People Like Us: The New Wave of Candidates Knocking at Democracy’s Door

by Sayu Bhojwani

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The founding fathers may have envisioned a representative democracy “by the people, for the people, and of the people,” but the people like us after whom this book is named are not who these early leaders had in mind. By our founders’ standards, American democracy is working as planned, serving the needs of the wealthy and well-connected. But by everyone else’s standards, American democracy is broken. Those elected to represent us regularly fail to fight for our interests because they often do not reflect the country’s demographics or breadth of experiences. To correct this course, we must foster a democracy that is built on our country’s original ideals of freedom and justice, one that is more inclusive and representative of people like us.

When we look at demographics in the United States, visit schools and workplaces, or attend religious services, we see an incredibly diverse America. Whites are 63 percent of the country’s population, Latinx 16 percent, African Americans 13 percent, and Asian Americans 5 percent; the other 3 percent identify as mixed race or other. The top five countries that immigrants come from are Mexico, India, the Philippines, China, and Vietnam, in that order. By the time the 2020 census takes place, more than half of all American children will belong to a racial minority group. Despite this increasing diversity, Congress still looks like it did in the distant past: its members are 81 percent white and male, and only 7.1 percent are women of color. Although the 115th Congress is the most diverse in history, only 9.4 percent of its members are African American, 8.5 percent Latinx, and 3.3 percent Asian Americans.

Beyond Congress, the numbers are not much better. White men currently make up only 31 percent of the population but hold 65 percent of the elected positions in state and local governments. Latinx and Asian Americans are the fastest growing immigrant groups but hold only 2 percent of the five hundred thousand local and state elected offices. This representation gap—between who Americans are and who our leaders are—is not coincidental. Instead, it is an intentional product of history and systemic white supremacy.

Despite this gap, America’s foundational vision remains inspiring, particularly to immigrants and refugees. Either new to democracy or newly positioned to engage in democratic institutions after they become citizens, they are particularly optimistic about our founding principles even when their experiences run counter to the ideals. Drawn to the promise of America, they have crossed sometimes arbitrary borders from the south and north, or journeyed across oceans to seek better opportunities.

This promise of America has helped make immigrants the key driver of population growth for the past fifty years and will do so for the next fifty. One in four Americans today is an immigrant or a child of at least one immigrant parent. In 2065, that ratio will grow to one in three. In addition, every year more than half a million new Americans gain citizenship.

Long before the 2016 election, immigrants participated in public and political life. Even if they were not eligible voters, immigrants who belonged to unions engaged in protests and called elected officials; others, active members of community organizations, conducted voter registration drives, promoted voter education activities, led petition or ballot referendum drives, and testified at hearings in Congress, city councils, or school boards about the impact of policy. But the Trump administration’s policies have injected immigrant communities with an unparalleled fervor for political action. The silver lining to this dramatic change in the Oval Office is that citizen activism by new Americans has grown, with more of them taking to the streets, challenging elected officials, and raising funds—in greater numbers and with more visibility. Young people, women of color, and immigrants have been at the forefront of every social movement of the last decade—and the early months of the Trump administration have made this trend even more pronounced.

In this book, I tell stories of these newly energized Americans: immigrants or refugees themselves, the children of immigrants and refugees, and those from long-standing immigrant communities who continue to be seen as outsiders or foreigners. I assert by these examples that new Americans are well positioned to lead the fight for a just democracy. They have struggled to get and stay here, navigating complex bureaucracies and long waits for formal citizenship. Some have crossed dangerous borders, risking their own or their children’s lives. For others, the United States was their final destination following stays in refugee camps in one or more countries. Each of these journeys has involved struggle, aspects of which may be less familiar to some native-born Americans. Just like America’s founding fathers who fought for an America independent of Britain, these new Americans are the strongest champions of democracy. Their commitment to and enthusiasm for America is a highly underutilized resource, and in People Like Us, I offer ways to leverage this resource more effectively to transform and invigorate our democracy.

To do so requires addressing the systemic obstacles that make it difficult for people of color, immigrants, and women to seek out and secure elected positions. The most pervasive obstacles for newcomers include the influence of money in politics, the lack of term limits, discriminatory redistricting, political gatekeeping, and the high financial cost of public life. Navigating these obstacles requires luck and perseverance, as the stories in this book will show. By benefiting from public financing of some elections, running for office in newly drawn districts, doggedly pursuing office even without the blessing of gatekeepers, and juggling their roles in public office with part-time or consulting work, Americans from a wider range of diverse racial, ethnic, and religious backgrounds than ever before are getting elected to, and serving in, city councils and state legislatures.

As America and its election districts become more multiracial, shifting the culture about identity politics is essential for inclusive democracy. Increasing political power among people of color threatens any status quo, not just rich white men’s. In addition to existing tensions between whites and people of color, the dynamic between leaders of color can also be competitive, with different marginalized groups fighting to secure or maintain power. In the city council race for District 38 in New York, dynamics between Puerto Rican political leader Felix Ortiz and Carlos Menchaca, a young Mexican American, represented tensions between the old guard and new leadership. In Michigan, similar tensions arose in the race for city council’s District 6, as African American Tyrone Carter challenged incumbent Mexican American Raquel Castañeda-López with racially tinged rhetoric. The new South will be a place to watch, as African American leaders conflict or ally with leaders from politically emergent groups like Arab Americans, Asian Americans, and Latinx. These dynamics are especially important to address, as racial minorities are often told that running for the same seat means they will “split the vote.” This assessment demeans both voters and candidates, implying that neither can distinguish individuals beyond their visible markers of identity.

Identity is only one aspect of what might connect voters to a candidate. As American legislative districts become increasingly diverse, more candidates of color will run against each other, giving voters the opportunity to vote based on issues instead of ethnicity. Voters and candidates are multifaceted, and they bring all aspects of who they are to the ballot box, something political parties have been unable to understand, especially when it comes to women, people of color, immigrants, and refugees.

For this reason, new American candidates must not be relegated only to certain seats, or to majority-minority districts. Of the 435 congressional districts, only 123 are considered majority-minority, for example. Rather than limit candidates of color and immigrant candidates by suggesting that they only have the potential to win in those districts, political leaders should embrace new Americans as the intersectional, multiracial coalition builders that they are. In the same way that white men can represent Arab Americans, Latinas can represent white men. This requires stepping out of old modes of identity politics to broader, more inclusive democracy building.

But that goal will be elusive as long as we see immigrants as not quite American, or as appealing only to a base of voters who look like they look. Intersectional politics is about a strategic and cultural shift that neither Democrats nor Republicans have yet begun. Voters are still grouped according to identity categories—Latinx, Asian American, white working class male, soccer mom—that are overly simplified. Outreach tends to be less about issues and more about populating rooms with those who look and might vote alike. Reducing voters to constituent groups increases the danger of glossing over the multiple, and sometimes contradictory, perspectives that voters bring to their decision-making.

In general, progressives and party leaders have failed to invest in recruiting and supporting immigrant candidates to run and win in any election, rather than in just those contests in which the racial composition of the district is considered favorable to a particular racial minority. This exacerbates the political quandary facing our nation: outsiders want to change the status quo, and insiders need things to stay the same.

The best way forward is to recruit outside of the usual political circles, party leaders, precinct committee officers, and union leaders. Instead, the next generation of policymakers can come from community leaders, local business leaders, and teachers—“people like us,” whose primary qualification is lived experience in their communities and shared struggles with their voter base. Recruiting in this way brings new players to the table, those who understand what policies are needed for their constituents. As Raquel Castañeda-López in Detroit, Athena Salman in Arizona, and Ilhan Omar in Minnesota have shown, people run for office for different reasons but they are most successful when they can relate to their voters and are passionate about responding to their needs. Expanding our perspectives on who can lead us also requires that the progressive elite understand that money and politics is not just about the costs of campaigns and the role of corporate money in shaping the outcome of elections. It is much broader, and it penetrates every level of political life. Concerns about money serve to limit who can even consider running for office and whether they can stay there. Native born Americans, particularly rich white males, tend to have the kinds of resources and networks that free them to make career decisions independent of financial considerations. Most immigrants, refugees, and working-class people lack these same resources and networks, without which it is much harder to seek and stay in political office. Changing who can serve requires creating new salary baselines and increasing per diem allowances, to make running and staying in office a viable career option.

In addition, legislators without professional, full-time staff are unable to supplement and contradict well-funded research, giving well-funded groups more power in the legislative chambers. Groups that lobby legislators also fall along a continuum of those with and those without resources. The best-resourced groups, who are not always working in the interest of the American public, are well positioned to present data and make their cases in influential ways.

Changing public opinion about the resources available to legislators—for their own salaries and for office and policy support—requires intentionality and commitment to update our democracy for the times. Once designed for land-owning white men, it must now embrace and work for a multiracial citizenry in order to be just and inclusive.

The challenges that political newcomers face are not just political, but also personal. As newcomers make decisions about running for office, they often lack support from their families. Sometimes, immigrants and refugees from nondemocratic countries fear engagement with government. On a more personal level, parents are concerned that their adult children running for office will encounter public harassment and attacks about their gender or race. Although many parents help, even if reluctantly, on campaigns, candidates still grapple with feelings of unworthiness stemming from not seeing others like themselves in office. When they get elected, they can sometimes be the only person of color, woman, or foreign born person in office. As the lonely voice on certain issues, they sometimes feel isolated and struggle with how to be effective when faced with opposition.

New American elected officials often feel like tokens when assigned only to committees on immigration or voting rights. This is as much a manifestation of identity politics as suggesting that a Latinx candidate can only run and win in a majority Latinx district. Just as new Americans can run and win in any district in America, they can also work on any policy in America. Their perspectives are needed on every committee in every legislature, from the committees handling education to technology, from finance to affordable housing.

These microaggressions hurt more fundamentally than the political structures do, because they strike at personal vulnerabilities and feelings of inadequacy that are reinforced by systems and practices that marginalize people like us. This internal glass ceiling, and the external ceiling set by systemic barriers, require a cultural shift, one in which new voices are seen as the powerful heralds of the inclusive democracy of the future. The more of them there are, the more confidence they will inspire among future leaders.


Copyright © 2018 by Sayu Bhojwani. This excerpt originally appeared in People Like Us, published by The New Press. Reprinted here with permission.

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