number of black candidates running in Republican congressional primaries and the misunderstanding of the small uptick of black voters voting Republican in 2020, there was a sense on the right that it was making significant inroads among African Americans. Instead, the number of black Republicans signal the party’s embrace of a sort of minority exceptionalism, the opportunities created by a party where fealty to Trump rather than principled conservatism rules the day, and a defense against accusations of the party being racist (something Lindsey Graham has stated explicitly).

Is it worth hoping that these five black men will be the tip of the spear for principled bipartisanship, perhaps even joining the Congressional Black Caucus as former Rep. Mia Love (R-Utah) did? It seems far more likely that they will prove good partisan soldiers, ultimately fueling division rather than modeling democratic deliberation.

In short, despite the results of the 2022 election—which brought the defeat of election denialism, the drying up of the red wave, increased demographic representation, and historic shifts in member composition—nobody should expect that the new Congress, once it gets up and running, will provide reasons to be optimistic about the health of our democracy.

Theodore R. Johnson

Theodore R. Johnson was a writer at The Bulwark and a senior advisor at New America. He is the author of the book When the Stars Begin to Fall: Overcoming Racism and Renewing the Promise of America (Atlantic, 2021). Twitter: @DrTedJ.