Observing the state legislature, I am struck by how different most lawmakers are from the constituents they represent. Washington’s senators and representatives are largely white, male, affluent, older, well-educated, law-schooled and generally more privileged than those for whom they speak. This isn’t news, but it remains a central anthropological observation that hits me every time I attend hearings in Olympia.
In mid-February, for example, our class observed a Senate Ways and Means Committee work session where staff were briefing committee members on the state programs that serve low-income residents. The staff used PowerPoint slides replete with acronyms, spreadsheets, graphs and timelines to illustrate trends in state spending and unemployment cycles, and to diagram the impacts of various programs.
I was familiar with the main program under consideration, TANIF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families), because for several years I interviewed hundreds of TANIF families while serving as a federal evaluator of one such poverty program in Mason County.
Committee staffers' descriptions of eligibility criteria for the Working Connections Childcare program conjured visions of a malfunctioning thermostat that switches off and on again, repeatedly dis-enrolling working parents at the moment they earned too much money to qualify for childcare, thereby causing them to lose their jobs, which caused them to, once again, qualify for childcare until they surpassed the earning threshold, which initiated the doomed cycle all over again. From years of studying impoverished families, and from knowing about the lives of my low-income students, I was familiar with these Catch-22 cycles, but their absurdity appeared to be news to many legislators.
As I watched knowledgeable staff briefing their bosses on TANIF’s complexities, I was struck by the differences between the lives of the policymakers and those of the people I’ve known who have received TANIF benefits. "Mostly old white men making decisions about poor children, women and people of color," was one line I jotted in my notebook. An observation that questioned the representative nature of our democratic system.
Anthropologists have long studied the cultural dynamics of political systems, from the egalitarian hunter-gatherer societies to the despots of ancient Egypt or Babylon to the political complexities of Central Asia's kinship-based herding societies. Anthropologists recognize that children in every society are socialized to embrace their culture’s governance system as fair and superior to others.
While most Washingtonians accept, as normal, the fact that our political representatives tend to be wealthy, white and male, for example, other cultures understand democracy to be based on a process that selects legislators who are more like the people they represent.
Most Scandinavian democracies, for example, have rules guaranteeing near equal gender representation. Parties select representatives from a broad range of the socioeconomic spectrum, white collar to working class. These Nordic democracies are among the most diverse and participatory in the world. Sweden’s parliament is 50 percent female, and features more working class members than the Washington State Legislature. These cultures insist that democracies need representatives who have direct experience with the issues they are debating.
A few months ago, while I was in Washington, D.C., I visited a new statue honoring D.C. musical legend, Chuck Brown. While I stood near the statue I was approached by an African American man in his mid-50s who spoke about Brown and then pointed to a nearby flag which was flying at half-staff for the late D.C. mayor Marion Barry.
Barry, he told me, wasn’t a perfect man. The former mayor struggled with drug problems and spent time in prison. But that’s what happens to many black men in D.C., my street orator continued, admitting he’d also done drugs and time, and that he preferred to be represented by someone who understood his problems.
At the time, his odd soliloquy struck me as both an absurd and profound vision of democracy. But when I think about the members of the Senate Ways and Means Committee and their ignorance about the cycles of poverty the absurdity of his proposition melted away. Wouldn't it have been better if at least some of those legislators understood, from personal experience, the impacts of the low-income programs they were enacting?
All cultures tell themselves stories about the elites in their society, stories that tend to rationalize special privileges. Members of all cultures often believe that elites possess special abilities, but anthropologists understand these beliefs as cultural fictions that tend to support existing power structures. Taking a long hard look at these beliefs would have a great impact on representative democracy.