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This is not what democracy looks like

| Monday, September 7, 2020

As I scrolled through Twitter recently, I came across a tweet that reminded me of a reality we’re all generally aware of but tend to brush aside: we’re governed by the rich. The tweet in reference had a graphic of the wealth distribution among members of Congress, and it showed that 405 out of 435 U.S. Representatives and 94 out of 100 Senators fall in the top 20% of Americans in terms of wealth. We’ve been assured that ours is a “government of the people, by the people, for the people,” but 80% of Americans might beg to differ. 

More than half of our lawmakers are millionaires, and the wealthiest one, Senator Rick Scott, has nearly $260 million in assets. The median household income in the U.S. was $61,937 in 2018. “So what?” you might shrug. Sheltered by our Golden Dome, we can easily forget that we pay more to go to Notre Dame than many Americans make in a year. I know I do. But we don’t have to step far beyond the campus gates to get a glimpse of life for the average American. 

Our politicians are well aware of the economic insecurity facing many of our fellow citizens. It’s why we hear candidates from both sides make frequent vague acknowledgements on the campaign trail that “the system” is broken, but never fear—they’re here to fix it. Entranced by their grand promises of a more inclusive and prosperous future, we forget that they’re not in our shoes. So why are we looking to them as a guide for how to walk in them? 

Oddly enough, Governor J.B. Pritzker of Illinois, a billionaire, has managed to sell himself as a champion of the working class and the marginalized. President Trump, also a billionaire, was arguably elected by appealing to the middle class, the “forgotten” men and women of America. We should all be suspicious of anyone who claims to represent people different from him — or herself. Both of these billionaires, though they might mean well, simply do not and cannot understand what most Americans go through. They certainly can’t identify with the 80%. They’re at the top looking down, and while they might not actively want you to remain at the bottom, they have no stakes in helping you rise.

The most common professions of our Congress members are business and law. Though they make up only 0.4% of the voting-age population, lawyers hold 39% of seats in the House and 56% of seats in the Senate. On the other hand, while about half of Americans work in manual labor, service industry and clerical jobs, fewer than 2% of our Congress members come from these fields. It’s to be expected that members of government will tend to be wealthier and more educated than the common people–this is natural to an extent, when we consider the type of individuals that stand out in our communities. But there’s no reason that people who are most like average Americans are not qualified to legislate for them. 

The right to vote is one of America’s core democratic features, and one might argue that whoever is in office was put there–duly elected by the people. But it’s no secret that voting falls short of embodying the will of our people as a whole. Wealthier Americans consistently exhibit higher voter turnout than poorer Americans, typically being better educated and connected and having more flexible work schedules that allow them to make it out to the polls. But even in a voting utopia, in which all eligible voters cast their ballots–in which the 80% show up in full force— they’re faced with a very limited list of options. The candidates who manage to make it onto the ballot tend to be wealthy and well-connected. Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic presidential nominee, is married to a former U.S. president. Jeb Bush, a 2016 Republican primary candidate, was looking to be the third Bush to head our executive branch.

A handful of Congress members from the 80% have nevertheless been able to break through our stubborn system recently. When such people do squeak through to Capitol Hill, however, they’re viciously attacked from all angles and portrayed as not belonging. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has been making waves in Washington lately. While as an elected official her policy proposals are on the table for criticism — as they should be for any member of government — her socioeconomic class is not. I’ve heard countless critics deride her for her former job as a bartender, implying that a member of the service industry isn’t worthy of representing Americans in Congress. It’s appalling to hear elitists write off someone for working at a type of establishment many of them have likely visited. 

I must say— I can’t quite imagine how our politicians — who have guaranteed pay, secure health care access and live in some of the wealthiest counties in the country — have failed to come up with a solution to provide affordable health care, to help people keep their houses during this time and to offer economic relief to those whose livelihoods were disrupted by the pandemic.

 I, for one, am shocked. 

It’s easy to throw our hands up in surrender to the recognition of all the entrenched power surrounding us — from Congress to our own communities, even the Notre Dame community. We’re used to rich people being in charge and calling the shots. That’s just how things are, and we’ve learned to live with it. But I urge you, as the next generation of voters, leaders and involved citizens, to become uncomfortable with that notion — to stop settling for it. 

John Locke argued that if the government isn’t meeting the needs of the people, it is the people’s right to alter or abolish that government. If our government’s power structure isn’t responsive to our needs as citizens, we must demand a new one. Our lives and livelihoods depend on it. Our government will start “working” for ordinary people when ordinary people start working in our government. 

Eva Analitis is a junior in Lyons Hall majoring in political science and pre-health. If you see her around campus, don’t be afraid to whisk her off for an impromptu philosophical discussion. Otherwise, you can reach her at [email protected].

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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