Panel examines political representation of minority groups

Photo by Nico Ferrell

By Madeline Cox

The Lewis & Clark College Democrats Club hosted an event on March 21 entitled “Do Our Representatives Really Represent Us?” This was the club’s first major event of the academic year. At the forum, Assistant Professor of Political Science Benjamin Gaskins, Professor of History Elliot Young, Associate Professor with Term of Humanities Kimberly Brodkin and Oregon Attorney General Ellen Rosenblum presented.

Gaskins spoke on democracy in the Trump Era. He believes there are four main issues currently affecting American democracy: polarization, weak parties and strong partisanship, negative partisanship and growing distrust.

“The separation in ideology at the government level is wide and growing,” Gaskins said. “Moderates in (Congress) are effectively disappearing.”

This is affecting the power of political parties.

“Institutionally … the parties are becoming more weak,” Gaskins said. “However, partisanship is becoming more strong and acute in the minds of the average voter.”

The American public has less trust in the government, individuals and institutions such as the media in recent years, according to Gaskins.

“People see government not as a positive force for good, but as something that is threatening, something to be opposed,” Gaskins said.

Gaskins believes that there are no easy solutions to these issues.

Next, Young presented on issues with the Electoral College system and why he believes that our elected representatives do not represent minorities.

Young believes that the Electoral College system leads to undemocratic outcomes. The systematic disenfranchisement of poor and black people and felony disenfranchisement are other important issues with the system, according to Young.

“Today more than six million Americans are barred from voting due to felony disenfranchisement,” Young said. “One in 13 African Americans have lost their right to vote. It is shocking to see how this affects particular marginalized groups in our country.”

Gerrymandering is the another issue Young believes is affecting the electoral system.

“The initial impetus for (gerrymandering) was to create districts where marginalized populations could get elected representatives,” Young said. “(Yet) gerrymandering districts has resulted in less political power for African Americans.”

Young presented the issues around gun control and immigration as examples of this.

Next Brodkin delved into the question of the forum by asking two more questions: what does it mean to represent or be represented, and who do we mean by “us”? Brodkin spoke on these questions through the lens of women and gender.

According to Brodkin, there are low numbers of women and sexual and gender identity minorities at the federal, state and local levels of government compared to their percentage of the population.

“There are a lot of reasons to be concerned about the low numbers of women in elected positions,” Brodkin said.

According to Brodkin there are four claims as to why it is advantageous to have more women in politics: it provides role models and breaks down traditional gender roles, it is fundamentally unjust for an entire group of people not to be able to exercise political power, under-representation of certain groups is a flaw in democracy and women have a unique set of experiences and perspectives.

Yet Brodkin reminded the audience that women do not have a universal set of views.

“Women are not a group in a coherent, singular way,” Brodkin said. “There are very significant divisions by race, religion, class, region, marital status, occupation, ability.”

After Brodkin, Rosenblum spoke on the importance of the legal system, especially under the Trump administration. Rosenblum has fought against federal legislation being passed by the administration that she believes to be unconstitutional.

“We’re seeking to uphold the rule of law,” Rosenblum said. “We’re here as lawyers, we’re trying to see to it that the people living in this country are able to exercise all of the rights given to them by the constitution.”

Rosenblum promoted the importance of individuals in the political process.

“Grass roots and ground level work for the Democratic party … will and is making a difference,” Rosenblum said. “(It is) really valuable and important and needed.”

Rosenblum also commented on the trend that young people are not joining political parties.

“A lot of young people just don’t join (political parties),” Rosenblum said. “(Yet) every new Democrat we recruit and retain is going to help us turn the tide in 2018.”

Rosenblum then addressed the main subject of the forum.

“I believe we are heading in a good direction in terms of real representation,” Rosenblum said. “I do feel that having a (female) Attorney General does mean to more people now that I actually do represent them.”

Since the 2016 election, more women are running for office in the United States, according to Rosenblum.

“Perhaps this is the silver lining of the Trump debacle,” Rosenblum said.

Rosenblum is working on promoting better representation and supporting minorities who want to run for office, and has already seen results in Oregon.

During the question and answer portion, Rosenblum made a quip about Attorney General of the United States Jeff Sessions.

“Jeff Sessions doesn’t know what he’s talking about,” Rosenblum said. “Last year he told us marijuana is the gateway drug to heroin, and this time he told us that sanctuary cities were the scourge of the Earth.”

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