Division, Diversity, and Democracy

By Stephen Heintz

On June 4, 1919, the 66th Congress of the United States passed the 19th Amendment, recognizing the right of women to vote.

Fast forward a century to January 3, 2019, as the 116th Congress was gaveled into order. Nearly one quarter of its members are women. Americans today are voting in record-shattering numbers for women, who one hundred years ago were not permitted to vote. Need we any further proof that “toward a more perfect union” is not a vain concept?

The 116th Congress is the most diverse in American history. More than one hundred women now serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. They include the first Native American women to serve in Congress; the first Somali American; the youngest congresswoman in history. They include the first Palestinian-American woman, Rashida Tlaib, who took her oath of office with a Quran owned by Thomas Jefferson. Testament to our society’s progress is that, nearly two hundred and fifty years after Jefferson penned his famous line about self-evident truths, we hold to be self-evident that not only men are created equal. That the Creator doesn’t dwell only in churches.

But the 116th Congress embodies a second historic trend as well—one that is much more ominous. The government shutdown that darkened the celebratory mood of the incoming congressional class, now the longest shutdown in U.S. history, reminds us that we are living through one of the most divided and polarized chapters of American history. Even after the federal shutdown ends, as it eventually will, the political division of which it is symptomatic threatens to plague American politics for years to come.

This convergence of diversity and division is not accidental. Our democracy—not just our representatives but also our institutions and policies—has not kept pace with changing U.S. demographics. Even the most diverse congress in history falls far short of truly representing the U.S. population. An upswell of voices from American communities too long ignored have opened new challenges to the status quo and created anxiety among those who benefit from it. Deadlocked political debate on issues from healthcare to immigration, the scepter of congressional investigations, a revolving door in the White House, and the looming 2020 presidential election add fuel to the fire.

In this Age of Anxiety, to borrow W.H. Auden's apt phrase, it would be easy to simply shut down disagreement using the vicious politics of racism, sexism, and discrimination, where name-calling supplants policy debate; attacks on gender, race, and religion replace civil discourse; and intimidation displaces intellectual contest. Already the disturbing outlines of this dark future are visible. The 2018 midterm elections were marred, in several states, by race-baiting. The Senate, for the second time, had to consider sexual assault allegations in a Supreme Court confirmation. And the mass shooting at a Pittsburgh synagogue confirmed that gross anti-Semitism is still pulsing through American society.

But identity politics are both unproductive and irresponsible. They guarantee stalemate at best and, at worst, the dissolution of democracy. Arguments rooted in racism, sexism, anti-Semitism, or discrimination have no place in a healthy democratic culture.

Diversity need not exacerbate division. It can also provide the opportunity to broaden the discourse. Yes, articulating disagreement and frustration in a respectful and civil manner takes effort. Engaging earnestly across divides of perspective and experience takes courage. Democracy can be difficult, uncomfortable, and slow. Its rewards are also rich: Creative ideas and solutions to the hurdles we face. A fair, just, and inclusive society. A more perfect union.

In an eerily apt metaphor for our times, the federal shutdown that now continues into its fourth week reflects a stalled debate about a wall. Whether or not the proposed physical barrier along the U.S. southern border will ever be built, the wall that matters already stands. It is the political and spiritual wall, if you will, that divides us a nation and a people. As it grows higher, we will no longer see those on the other side. As it grows thicker, we will no longer hear them.

“You don’t know what’s happening on the other side of the wall,” James Baldwin once wrote, “because you don’t want to know.” It's easier not to know.

To retreat behind one’s own side of the wall is all too easy. More difficult, by far, is to scale it—to build a bridge to the other side. It’s time for the 116th Congress to start climbing.


This essay first appeared on The American Prospect.